Dr. Carl Hoefler on The Family of the Forgiven



The Third Word

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” Then saith he to the disciple, “Behold thy mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. (John 19:25-27)

(If this is your first reading in this series then please see the fair use statement and tribute to Dr. Hoefler here. )


When we stand before the cross and truly catch a vision of its meaning, we discover not only something new about our relationship to God and to ourselves, but we also discover something new about our relationship to others.

At the foot of the cross the soldiers were shaking dice, gambling for the only earthly goods our Lord possessed — a one-piece tunic, a robe without seams. Nearby stood three women named Mary: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the aunt of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, friend and follower of Jesus. With them was John the beloved disciple.

What was going through their minds we can only guess. The click of the dice, the indifferent laughter of the soldiers, the moans of agony coming from the dying thieves, all this filled their ears. Certainly they must have wondered what their loved one had done to deserve such an ignoble end. He had given so much of himself to others. Why was he dying so destitute — a crown of thorns pressed down on his head, nails piercing his hands and feet, his only garment auctioned off by a gambler’s throw of the dice?

It was at this very moment that Jesus turned his face to them; for he was dying not only for a repentant thief and his unrepentant enemies, he was dying also for them — his loved ones.

“When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ ”

Now our first and most natural reaction to this very touching and intimate scene is one of tenderness and sentiment. During these agonizing hours on the cross our Lord had not forgotten the common commitments of his manhood. Here is a very human drama of a son concerned for the welfare and security of his mother.

Apparently by this time Mary was a widow, and it followed that when a father of a Jewish family was gone, it became the duty of the eldest son to provide for the mother. This Jesus was apparently doing.

Now we cannot deny this domestic interpretation of the third word from the cross; for it is consistent with all our Lord did and said and was. But there is another message from God coming through to us from these words spoken by our Lord — a word concerning not only our relationship and responsibility to our mother and father, but a word about our relationship and responsibility to the silent strangers who stand outside our closed circle of concern — waiting — wanting so desperately to enter in and be loved by us.

This additional message is supported by two facts. First, these words are recorded by St. John and a study of his account of the gospel story will quickly reveal that for John a fact was never just a simple fact. He was concerned to testify to the theological implications reflected in each event in our Lord’s life. For John the words Christ spoke symbolically possessed a truth for all times. St. John saw in what Jesus did and said deeper revelations of God’s overall redemptive purposes.

The second fact that supports this additional message of comprehensive concern is the choice of words our Lord uses. Note he does not say, “John, take care of my mother and treat her as if she were your own.” There is no “as if” implication here. Rather, he says, “Behold thy mother.” Literally, “This is your mother.” These words have a creative and sacramental ring — like God speaking out on the day of creation, “Let there be light” and there was light; or like the Lord standing at the table in the upper room saying, “This is my body,” and the bread becomes his holy flesh. There is no appeal in these words. They come not as a request, but as a proclamation, a command. Something is being created by these words — a new relationship between John and Mary. A new family is being established from the broken lives of all who stood and will ever stand before the cross.

The testimony of Christian history affirms this is what happened when our Lord spoke these words — “Woman, behold your Son. John, behold your mother.” The Lord of creation, the Son of the living God is instituting a new order — a new family of God’s people — the family of the forgiven. It is a family held together not by common ideas, or ideals — not by race or nationality — but held together by the precious blood of Christ who emptied himself of all majesty and literally tore himself apart that we might be one!

One of the most important aspects of this process we call redemption or salvation is that the moment our relationship with God is changed, so at the same time and by the same act, our relationship with every man, woman and child is changed.

Gert Behanna, the author of The Late Liz, tells how as the daughter of a New York millionaire she had too much money, too much to drink, and too many men. After thirty hung-over years as an alcoholic she was confronted by God, converted and changed. She states that the most amazing discovery of her conversion was that when she rose from her knees a newly-born daughter of God, she was also the sister of every person in the world.

Created fellowship — a new blood relationship with every person — this is the amazing fact of this amazing act of a crucified Christ. The cross is a sacramental act that makes of every sacrament an act of Christ. God does not beg or plead that we be one — on a stick of wood he bleeds, and we are one!

We can never fully understand all that happened that noon on a Friday we call “Good.” How God could become man and die suffering on a cross — how the death of one young Jew could atone for the world — this is beyond the intellect of our small minds; but this one thing we can know — on that cross God was in Jesus the Christ and those arms opened wide embrace all and make us one in his holy body.

