“Standing near the cross”
Well, today’s gospel lesson offers a LOT of characters to try on. There are 18 people identified either by name or by individual description; I counted them! Plus, there are a whole groups of other characters: Roman soldiers at both Gethsemane and at Golgotha, Jewish policemen, Chief Priests, Pharisees, and the crowd shouting “crucify him.”
I don’t want to BE most people in this story, though at various times I’m probably everyone but Jesus here. Most of those who participate in Jesus’ crucifixion were just not sympathetic characters, even the so-called innocent bystanders.
Take Malchus, for example, the High Priest’s slave. Malchus got his ear sliced off by Simon Peter. And in John’s version of the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion Malchus didn’t even get his ear restored by Jesus, as Luke’s gospel says. Here’s another example: John didn’t identify by name the two people who were crucified with Jesus, much less share that they got to talk with Jesus about being saved.
If the “bit players,” so to speak, aren’t sympathetic, the major players are downright nasty. The Chief Priests were not enviable: THEY scapegoated Jesus for politics, position, and pride. Hail religious power! We hear not once but twice that Judas betrayed Jesus. Even Simon Peter famously failed Jesus.
But then I noticed a line of text that began, “Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus…” Whoever is standing near the cross of Jesus, I figure, must have something going for them.
Now the “meanwhile” means “while the Roman soldiers were stealing Jesus’ clothing,” and “while Jesus was hanging on a tree.” So what else was going on “near the cross of Jesus?” John says that five followers of Jesus were there: four women and one man:
- The mother of Jesus, standing next to “the disciple whom [Jesus] loved,”
- His mother’s unnamed sister,
- Mary the wife of Clopas, and
- Mary Magdalene
A lot of people have compared all the gospel accounts to try and figure out just who these women were. The best understanding is that:
- The beloved disciple was the apostle John.
- Jesus’ mother, of course, was Mary.
- Mary’s sister, we believe, was Salome, the wife of the fisherman Zebadee and mother of both James and John (two of the twelve apostles). If so, John was there with his mother and his aunt.
- No one knows for sure who Clopas’ wife Mary was. Some think, based on Mark 15:40, that she was the mother of James the Less and Jose, other apostles.
- But we all know of Mary Magdalene.
All five of these Jesus-followers were standing “near the cross of Jesus.” I have latched onto them tonight because of where they were standing, not necessarily because of who they were. But WHY were they standing near the cross?
By all accounts Mary knew her son, had absolute faith that he was the Son of God, knew he was going to die in Jerusalem, and knew he would rise again. Hadn’t the angel Gabriel told her who her son would be? Hadn’t she been pondering all these things in her heart?
Knowing something bad is coming, even knowing something world-changing and life-giving would happen as a result, doesn’t ease the pain, doesn’t avoid the grief of loss, doesn’t avoid hopeful denial. And did you notice what Jesus did, in the middle of his agony? He reached out to his mother to tend her grief. Jesus gave his mother and his cousin John to each other, with John to take his place as her son. So standing near the cross is where we are gifted with Christ’s love.
Just a few days ago, on the way to Jerusalem, John and his brother James had asked Jesus for a place of honor in his Kingdom. But some accounts, their mother had put them up to asking. But these two HAD engaged the other disciples about who was the greatest. Jesus had rebuked them all for their lack of humility, asking them if they could drink the cup he was about to drink. So two of the people standing near the cross of Jesus on this day had recently been reproved by Jesus. But, if John hadn’t been promised a place of prominence in God’s Kingdom, he certainly was given a place of honor in this world. Standing near the cross is where we are gifted with Christ’s forgiveness.
So why didn’t Jesus, knowing he would be killed in Jerusalem, make these arrangements with Mary and John before he was on the cross? I think John earned this honor by having had the courage and faith to stand near the cross during Jesus’ crucifixion. Standing near the cross is where we are to risk all for Christ.
And standing near the cross of Jesus would have been a very dangerous place for any Jesus-follower to have been on that night, especially for one of the men who were Jesus’ closest disciples. Today, at least where we live, being near the cross isn’t so dangerous a place to be. All WE risk is ridicule, whereas John and perhaps the women had risked death. But maybe, just maybe, what we risk near the cross is having to give up our own notion of how things should be, give up our own notion of politics, position, pride, and power.
Mary Magdalene also had great faith in Jesus. She clearly loved him. And why not? Hadn’t he cured her, loved her, made her whole? She deeply believed in Jesus, that he is the Messiah.
And hadn’t all five been with Jesus just the night before, in the Upper Room, where he had urged them to be servants to all and to take his very essence into their beings? And hadn’t they done so? So standing near the cross is where all Jesus-followers should be. Don’t WE each have to take up OUR cross and follow him there, follow him to death and beyond?
What did these five GAIN from being near the cross of Jesus? Everything. They became important witnesses: they knew for a fact that Jesus had been killed, just like they would know for a fact in a few days that Jesus was alive again.
Collectively, these five people offer us a place to stand tonight. As we re-member, re-call, re-live Jesus’ sacrifice for us, HERE is where we stand, in fear, shock, and grief, as we live into our own foibles, live into our healing, and live into our own deaths. HERE is where we kneel, as we do what Jesus instructed, take the tangible essence of himself into OUR-selves, as we carry out Christ’s mission in the world. HERE is where we live, “meanwhile” awaiting his coming again, here “near the cross of Jesus.”