Holy Cross Day
September 14, 2014
1 Corinthians 18-24
It’s hard to know how to talk to about the cross of Christ. People are repulsed by the cross … especially North Americans, who are lucky enough to live sheltered from so many of the world’s horrors. We like our religion to be upbeat… uplifting. So we avoid the cross or minimize its horror. One way we do this is by turning the cross into pretty ornaments to wear around the neck, or adorning our worship sanctuary with beautiful crosses.
But the real cross of Christ we’d rather not recall. However, talk about it… think about it… struggle with it, we must; because as Paul states in today’s 2nd lesson, the cross is the beating heart of the Christian faith. It is “the power of God and the wisdom of God,” he writes.
Though I was raised in the Christian faith… in a very loving home… there was a time in my life when I faced many hard questions about what I really believed. The world was a mighty big place. Did my childhood faith really have the answers to questions of life and death, truth and meaning? Is Jesus really the savior of the world, as today’s Gospel lesson proclaims?
It was a time in my life that I was learning so much about what was going on in the world and what had been in the world. I was overwhelmed by how ugly it all was. Even on a good day, the world was so full of pain and loss. Can the Christian faith that I was raised in really stand in the face of all that?
So many Christians I talked to at that time spoke about God and faith in ways that made God seem so small. He favors Americans over communists. He favors Christians over Hindus… or one denomination over another. (Of course, it always boiled down to he favors me over those guys over there.) He finds my lost car keys when I pray to him. He helps me get that stereo system I want so bad. I think he’s going to help me win the lottery. All the while poverty, starvation and war raged throughout the world.
I remember the first Christian doctrine or concept that I realized I had no problem with was the doctrine of Sin. I could (and still can) clearly see that something is wrong with the human race. Looking up and down through history… looking across the world, both far and near… it is clear that we don’t produce an equal amount of good and bad.
We are somehow bent to act selfishly and cruelly. We tear others down to lift ourselves up. We take from those we can. We use one another for our own gain. We destroy those who stand in our way. We hate those we don’t understand or who seem different from us. And in doing these things, we not only make others’ lives miserable, but our own as well. Not only did I see this darkness in history and in the world around me, I saw it in myself too.
What’s even more incredible, we often do this stuff in the name of God. We got Muslims who slaughter journalists in the name of God. We got Christians who justify and cheer the slaughter of a couple thousand Palestinians in Gaza in the name of God. We’ve always had these religious lovers of destruction throughout history.
We want a warrior God because we want to feel that we have power and privilege on our side in this confusing world. And we want to see that which frightens us in this world obliterated.
We don’t want the cross because weakness and ugliness repulse us. Just spend a little time consuming our delicious mass media culture of movies, magazines, TV, internet… advertising, and you will see. We worship that which others have convinced us is attractive and powerful. It was that way in Paul’s day too. That’s the foolishness of the world that Paul speaks about in today’s 2nd lesson. In his day, the cross repulsed Jews and Greeks alike… in other words… everyone.
But those are the forms God assumes on the cross. God takes on himself weakness. God takes on himself ugliness. And that’s not a mistake. It’s is the way of God. And we’d better pay attention to it and not brush it aside because it makes us uncomfortable.
God takes on weakness, ugliness… he takes on the cross because the only God who can heal this broken world… the only God who leaves no one behind… the only God who can reach out and bring everyone in is the God who enters fully into the weakness and ugliness of being a human being in this sinful world. He bears our pain. He feels our isolation and rejection. He suffers our forsakenness. He endures our death. God enters oblivion in order to retrieve all of us who are there already or on our way.
I know for me, it has always been there, at the cross, where my faith is reborn. There I finally find a God who is great enough to believe in. I find a God who is big enough to make himself small and weak like us.
I finally find a God who is powerful enough to love and save everyone… not just the good people, not just the strong or attractive people, not just the Christians, not just the Americans, not just “my people,”… but everyone.
On the cross I see a God who enters the human pain of isolation, rejection and god-forsakenness to be with his people… all of them… wherever they are. Nowhere and no one is hidden from his presence and love.
On the cross I see a God who is not at work in the blades of religious assassins or in the missiles that kill children, but is present in the suffering of the victims… in the pain and darkness that descends on slaughtered journalists and murdered Palestinian children.
On the cross, I finally understand the truth about power… the truth God has tried to teach us and show us… the truth by which he set us free.
It is love, not hate, that gives life. True strength is shown in giving power to others, not in taking it from them. True power does not fear the darkness, because it knows that God enters it with us… and that God is more powerful than darkness. True power does not compel us from the outside to do what it wants, but it changes us inside, over time, by the strong and tender hand of love, to become what we were meant to be.
In Jesus’ earthly life, the final place he stood was with the god-forsaken. The cross is God’s clear statement that all people… even the god-forsaken… belong to him and nothing can come between us and him.
Therefore, as we live, we await the final, incredible miracle of the cross… the hope of the resurrection… the promise that the darkness that overwhelms us is not the final word for us. Whatever darkness we face in life… whether it is grief, depression, addiction, illness… death… whatever darkness we face in life… God’s promise is that, because he loves us and is present with us, life awaits. The darkness will pass away, and what will emerge is new life wrought by God… both here in this world, and eternally in the next.
That is the way of God. That is why the cross is the beating heart of our faith. It is why, when we baptize our children, we make the sign of the cross on their foreheads and say, “You are marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
That is why we, in the end, represent the cross – a gruesome means of painful execution – with things of beauty, like the cross around my neck and those that adorn the altar and chancel.
Through the cross, God fills the whole cosmos with his love and saving power. He is eternally present throughout the world and he is at work pursuing, healing, changing, and bringing in all that belongs to him, until at last his promise in the book of Colossians is fulfilled:
For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:19-20)
May God’s work be done in us… healing, changing, growing, guiding… changing our despair into joy, our darkness into light… our death into life.