The first mark of this family created by and at the cross is that it is a family where forgiveness is not something just talked about but shared and experienced.

The tragedy of the church is that we fail to be what we are. We fail to permit God to make of us a fellowship — a community where people might enter in and experience the forgiveness central to our faith. We build our churches and erect our pulpits where God’s word might be rightly proclaimed. We organize our Sunday School classes where God’s forgiveness might be taught; but we so often refuse to permit the Holy Spirit to make of us a family of the forgiven where sinners might know and experience that forgiveness among us.

Before the church is an institution it must be an instrument of grace through which the forgiving act of the cross is made contemporary in every situation. We hear so often that the primary business of the church is to get new members, as if saving people were like catching fish where the size and number landed are the only consideration. Forgiveness is not just God’s way of catching hold of sinners; forgiveness is also the means by which God holds on to sinners and fashions them into saints. Forgiveness is a way of living.

When a fish is caught it dies. When we are caught by the message of forgiveness we live. Forgiveness is a way of living. Forgiveness is the hallmark of the fellowship we call the church. It is a day-by-day sharing of God’s continual forgiving love. Forgiveness is a life lived out in a family of shared forgiveness. If forgiveness is not this, it is nothing — it is an abstraction, an illusion without substance, a symbol without reality, a Christianity without a Christ.

We can preach and teach forgiveness until we are blue in the face, but until the world can experience acceptance within our fellowship, the forgiveness given by the cross will remain ineffective in our world and the cross will not be a symbol of power but of mockery against him who gave his all that the unrighteous, the unholy, the unlovely might experience the forgiving love of God the Father.

Bonhoeffer has said, “Where there is no fellowship of the forgiven there is no Christ.”

The church today should be a Sinner’s Anonymous where forgiven sinners welcome sinners not with judgment and condemnation but with supportive, shared, forgiving love. Too often when the prodigal returns home we act like the elder brother. We judge and condemn; we withdraw into our pious shells; we look down our moralistic noses and make wrongdoers feel they are not good enough to join our holy order. When we do this, we do not have a church, we have a social club. We have only a building built by human hands, all stained glass and glittering brass, signifying nothing except our own vanity and empty hypocrisy.

Wherever Christ is, there is a cross. Wherever the cross is, there are sinners being died for and forgiven. And wherever sinners are being died for and forgiven, there and there alone is the church, the fellowship of the crucified and made alive, the family of the forgiven.

The second mark of this family created by and at the cross is that it is a family for the forgotten. It is a community of concern where the forsaken and the forgotten are cared for and remembered.

When Jesus says, “Woman, behold your son,” our Lord binds us in a blood relationship with every lonely and hurting person. From this moment on all humanity becomes one family.

Every elderly person slowly dying of loneliness and neglect in some rest home or upstairs f lat, hungering for attention, longing for love — Christ says, “Behold, this is your mother — your father.”

Every patient on a bed of sickness needing comfort, and a kind word of concern — Christ says, “Behold your brother — your sister.”

Every child neglected, unloved, hungry, ill-clothed, unwanted, running the streets of our cities — – our world — Christ says, “Behold your child!”

Every man, woman and child in the world who this day is in any kind of need — Christ says, “Behold your family!”

Dr. F. E. Reinartz, past president of the Lutheran Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina, when secretary of the Lutheran Church in America, traveled widely in the church. As he did, people would often speak to him about their church. They would tell him about their outstanding preacher, or their tireless pastor, or they would boast of having the largest membership in the synod, or they would point out their impressive operating budgets and opulent buildings. But Dr. Reinartz affirms that the most moving word he ever heard concerning a local church came from an elderly lady who said to him, “When a body joins this church they never have to bear another burden alone! ”

This is the kind of a church that was established at noon two thousand years ago on a Friday we call “Good.” This is the church established at the foot of the cross. This is the church consummated by seven words of our Savior. This is the fellowship of the crucified and alive. This is the family of the forgiven. This is the community of the concerned — for this is the true Body of Christ.

“Woman, behold your son! John, behold your mother!” — and from that moment on no man, woman or child should ever have to bear another burden alone.


Other titles in this series:

The First Word The Miracle of Forgiveness

The Second Word The Glorious Guilt


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