Cross: The Bridge to Heaven
A sermon based on John 12:1-8
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 13, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A priest and a pastor stood near a curve on a road holding signs. “The end is near!” read the priest’s sign, while the pastor’s sign warned, “Turn around before it’s too late!” A driver in a small truck roared right past them yelling “Idiots!”as he shook his head at them, blasted his horn, and then stomped on the gas. A moment later the ministers heard the sound of screeching tires, followed by a big splash. The priest turned to the pastor and said, “That’s the fourth one today. Maybe we should change our signs to read “Bridge Out Ahead!”
It’s Lent and it seems that I’ve been sort of preaching every other week or so on the “we need to turn around” stuff. It can be hard to listen too–even upsetting. We’re on our way to Easter and it’d be nice and easy to just take a short route to get to the celebration of the resurrected Christ and all the light and brightness of Easter. But, see, the light and the brightness can only actually be reached and fully experienced if we understand how very dark a place the light grew out if, and how it is our task to visit the dark places and find a way to shine the Light on them so we can turn around (which is what repent means) and head out of the dark– move ourselves and the world toward peace, shalom, which means well being.
Using a metaphor related to the joke I told we need to build a solid bridge ahead to avoid the sound of screeching tires and a big splash back into the darkness. And the whole Easter story has to include the bridge of Jesus in the darkness of the first Holy Week happenings to understand the meaning of Easter and give it continuing affect.
There is no darker place imaginable than where Jesus is taken by earthly power. Night time capture, torture, cursory trial, injustices and humiliation, and as terrible a type of death as one can imagine. It is so dark a place that Rome brings Jesus to, that one can hardly believe Light could come out of it at all, let alone shine the great Glory of God for two thousand years and leave Jesus standing alive at the end as a bridge to that Light and Glory.
Today’s Lectionary lesson from the Bible is full of reminders of death and seriousness. Lazarus who was resurrected – raised from the dead– a few days earlier is there. And two polar opposites in the Jesus movement are there. Mary’s there. Judas’ there. They were pillars in the movement, important disciples of Jesus in their own right up to this point in the story, on the eve – if you will– of Holy Week.
Mary understands the risk Jesus is taking and imminency of his looming death as he prepares to enter Jerusalem and do what he must do to challenge the oppressive earthly power known as the Roman Empire. Mary takes very seriously that what Jesus did and was doing and planned to do is leading to a very dark place where power lashes out with humiliation, cruelty and unfairness and death. Everyone in Palestine was painfully aware of the terror that befell those who did not tow-the-line and challenged Rome. Mary’s smart enough to know Jesus’ going to be killed– and for all anyone knew at the time, the bridge would be out just ahead on the road Jesus has been taking. He was on a road headed to die and be gone. And very often, usually, the remains of the crucified were left on the cross not taken down to be buried. 1 (Crossan). So Mary had good reason to honor Jesus’ living body before he goes forth on what turns out to be his final days of mortal life.
Without a word Mary anoints Jesus in fragrant burial oil that costs an average year’s wage. In the process of her offering, which she gives without question –even in the face of criticism– to Jesus, Mary herself absorbed oil in her hair to linger there along while, reminding her of Jesus and the connection they had. 2 The nard was a smell of death all together different than the one we are told in the Bible that Lazarus emitted before he was resurrected by Jesus. There’s hint here of a different kind of death, we know that anointed Body of Christ is the one that dies and rises and goes on resurrected with piercing wounds of the spear and cross.
We can also imagine that the anointing oil from Mary lingers on the risen Christ too– making a special connection to the faithful follower Mary, and metaphorically to all who are like her. The oil, the nard, has a fragrant pleasant smell. In ancient times it was a perfume, spice and medicine. This was a very powerful and costly blessing that Mary offered and bestowed upon the then still living Christ, even as it was also a final preparatory to honor him for his certain death upon the cross.
We can understand that Mary in the story is portrayed as the faithful follower. She is actually –if we think about it– like Jesus in our powerful anthem the choir blessed us with this morning. In our reading today she never says a mumbling word. She is so grateful for the ministry of Jesus, which literally gave her back the life of her beloved brother, that she pours out an offering of an abundance of costly goods for Jesus, and on Jesus. He walks away covered with what she offered.
Mary’s preparing him for the difficult road ahead which for all she knew was leading to a certain horrid dead-end, the brutal death reserved by Rome for rebels. Jesus was bound to get caught and crucified because he challenged earthy power with the revolutionary ideas that we must provide love and justice to everyone, that is peace, shalom, well being for all– a direct challenge to the way Rome did things, to the way its Temple elite did things for Rome.
Mary’s acts in the lesson are very loving and tender toward Christ, God incarnate. Her gestures are extravagant, they are intimate, they are done without gripe, not a mumbling word does she say. She suggests the ideal way of discipleship reflecting what Jesus fully lives out during Holy Week. Jesus is like that too, right. He is loving, tender, extravagant and never says a mumblin’ word on the way to the cross, on the cross, or in death.
