Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The festival of the Holy Cross, Sunday, September 14, 2014
texts: 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
In 312, the Roman general and tetrarch Constantine, fighting a civil war to consolidate his sole imperial rule, looked into the sun and saw the sign of the cross. That night in a dream, God told him that with this sign – “in hoc signo” in Latin – he would defeat Maxentius the next day in battle in the city of Rome. His soldiers won that battle with the sign of the cross painted on their shields.
There is much of legend to this story. What is not in dispute is that Constantine began a whole new era for Christianity. Under his rule, Christianity became the state religion of the empire, and very quickly developed a taste for power, military might, control. A once marginalized group of believers following an executed Savior, who shared things in common, who consistently held that Christians could not take up arms, could not kill, who had allegiance to God alone and to no earthly ruler, became the power behind and in front of one of the greatest empires the world has known. Rules for just war replaced committed peacemaking. Seven centuries later, Christian knights with the cross painted on their shields and emblazoned on their surcoats laid a path of destruction and death across Europe and the Near East in holy wars.
“We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
The world doesn’t think it foolish to bear the cross as a symbol of power over others. If you’ve got something that gives you power, wield it, use it. The Church has justified its shared bed with military and political power for centuries, sometimes saying it is God’s will, sometimes as a practical way to preserve the institution, sometimes because we like having power and might, being winners.
The proclamation of Jesus’ cross was a stumbling block to Jews because they couldn’t imagine the one true God so debased, so lowly as to assume human form and be tortured to death. It was blasphemy, horrific. Their theology couldn’t permit God to do such a thing.
The proclamation of Jesus’ cross was foolishness to Gentiles because they would see it hysterical that this pathetic group of believers were following someone who didn’t have enough sense to avoid a humiliating public execution. Their philosophy couldn’t permit such ridiculousness.
To the extent that we can’t see the stumbling block of the cross to our theology and understanding of God and God’s will, to the extent that we can’t see how foolish it is compared to the way we work in the world, to that extent we are no longer hearing the message of the cross.
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
How can we tell if we live by the wisdom of the world, are bound to our view of God? If we find ourselves always needing people to adjust to us, find it difficult not to think of our own needs before those of others. Or if we cannot conceive of faith in a God who does not bless our every move, or in a God who would ask us to let go of things we think give us security.
If we believe everything we have is ours, and deserved, and if we feel gracious and good, we might share a little. Or if, when anything bad happens, we blame God for not preventing, not protecting properly, as if we are entitled to good because we believe in God correctly.
If we seek security in providing for ourselves what we think we need, wealth, protection, barriers to those in the world we fear. Or if we expect God’s primary job is to ensure we never have to worry about losing anything.
That’s how we can tell. We don’t need to carry shields with the cross on them to act as if being a Christian somehow entitles us to the best of everything, without fear of tragedy. We don’t need to carry a sword to live with a world view that we should be in charge because we belong to Christ Jesus, and that way we will impose on our families, our community, our world. We don’t even need a cross on our flag, because we’ve found a way to wrap the American flag around the Christian faith and march it into the world as if we really don’t hope for an eternal life yet to come; this country is God’s greatest dream.
Maybe we’re not always so extremely bad off. But is there anything about how we practice our Christian discipleship that others can mock as foolish or naïve? Is there anything about how we believe in God that challenges a hope in God as a divine vending machine of favor?
If our way of Christian discipleship starts making sense to our culture, starts sounding like every other get rich scheme, every other way to dominance, we know we’ve lost our path. If we say things like, “that’s going to cost us,” or, “won’t we be taken advantage of,” we’ll know we’re on the right path.
“The Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.”
This is how we know we’re on the path of true discipleship: if it leads to the foot of the cross, to where we look up and see our Lord lifted up for the life of the world. Not lifted up as a triumph over all the wrong people. Lifted up, as he will say later, to draw all people to himself.
The way of the cross is opposite to the way of the world, but it will save the world. Because as those who see him lifted up allow themselves to be lifted up, cut down, walked on, for the sake of others, then the world of power over others, of domination and might, will start to crumble from below and eventually fall.
Do you now see the stumbling block? We don’t get to tell God what to do and what not to do, we only get to decide if we’re going where God has already gone, into disreputable places and places of loss. We’re often unwilling to lose even with those we love most, in our families, to say nothing of the world.
Do you now see the foolishness? We stop caring about protecting our institution of the church, our congregation, ourselves, even God. We lose interest in winning arguments or proving that we’re right or forcing others not to mock us. This path doesn’t lead to an impressive, powerful institution people have to respect or fear.
But given that any good Christians have done in the last 2,000 years has come from believers willing to lose all for the sake of the other, and most evil Christians have done in the last 2,000 years has come from believers trying to work by the world’s rules of power and might, by a theology of a dominating, crushing God, does that tell us anything?
“When we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
The cross marks our lives, our worship, our faith precisely as a reminder of Jesus’ death, and ours. It’s not our prize to wave in the world’s face. It is our life, it is our salvation. But Jesus makes abundantly clear it is also our path.
So when we bow as the cross is carried before us in procession, is it to a magic talisman, a sign of our triumph and rightness? No, it is in humble recognition of the path it lays before us. It is a sign of our willingness to walk this path.
When we mark ourselves with the cross with our own hands is it some sort of protective charm, hope of God’s favor? No, it is drawing on our very bodies the shape of the life we are called to live, so we don’t forget.
When we proclaim at every Eucharist the death of Christ Jesus is it some morbid obsession? No, it is our way. Regular reminder is the only way to continually focus ourselves on the path we walk with Christ, a path of loss and death.
“The message of the cross is foolishness . . . but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
We seek power in losing power, because that’s what God does. We see strength in weakness, because that’s how God works. We see victory in losing, because that’s how God wins. It’s foolishness. But this foolish, stumbling block truth about the way the Triune God really works in the world is life. We know because we have seen it. Felt it. Been moved by it. Perhaps only in little glimpses, in moments of clarity, or in seeing it lived in another person. But in those glimpses we saw truth and life.
What we need is for God to help us get beyond our longing to be like the world and go where our heart knows we belong. To make the death of Christ not be our insurance card but, in the resurrection, a life from God that shapes us from within into cross-people like Christ. So we can foolishly and eagerly walk the path of life for the sake of the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen