Lent 5 2019: Philippians 3.4-14; John 12.1-8
It’s all about the cross. The suffering and death of Jesus is the obvious theme of this season of Passiontide.
Not everyone gets this. There was a notorious case five years ago when a group of churches in East Oxford were prevented from putting on a traditional Passion Play. These churches had hoped to draw the crowds and to remind them what Easter is all about by delivering an open-air re-enactment of the events of Good Friday. Oxford City Council, however, had other ideas: they refused to issue a licence. What had happened was that the pen-pusher responsible for determining the application did not know that a Passion Play was a religious performance, and feared that it might be a public obscenity. The Daily Mail made predictable capital, headlining their report ‘Gormless Labour Council bans Good Friday Passion play fearing it’s a sex show’.
It is all about the cross. It’s the theme of this season, right around the world – and even in Oxford. Indeed, the cross is not just for a season. It is the theme of Christianity. Open your Bibles to be reminded that all four gospels are shaped from start to finish by one climatic week in Jerusalem nearly 2000 year ago. Each gospel begins with a sense of foreboding. In Matthew, Jesus’ birth is greeted with a massacre of babies. In Luke, Jesus’ mother is warned about the piercing effect of her child on her soul. In Mark, there is conflict from the off, pitting Jesus against demons and then against the religious and political authorities. And in John, Jesus is introduced as the ‘Lamb of God’, a figure with clear sacrificial significance. In these ways, the gospels anticipate Good Friday from their opening verses. Moreover, they devote a disproportionately large amount of text to narrating the events of Holy Week and Easter. In Luke it is 30%. This rises to a third in Matthew, and to nearly 40% in Mark and John.
It is all about the cross. And it is all about the cross because of what Jesus does for us on the cross. It is the purpose of the cross that Paul is so at pains to share with the Philippians through that text we have just heard. Paul began by outlining his own impeccable credentials when measured by Jewish standards of his day: ‘If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh’ he boasts, ‘I have more: [I was] circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the … tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of Christians; and blameless in following the law.’
But Paul had come to realise that confidence in earthly titles and approval was not enough. He had had a life-changing encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus which turned his whole perspective on its head. Paul perceived that confidence in the flesh did not make sense when God took the most ugly and debased instrument of execution and used it as the means of redemption. Paul came to realise – precisely because it is all about the cross – that his standing according to cultural norms and religious traditions were worthless. All those birthrights and practices which gave him position among his fellows would not bring him any nearer the almighty. ‘Whatever gains I had’, he wrote, ‘these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ… I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him’.
For Paul, everything was put into perspective by the stark, horrific, inverted logic of Calvary. Paul knew that he could not sort himself out with God by his own effort. And so he went on to advise those Philippians in today’s reading that, ‘for Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things… not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.’
It is this shock value of the cross which so animated Paul and that we are summoned to rediscover as individual Christians and as a parish in the fortnight ahead. We must do this because, I fear, it is not just the ignorant, like that unfortunate employee of Oxford Council, who miss the point. Too often it is Christians who empty the cross of its power to shock. Down the centuries we have been in the habit of sanitizing the cross, idolizing it, or even ignoring it.
Let me give you an example from the Middle Ages. St Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the late fourth century once recounted how Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While in Jerusalem, Helena persuaded a local Jew – pointedly named Judas – to show her – albeit on pain of torture – the site of the crucifixion. Having arrived at the spot, Helena instructed Judas to dig and – surprise, surprise – he soon located the three crosses of Good Friday. These got Helena wondering. Which, she puzzled, might have borne the body of Jesus? The mystery was solved when the True Cross miraculously healed a terminally ill woman. The story ends with the conversion to Christianity of the archaeologically-minded Judas who changed his name and was rapidly elevated to the bishopric of Jerusalem.
Do you see what has happened here? The cross has become an object of miracles and glory. It is no longer the instrument of execution or a locus of inversion – Christ’s righteousness for my sinfulness.
The account of Helena’s discovery of the true cross was possibly invented to bolster the authority of that bishop formerly called Judas by associating him directly with Jesus and the imperial family. It is a legend that became even more embroiled in preposterousness through the C13th best-seller known as The Golden Legend. In The Golden Legend we read that Jesus’ cross was made from the final remnant of the Tree of Knowledge that God once planted in Paradise. According to this tale, a seed was passed out of the Garden of Eden by the Archangel Michael to Seth the son of Adam. Seth grew the seed from a sapling, using as a handy plant pot the skull of his father. From that sapling grew the tree on which would one day hang Jesus, the Second Adam, on the hill of Golgotha, the site known – of course – as The Place of the Skull.
Now there may be symbolic merit in linking the death of Jesus with Adam. After all, we believe that Jesus’ faithfulness has the power to undo the sins which we all commit – that bit of you and me which Adam symbolises. However, once again, do you see what is going on? The Golden Legend turns a desperately ordinary piece of wood used for a desperately mundane task into something special and unique. It devalues the incarnation, that God in Jesus encounters the most ordinary and awful aspects of human existence. The inventers of the story in The Golden Legend cannot handle the reality of Jesus’ earthiness and suffering. They divert themselves, lose themselves in byways, rather than accept the bloody truth.
Judas Iscariot in today’s gospel is a bit like Christians who can’t handle the reality of the cross. He simply doesn’t get what Jesus is about. He can’t comprehend a kingship which shows itself in weakness not conquest – so consequently he doesn’t twig either (i) that Jesus must die or (ii) that Mary might want to prepare his body for burial. Better, Judas thinks, to focus on the numbers. He notes the cold monetary value of the ointment – an act which St Paul might have condemned as a thing of the flesh, a superficial value of only passing merit.
It is all about the cross. But are we like Judas and the mythologisers of The Golden Legend? Can we handle it? Let me suggest that Christians today are no less guilty than our medieval forebears when it comes to missing the point. We consistently divert ourselves from the reality of what Jesus does for us. Time and again, we avoid the gore and pain and sadness. We turn the cross into a symbol, or an abstraction of theology. Worse still, we skip over Good Friday and head straight for Easter, blinkered to the fact that you cannot have resurrection without the death that precedes it. Ninety years ago, Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy even went so far as to suggest that contemporary ‘Indifference’ might be worse than the hostility which killed Jesus in the first place.
When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged him on a tree,
They drave great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned him with a crown of thorns, red were his wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed him by.
They would not hurt a hair of him, they only let him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left him in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do, ‘
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.
brothers and sisters, let us take courage and walk together to Easter. Amen.
 Cf. William Whyte in Church Times 2009.4.9