Posts Tagged ‘abuse’

One with God or with each other?

May 27, 2017

Easter 7 – 2017

John 17:1-11

Marian Free


In the name of God who calls us into union with God, with Jesus our Saviour and with each other. Amen.

In the wrong hands the Bible – indeed any religious texts – can be dangerous. This is blatantly obvious at present as we live with the consequences of Islamic extremism. No faith is exempt from the misinterpretation or misuse of its holy texts. We have to acknowledge that over the centuries even Christian texts have been used in ways that are punitive and even abusive. Passages from the bible have at times been used to limit and oppress rather than to liberate and make whole. Witness for example, the centuries during which it was believed that the inequitable distribution of wealth was God’s design. The poor were poor because that was how God ordered the world – not because kings and nobles taxed them beyond their means. For centuries it was taught and believed (at least by some) that the bible sanctioned violence against women and that women who were beaten by their husbands should not only endure such violence, but that they should also forgive the perpetrator thereby being forced to collude in their abuse.

In the case of today’s gospel, the final half sentence: “That they may be one as we are one” was used as a weapon in the debate about the ordination of women. Those who supported such a move were accused of being divisive and of wanting to destroy the church. Indeed the insinuation was that in seeking change they were going against the express will of Jesus in John 17:11. It was both a powerful and a manipulative strategy, designed to unsettle those who supported the ordination of women, to appealing to their core beliefs and making them feel guilty for daring to suggest change. (Interestingly, the opponents of the ordination of women did not believe that by refusing to accept change it might have been they not the others who were causing division.)

John 17:11 has been used to support unity within the church and between the churches and a quick look at the website textthisweek suggests that this is the most common interpretation of this verse and the most common theme of sermons on this passage. However, if we examine the verse in its immediate context and in the context of the gospel as a whole, we will recognise that the prayer is slanted somewhat differently.

As we saw a number of weeks ago, a key theme of the Johannine gospel is that of the unity of the Father and the Son. Over and over again, the Johannine Jesus states that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. The union between Jesus and God is such that to know one is to know the other. Now we learn that Jesus is sharing with the disciples the union that exists between himself and God. Jesus prays that the lives of the disciples will be indistinguishable from that of the Father and the Son.

Chapter 17 is a part of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prepares the disciples for his departure and for life without him. After announcing that he is going away, Jesus encourages the disciples to live in him (as branches attached to a vine) and he promises to send them the Advocate – the Spirit of Truth. Now he prays – for himself and for them – beginning with an appeal to God that his role may be brought to completion. In John’s gospel the cross is not something to be avoided but to be embraced. It is on the cross that Jesus will be glorified, because it is here that his complete submission to God will be demonstrated, it here that he will be lifted up and from here that he will be able to hand over his spirit to his followers.

Death is merely the fulfillment of his mission: “Glorify me,” Jesus prays “with the glory that I had before the world existed”. As we learn in the very first verse of this gospel, Jesus and the Father have been united since before time began. Jesus continues by praying for the disciples. He prays that they union that he shares with God will not be shared with those who believe in him.

That Jesus is praying that the disciples will be one with himself (and therefore with God) is confirmed if we read to the end of the prayer. In verses 21-23 Jesus prays again: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” The prayer concludes: “so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” If the disciples are united to God in the same way that Jesus is united to God then, God will be known through them as God was made known through Jesus.

At the end of the Farewell Speech, Jesus commissions the disciples to continue his work in the world. As God sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus sends the disciples. As Jesus revealed the Father, so now the disciples have the responsibility of revealing both the Father and the Son. They cannot do this if they insist on asserting their individuality and on going their own way. The only way that the disciples can achieve union with God is if, like Jesus, they hand themselves over entirely to God and submit themselves completely to God’s will. By subsuming their own needs and individuality into the Godhead, they will allow God to be made known through them. Their union with God will in turn lead to unity with one another.

It’s all a matter of what we take as our starting place. If we begin by believing that God is insisting that we live in complete unity, we can end up chasing the wrong goal – focusing on ending our internal divisions rather than focusing on our union with God. If however we make it our primary goal to seek union with God, the end result will union with one another – in our Parishes, in our Dioceses and with the members of other churches.



Victory of the cross

March 14, 2015
Cruciform woman - Emmanuel United College Toronto

Cruciform woman – Emmanuel United College Toronto

A more sentimental image

A more sentimental image

Nikolai Ge Crucifixion

Nikolai Ge Crucifixion

Lent 4 – 2015

John 3:14-21

Marian Free

 God of contradiction, open our hearts and minds to understand that your ways are not our ways and your thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

The crucifixion of Jesus has been portrayed in a wide variety of ways from the pious and sentimental to the violent and grotesque. Many are confronting (if for different reasons). For example I feel some disquiet when I see an image of Jesus fully dressed (in Bishop’s regalia) and exhibiting no signs of pain. Equally confronting is one from South America that depicts what looks like a charred body arched in pain and screaming in agony. For centuries the crucified Jesus was depicted as white (often blond). During the twentieth century new and original images emerged that more accurately reflected Jesus as a representative of all humanity – or example a Jesus with Chinese, Maori or African features. Sidney Nolan portrayed Jesus as a woman as did the artist whose sculpture was placed in a United Church in Toronto. Such imagery enables women and those whose skin colour is not white to fully grasp the notion that Jesus died for all people – including them – and not just for white (middle class) males.

