274 Good Friday Sermon 2012
A sermon preached at St Peter's Anglican Church, Southport on Good Friday, 6 April 2012.
On this day it is usual to focus on the death of Jesus, and to reflect on what happened, why it happened, and how it relates to us all these years later.
We are doing that in prayers, songs and texts throughout this liturgy; and we shall certainly do some of that in this sermon as well. However, I want to start in a place that may seem a little odd. I invite you to join me in reflecting on the women at the crucifixion.
The women at the cross
Each of the Gospels refers to the presence of various women at the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, and again at the empty tomb on Easter morning. By contrast, the men (unlike the women, described as ‘disciples’) are conspicuous by their absence from the crucifixion, and only seem to get involved with the empty tomb after the women alert them.
Mark is the earliest gospel written, and he mentions three women at the cross:
- Mary Magdalene
- Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses
Matthew is a revised and enlarged edition of Mark, and he adjusts the list of women so that it reads:
- Mary Magdalene
- Mary the Mother of James and Joseph
- the mother (not named) of the sons of Zebedee (James and John)
Luke mentions that there were women present but at a distance with the male followers, but does not name them here. Instead he identifies them as the same women who had come with Jesus from Galilee and provided for Jesus and the disciples from their own resources. These women were earlier named as:
- Mary Magdalene
- Joanne, wife of Chuza, a senior official in household of Herod Antipas
- ‘many others’
John provides a quite different list, introducing Mary the mother of Jesus in first place and dropping Mary Magdalene to last place in the list:
- his mother (not named)
- his mother’s sister (not named)
- Mary the wife of Clopas
- Mary Magdalene
So what are we to make of all these names?
How does the confusion between one account and the next impact on us?
A journey through three worlds
When we read the Bible (or indeed any text at all) we make some choices about which parts of the text get our best attention. Often these choices are unconscious, and we may not even realise that we have paid more attention to some aspects than to others.
Scholars use the metaphor of a text having ‘three worlds.’
I invite you to come with me on a journey through the three worlds of the crucifixion story, paying particular attention to the women in the story.
World behind the text
This is both a strange and a fascinating world. It is the world of the ancient near east revealed to us by the work of archaeologists, historians and sociologists. This is the world of Jesus and Pontius Pilate, of the great temple in Jerusalem and the leaking fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee. This is the world of ancient scribes, Roman soldiers, and extreme poverty.
What do we know about women in the ancient/Jewish world?
Ordinary (poor) women could expect to see half of their babies die within 12 months of birth, and few of those who survived the first year would live long enough have children of their own. Like so many women in third world countries today, they may not survive child birth themselves, and each pregnancy increased the risk to the mother.
Women operated almost entirely within the family domain of ancient society, with few opportunities for education, public power, or status.
For the most part their lives were controlled by the menfolk in the family, and they could not leave the village without the permission of their male kin.
Their lives revolved around activities that made them ritually unclean for much of the time, and this included conception, pregnancy, child birth, care of infants, taking care of the sick, the dying, and the dead.
What do we know about these women?
We find it hard even to calculate the number of women present in the story, let alone determine their identity or trace their life circumstances.
With the exception of Luke (whose women seem to be people of privilege and substance), these women mostly seem to be close kin to Jesus. Mary Magdalene is the exception, as she neither kin nor wealthy.
Conspicuous by their absence are Mary and Martha of Bethany. And they are locals!
Who might have preserved traditions about women in Jesus' circle, and why?
This is like listening to one end of a telephone conversation (with a poor connection), and trying to guess who is calling and what they are saying.
Given all that we know about the place of women in the ancient Jewish world, it is quite remarkable that any women from outside the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem would have been present with Jesus in Jerusalem.
But then there seems to have been some quite remarkable about Jesus’ attitude to women, and about their response to his ministry. Women who had been marginalised and ostracised due to illness, sexual history, or slavery seem to have found a welcome in the community of God’s kingdom that gathered around Jesus. This caravan of misfits offended just about everyone who mattered in the ancient world, but for Jesus this was the family of God. He loved them, and they seem to have loved him.
Perhaps the persistence of these stories - garbled and confused though they are - reflects not just the presence of women at the cross, but their controversial presence with Jesus throughout his whole ministry? For those telling the story of Jesus’ death it was impossible not to mention the women!