Jesus and his faithful servant Mary model for us the giving of their all while not mumbling about the arduous nature of the situation, the costs of the acts of such graciousness in giving. Mary gives expensive worldly gifts to Christ who represents all poor and oppressed. Christ gives his poor to Rome, but priceless to God, life. Jesus gives God’s unconditional love in the process of his entire ministry, up to and including Holy Week, and his final moments of life. He paid the ultimate cost on the cross. This is what bridges heaven and earth – unconditional Love in action through Christ is the bridge. He loves and cares for neighbors and enemies.
And the clincher is, this means not just the Marys of the world get loved, even the Judas-es get loved. Jesus loves them too–even those who betray and capture and mock and kill Jesus, get his love. All their darkness could not dim the light, the love, of Jesus. In fact their dark acts ironically lead to the immortalization of Jesus’ Way being remembered, and his continuing existence. Their dark deeds lead to a brighter light.
The cross’s dark shadow was caused by unfaithful servants like the betraying by Judas and later by Peter and others, as well as the unjust and unkind Romans and those who collaborated to kill Jesus. The amazing Light and Love that comes forth from that darkness is not just for faithful followers but for those traitors and the collaborators and the killers too. They are not hated by God, they are loved. They are not hated by Christ on the cross, they are loved. “Forgive them God” is Jesus’ plea as his mortal life ends.
Mary helped prepare Jesus for that mortal end, which she no doubt expected to be death in a darkness, so dark it should have sucked out any and all light like a dark hole in space sucks in all matter.
Judas and others who worked to put Jesus on that cross chose to create that darkness, but God floods it away with light, a light for the faithful, like, Mary . . . and remarkably for the unfaithful, like Judas and the cruel Romans who crucified him.
Through the cross, death and resurrection Jesus’ life, love, teachings and practices were and are validated. They are honored by God. They are held up as worthy of going on beyond mortal life, of being forever resurrected and experienced. Jesus’ sacrifice was and is vindicated by God’s radical love for him . . . and for everyone. 3
Neither Jesus nor God responded in kind to the violence inflicted upon Jesus in the passion narratives. Rather the divine responses during Holy Week and at the cross were victories through non-violence and through Love for the world. Jesus on the cross with great pain, humility and complete rejection and criminalization by the powers of the world was utterly loved by God. And Jesus on the cross with great pain, humility and complete rejection and criminalization utterly loved us and God and his tormentors.
The amazing Grace shown at the cross has resonated through the ages. On the cross Jesus’ sacrifice and love – what the world might think of as weaknesses – are turned on their head by God and made everlasting strengths and means of salvation. They bridge the dead end road we travel on. Strangely, even scandalously, an executed criminal in the darkest of dark “Cross-ed” the divide between heaven and earth and left a bridge there for everyone. In other words Jesus’ long road to the cross led to His resurrection and it led to a bridge that can lead to our own resurrection from whatever darkness or death-to-life-as-it-should-be that we find our selves in.
Mary, we are told prepared the body of Christ with funeral oils. She can be heard to have done this for his death. That is it’s usual meaning. But we can also hear, of course, that it turned out the faithful follower, Mary, prepared and kept the Body of Christ for everlasting existence.
Through the honored new life of Christ that is miraculously experienced by his followers after his death– there’s an experiential reality that affirms God utterly loves us in our own darkest hours, even when we feel forsaken, even on our own crosses. This is true even if we are the ones who have created darknesses for ourselves or for others with betrayal or pain or injustice. God loves all of humanity the Mary part and the Judas part.
See, here’s the thing, this is true not just for the real Mary and Judas like people in world, but for the Mary and Judas– like parts of each of us. If we are honest about it, most of us have a Mary-like presence and at least a little Judas-like presence. We have goodness and we have not so goodness, some of it maybe even badness. We are good followers and we can also be not so good followers of Jesus. Sometimes we give generously without a mumblin’ word.
Sometimes we don’t give enough, sometimes we say a lot of mumblin’ words. Like Judas we too can be self-righteous, maybe taking what God wants for others, maybe even helping Christ to be betrayed literally or by denying we are with him or by our inaction or silence. On one hand it doesn’t matter, in the sense that we are loved one way or the other, good or bad behavior does not stop God’s unconditional steadfast forever love.
But see, it’s the Mary-like faithful conduct that remembers and honors and keeps the Body of Christ as the bridge that connects heaven and earth. The faithful follow Jesus’ Way and it serves, if you will, as “cross road” to heaven. Without the faithful conduct the bridge cannot be found, it is out for those who lack faith. For the unfaithful part of us, “the end is near,” and “turn around before it is too late,” are apt warnings. Because it is by being faithful like Jesus and Mary – being the Body of Christ now– that we are able to bridge the gap between earth and heaven, and take the cross road to truck to earth heaven’s transformative new life and a new way in the here and now.
May we all be like Mary and honor the Body of Christ and cross the bridge to heaven.
1. See, Crossan, John Dominic, Jesus a Revolutionary Biography, p 127, 154-58, see also, Crossan, The Historical Jesus, p 392-393.
2. I got these ideas about smell and the perfume lingering on Mary from an article by MaryAnn McGibbon Dana called “First Sunday in Lent,” The Christian Century, March 2, 2016, p. 18
3. Col 2:15, I originally got these ideas from Marcus Borg including The Heart of Christianity, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco (2003), 92-96.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2016 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED