The gospel lesson for tonight is 82 versus long—I counted them! And as I read through this very familiar and sad story, the verses that jumped up and down and waved for my attention were verses 25 and 26 of chapter 19. In these verses we hear the detail—shared only in John’s gospel—of Jesus entrusting his mother and the Beloved Disciple to each others’ care.
When Jesus took this action from the cross, he participated in what I call “creative dying.” Creative dying is how we use the deaths we experience in our lives to bring into existence something new and good.
We, in our culture, are so money-focused that we might immediately think of creative dying as, say, leaving our assets to a nonprofit working to accomplish some purpose important to us. And, indeed, this is an important act of creative dying. Yet this instance we heard about tonight—of Jesus entrusting his mother and the Beloved Disciple to each other’s care—teaches us that there are other ways of creative dying.
I think, as do many, that the Beloved Disciple was the apostle John. And when Jesus introduced his mother and his favorite disciple to each other in this new way, he was, in effect, establishing a new community.
Some has said that this act redefined community for us. In this new community that Jesus created, while he was being executed, people were to care for each other whether they were related or not. I’m not sure that we, today, can fully grasp how new a concept this was, back in a time when blood relations were the only people who mattered in this way.
What this image conjures up for me is of a bunch of people, all gathered around the cross, grieving. And Jesus, from the cross, consoling them. Even while Jesus himself was dying, he showed those who love him how to turn their sorrow, the grief, and their pain into something wholesome, new, and life-giving: creative dying.
This reminds me of this Church of the Resurrection. Are not we people who, gathered around the cross, become family for each other as we bear each others’ pain, and as we share each others’ lives?
This image of us as a community gathered around the cross, being formed anew as God’s family, brought to mind a story I learned at my field ed church of another act of creative dying.
Here’s the story:
In 1932—a young pastor named Thomas Dorsey lost his wife Nettie in childbirth, followed a day later by the death of his infant son. In his grief, Thomas wrote these words:
“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand; I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light; Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
“When my way grows drear, Precious Lord linger near; When my light is almost gone; Hear my cry, hear my call; Hold my hand lest I fall; Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”
The story does not end here, though. Thomas shared the song with a friend, one who was so moved that he sang Thomas’ song with his choir in church the next Sunday. The church was a little storefront church in Atlanta, Georgia, Ebenezer Baptist Church, where a boy named Martin King grew up hearing and loving this song.
Throughout the entire Civil Rights era, the song became an instrument of transformation—a tool of resurrection: hope in the midst of despair, love in the midst of fear. And when Martin was crucified in 1968, his last words were a request for this song to be played that night for his people.
As my field ed supervisor shared,
“Death transformed, a grief transformed, a song transformed; a man transformed, a nation transformed, a world transformed.”
And I say, “Creative dying.”
This is just one example of how the ripple-effect from a single one of the Jesus’ many acts of creative dying is still transforming, still re-creating, our world.
Of course, Jesus’ death on his cross was the means of a whole chain of saving acts—eternal salvation itself brought about by his rising to life again. My point tonight is not to get deeply theological and dwell on the things that required Christ dying and living again to accomplish. Instead, I want to take note of the ways that we, too, can participate in Christ’s saving work on the cross, Jesus’ creative dying. Here is how.
First, we can truly be—remain, join, invite others into—community, to live to and for each other, in the name of Christ. I invite you to look around and behold your God-family.
Second, as Thomas Dorsey did when he lost his wife and child, as Mary and John did when they lost Jesus, we can use our pain shared with Christ Jesus to create a new reality. As we Re-Vision our existence as a parish this year, we can ask ourselves what new life can be brought into being by our creative dying.
The story of the cross is that the lessons we learn there about creative dying teach us how to transform our world. When we cry, we do not cry alone, but Jesus cries with us, and he is on the cross when he does this, bearing our pain.
Finally, had Jesus’ life ended on that cross, as we leave the story tonight, none of what I’ve said here tonight, and none of what we do here tonight has any meaning. I invite you, as we end our service tonight in silence, to reflect on how our world would be different if Jesus’ death on the cross were the end of the Jesus-story. Creative dying always involves new life. Stay tuned; the Jesus-story continues tomorrow night.