New and confronting images of the crucifixion can help to make real the horror of the crucifixion. They can enable us to peel back the layers of piety that have, over the centuries, stripped the cross of its meaning. Our churches have crosses in all kinds of shapes and designs. There are wooden crosses, brass crosses, crosses made of silver or gold and crosses that are encrusted with jewels. Crosses in a number of different designs are worn as jewellery – even by those who do not profess the Christian faith. In many cases, the image of cross even when it is adorned with a crucified Christ has become so familiar that it has lost its power to confront and to challenge.

That said, I’m not at all sure that we would wish to be confronted with the horror of the crucifixion on a daily basis. We are told that crucifixion was an awful way in which to die. Whether a person was nailed or tied to a cross, they died slowly and of suffocation – pushing down on their nailed (or bound) feet so that they could take a breath[1]. It could take as long as three days to die. Crucifixion was also a very public death. Those who were condemned to die were generally put to death by the side of a well-travelled road so that their deaths could serve as an example to as many people as possible. It was a cruel, inhumane and humiliating way in which to die and, one would think, the most unlikely image to become an object of veneration.

This contradiction – that an image of torture and death could become a symbol representative of life and hope – is captured by the author of John’s gospel. In 3:14-15 Jesus says: “the Son of Man must be lifted up so that whomever believes in him will have eternal life.” In this passage and other places in which Jesus uses the expression “lifted up”, he is referring to his crucifixion. (“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.” (12:32)) For the author of John’s gospel the cross, the crucifixion is the high point of Jesus’ ministry, the moment towards which the whole gospel is moving and the point at which it Jesus’ mission reaches not only its climax, but its fulfillment. The cross is a victory, not a defeat.

Lindars points out that Jesus’ victory on the cross is at least two-fold[2]. By laying dow his life for others, Jesus is demonstrating not only his deep love, but what is really God’s love for the world. In freely offering this gift, Jesus shows his readiness to do as the Father wills and demonstrates that he and the Father are one. Lindars refers to this as his “moral union with God”.

By overcoming the natural human resistance to pain and death and by conquering the human will to live, Jesus shows that human nature’s propensity to resist God and goodness can in fact be overcome and that humanity does not have to submit to selfish desires or to the propensity to gratify one’s own needs and desires before all else. Through his submission to the cross Jesus, Lindars suggests, wins the “supreme moral victory” (which is also a cosmic victory for “in his own person the devil’s grip on humanity is broken” (12:31)).

“Lifting up” in John’s gospel several layers of meaning. It can refer to the cross as the place of victory but it also suggestive of Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of the Father. At the same time, because as we have seen, crucifixion was a very public event and because the cross lifted the victim above the level of the crowds the condemned men were very visible to those who gathered and to those who passed by. On the cross, Jesus is visibly and publicly displayed for all to see. Thank goodness we do not have to witness the physical event, but through the images that are available and those in our mind’s eye, we see Jesus’ lifted up and through John’s gospel comprehend that in this instance defeat is in fact victory, that death is a door to life and that even the worst of human excesses can be overcome.

We come to understand that on the cross, Jesus bore all the suffering of the world, experienced the baseness and cruelty of humankind at its worst and identified with the victims of cruelty and torture, the victims of domestic violence and bullying, the victims of oppression and injustice and all who have suffered at the hands of others. Those who have experienced unbearable pain and suffering can look at the cross and know that God shared/shares their pain. This understanding is best captured by a poem written by a woman who had experienced abuse at the hands of a man. The poem is written in response to a cruciform image of a woman that was hung below a cross in a United Church Chapel in Toronto.

May we all see in Jesus “lifted up” the victory of the cross, Jesus union with the Father, the triumph over evil and the possibility of resurrection.

By his wounds you have been healed

1 Peter 2:24


O God,

through the image of a woman

crucified on the cross

I understand at last.


For over hold my life

I have been ashamed

of the scars I bear.

These scars tell an ugly story,

a common story,

about a girl who is the victim

when a man acts out his fantasies.


In the warmth, peace and sunlight of your presence

I was able to uncurl my tightly clenched fists.

for the first time

I felt your suffering presence with me

in that event.

I have known you as a vulnerable baby,

as a brother and as a father.

Now I know you as a woman.

You we’re there with me as the violated girl

caught in helpless suffering.


The chains of shame and fear

no longer bind my heart and body.

A slow fire of compassion and forgiveness

is kindled.

my tears fall now

for man as well as woman.


You, God,

can make our violated bodies

vessels of love and comfort

to such a desperate man.

I am honored

to carry this womanly power

within my body and soul.


You were not ashamed of your wounds.

You showed them to Thomas

as marks of your ordeal and death.

I will no longer hide these wounds of mine.

I will bear them gracefully.

They tell a resurrection story.


Anonymous. Written after seeing a figure of a woman, arms outstretched as if crucified, hung below the cross in the Chapel of the Bloor St United Church in Toronto. The statue is now in a courtyard of Emmanuel United College in Toronto.[3]



[1] A Google search of images of the crucifixion provides some sketches which demonstrate what crucifixion was like.

[2] Lindars, Barnabas, SSF in The Johannine Literature. Ed Lindars, Barnabas, Edwards, Ruth B. and Court, John. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000, 91-93.

[3] The poem is anonymous. I read it in a Newsletter published by The World Council of Churches in 1988 as a part of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998).

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