While rarely mentioned, and even less frequently given their own names, these women were among the followers of Jesus. And yet we have denied them the title ‘disciple’ even though Mary Magdalene has been honoured (and then side-lined) as the ‘apostle to the Apostles.’
World within the text
The second of the ‘three worlds’ is the world created by the story itself. This is not our world, and it is not the actual world of those real people whose actions and words are used to create this fictional world of the text. This is like the world we find ourselves drawn into as we read a good book or watch a great movie.
How do these stories of the women at the cross function in the Gospel narrative?
In collecting our meagre data about these women at the cross, we have already noticed that there are differences between the 4 gospels. Over time we can trace a trajectory in the way that these women at cross function in the Gospel stories.
For Mark and Matthew, this is a story of kinswomen sharing the horror of yet another violent death happening to one of their men. While they have no role in the killing, they will have a role in preparing the victim for burial. Their love is impotent, but unstoppable. Their devotion stands in stark contrast to the cowardice of the absent/distant male disciples.
Interestingly, Luke all but writes the women out of the story. Their presence is acknowledged, but they are not named. However, they are a great way off from the action, along with the male acquaintances of Jesus.
It is in John that we see the traditional motif of the mourning women turned to more explicit theological use. The ‘mother of Jesus’ is introduced to the scene, evoking the earlier Johannine scene in which Jesus tells her that ‘his hour’ has not yet come. Now his hour has come and his mother is again in the frame. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Mary Magdalene is always listed first among the women followers, just as Peter is always named first among the male followers. The Magdalene is relegated to fourth place by the introduction of the mother of the Lord, with two otherwise unknown women coming before her in John’s list. Mary Magdalene will have her special scene in John’s narrative on Easter morning, but for this writer the cross scene belongs to his mother as Jesus makes arrangements for the ‘disciple he loved’ to take care of her.
What do they contribute to the story that would have been lost if their presence at the cross was not noted?
In these stories, the women neither contribute to the events engulfing Jesus nor can they intervene with any power to change the course of events. In some sense, then, they are peripheral to the narrative.
Even so, within the ‘world’ of the Gospels, the women do have significant roles to play:
They situate Jesus within the customary kinship dynamics of ancient societies. He does not die entirely alone among strangers, but under the concerned gaze of people who care for him.
As we have already noted, there is stark contrast with the male disciples. Unlike the public leaders of the community, the little people—and especially the women—remain faithful.
Within the narrative of the Gospels, although not in the imagination of the male-dominated church—these women are disciples, not just a ‘women's auxiliary.’ They not only show up the lacklustre ministry by the men, they share in the same ministry that the menfolk have abandonned.
Finally, we note the link to the appearance of the women in the resurrection stories on Sunday morning. Those who first experienced the joy of Easter were the same ones (the women) who went through the hard times of the cross and the burial.
World before the text
The last of the ‘three worlds’ that we are exploring today is our own world. This is the world from which we read the Bible in a quest for wisdom that is holy and true. This is the world to which the Bible now finds itself speaking, despite the changes that taken place in the meantime. This is a world that is puzzled by the way the Bible deals with family relationships, sex, slavery, power and violence. This is the world to which each of us return after this liturgy concludes.
As a contribution to our continuing reflections this Good Friday, let me offer some open-ended questions that may arise from our world as we reflect on the women at the cross on that sad Spring day in Jerusalem in the year 30 ...
- What are the questions arising out of our own personal experience as we pay attention to this text with its handful of powerless women at the cross?
- How does our experience of women in ministry these past 20 years influence the way we read the story, and how does this story influence our attitude to women deacons, priests and bishops?
- How does the dynamic of (male) absence/flight and (female) presence/solidarity speak to our situation: in the church, in public life, in our families?
- How many women will weep for dead sons, brothers, husbands and lovers this week as their men and boys become the latest victims of the violence unleashed on the poor by those with power?
- Are women in our world limited to the role of passive victims/witnesses of male violence? How might women reclaim their own agency even in the face of irresistible power?
- Is it really true that those who know such violence are the only ones (or those best qualified) to know the real joy of Easter?
Let’s finish with Luke’s version of the Beatitudes:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20–26 NRSV)
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
©2012 Gregory C. Jenks