Sunday, March 29, 2009

Embracing the Cross of Christ

Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent
RCL, Year B: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

I once read about an Episcopal priest who erected three large crosses on the front lawn of the church during Lent. The church was located in a residential neighborhood, so lots of people passing by on their way to work or home couldn’t help but see these towering crosses. It didn’t take long before phone calls started coming in. Some people living in the neighborhood were upset. The common complaint weaving its way through the objections was that the three crosses standing on the church lawn made the neighborhood look bad.

Another instance hit closer to home for me. It happened at the church I attended when I came home for breaks during college. The wooden cross on the lawn had rotted at the base and fallen down. I asked the pastor when we would put the cross back up. He responded: “We’re not going to do that. The cross is such a negative image for so many people. We’ll find something more positive to focus on, instead.”

In a more recent example, I saw that a priest in England ordered the removal of the crucifix outside the parish church he serves. Here’s what he told a British newspaper about the decision:

“The crucifix expressed suffering, torment, pain and anguish. It was a scary image, particularly for children. Parents didn't want to walk past it with their kids, because they found it so horrifying. It wasn't a suitable image for the outside of a church wanting to welcome worshippers. In fact, it was a real put-off. We’re all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross.”

No doubt about it, the cross – and especially crosses with the crucified body of Jesus – can make us feel uncomfortable. We don’t like to look into the face of suffering. Even the early Christians shied away from depicting the cross. According to one scholar, “There is no cross symbol nor any equivalent” in the early Church, and: “The suffering Christ on a cross first appeared in the fifth century, and then not very convincingly.”[1] The shame and degradation, the scandal and horror of the cross were just too much.

And yet, our faith as Christians tells us that we cannot avoid the cross of Christ. We cannot bypass the crucified Jesus. For the path to the empty tomb of our Lord goes straight through Calvary. And so the Good News of hope and redemption that we Christians have to offer cannot be separated from the cross of Christ. For in a way that turns the values and expectations of the world on their heads, the cross of Christ is the means by which God unleashes healing and reconciliation for the world.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to John drives the point home in a striking way. The public ministry of Jesus is coming to a close and the time of his Passion draws near. And so Jesus tells his disciples: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:31-32 NRSV).

For John, Jesus nailed to the cross – broken, bleeding, and dying – is no embarrassment to be hidden away. On the contrary, Jesus nailed to the cross is something to be lifted up on high for the whole world to see. For the triumphant irony is that Jesus’ moment of greatest humiliation is also his moment of greatest exaltation. John lifts high the cross, thrusting it into our faces to challenge the moral myopia that keeps us fixated on ourselves, our pleasures, our comforts, and our respectability. And he does it because we need the public exposure of truth that only a cross with Jesus nailed to it can give us.

Looking at Jesus nailed to the cross is like looking into a mirror. It reflects back to us what we really look like and what we’ve really become. In the mirror of the cross, we see our sinfulness in all of its brutality and ugliness. We see in the crucified Jesus how our world responds with violence to the message that God loved the world so much that He sent His only begotten Son. We see our willingness to degrade and humiliate other people in order to secure our pleasures and comforts, justify our own righteousness and superiority, and maintain the illusion of control. Looking at Jesus on the cross, we see how our selfishness can turn into arrogance, and how our arrogance can turn into a hatred that requires the deaths of the innocent. We see the truth that, in spite of our social, intellectual, and technological “progress,” we are still just as captive and obedient to the forces of sin and evil which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God as we’ve ever been. Like the naked, crucified body of Jesus lifted up on high, the cross exposes our selfishness, hubris and arrogance for everyone to see. And in Jesus’ tortured, dead body, we see God’s judgment on it all.

No wonder we might prefer to put aside the cross of Christ, taking it down and hiding it away from public view!

As painful as it may be to keep the cross first and foremost in our hearts and minds, as difficult as it may be to accept the depths of God’s judgment on our sinfulness, there’s an even deeper truth at work here. For the cross of Christ reveals not only a word of judgment about human depravity. Jesus hanging on the cross also reveals God’s final word about this world. And it’s a word of transforming grace.

Nailed to the cross, Jesus reveals the lengths God is willing to go to save us from ourselves.

Nailed to the cross, Jesus gives everything that he has – including his life – for every single person who has or ever will walk the face of this earth, even and especially those who mock, scorn, and reject him.

Nailed to the cross, Jesus takes all of our fears, sins, hatred, and violence upon himself.

Nailed to the cross, Jesus transforms violence into peace, hatred into love, degradation into dignity, despair into hope, and death into life. Nailed to the cross, Jesus becomes the center point of history, the place where human suffering and evil run amuck collide head-on with God’s determination to bring justice and healing to a fallen but good creation – even though that determination costs the life of the One who is “close to the Father’s heart” (Jn 1:18 NRSV).

One Anglican theologian puts it like this:

The pain and tears of all the years were met together on Calvary. The sorrow of heaven joined with the anguish of earth; the forgiving love stored up in God’s future was poured out into the present; the voices that echo in a million human hearts, crying for justice, longing for spirituality, eager for relationship, yearning for beauty, drew themselves together into a final scream of desolation. … [And so] the death of Jesus … is the fulcrum around which world history turns. … [For] Jesus’ death was not a messy, tragic accident, but the surprising victory of God over all the forces of evil.[2]

“The surprising victory of God over all the forces of evil” – that is why the moment of Jesus’ greatest glory is precisely the moment when the Roman soldiers lift him up off the ground nailed to a cross.

From the world’s perspective, that may sound perverse. It may sound as though we Christians glory in weakness, cruelty, suffering, and death. It sure did to the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche, who called the cross of Christ “the most subterranean conspiracy ever heard of,--against health, beauty, well-being, intellect, kindness of soul--against life itself.”[3]

In contrast to the Nietzsches of this world, I believe that the apostle Paul gets it right: “The message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction” (1 Cor 1:18, The Message). But for we who belong to the crucified and risen Lord, the cross is the supreme expression of “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18 NRSV). For in the crucified Jesus, we see not just the depths of our sinfulness and God’s judgment upon it. In Jesus lifted high on the cross, we see God’s “No!” to anything and everything that degrades, enslaves, and murders. In the outstretched arms of Jesus nailed to the cross, we see God’s passionate desire to draw all of broken humanity and creation to Himself for healing. In the broken body of the crucified Jesus, we see the depths of a love that takes all of the world’s suffering straight into the heart of the divine life for transformation. And in the dead Jesus hanging on the cross, we see God’s willingness to share everything with us, including desolation and death, in order that everything may be redeemed.

So we need never be ashamed of the cross of Christ. On the contrary, we can embrace it and lift it up on high for everyone to see. For by the cross of Christ, God has brought joy and life to the world.

[1] Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Mercer University Press, 1985), pp. 56, 165.

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 111.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist. [1889]. Great Literature Online. 1997-2009 http://nietzsche.classicauthors.net/antichrist/antichrist62.html (24 Mar, 2009).

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