For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
This morning we are celebrating Holy Cross Day. Transferred from September 14th , Holy Cross Day commemorates the dedication, in 335, of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem – but it is the cross inside the ancient basilica that is the focus of our attention.
Tradition holds that the church was built by direction of Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine on the historic site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. Helena made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem some ten years earlier when she noticed a large wooden beam in the rubble of an excavation of the temple of Venus just outside the old city wall. Helena claimed the relic as part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and the church was built over the site of the discovery, marking the historic place of the death and burial of our Lord.
The wooden beam was carefully preserved as part of the true cross upon which Jesus suffered and died. Reconstructed many times over the years, the basilica and the true cross held within it is still a place of sacred pilgrimage for Christians from all over the world.
Holy Cross Day is a day to reflect on the meaning of the cross. What does the cross mean for you personally and for you as part of this community of faith? Is it a “stumbling block and foolishness or the power of God”? What does it mean to be called “people of the cross”?
We have images of the cross all around us in this beautiful sacred space; and as Christians we are shaped by and marked by the cross. At baptism we are anointed, signed with the cross, we sometimes make the sign of the cross over ourselves in prayer when we invoke the name of the trinity, with prayers of healing the sign of the cross is traced on our forehead; we are absolved from our sins and blessed with the sign of a cross, the urn or casket is marked with cross at a graveside as we commend and commit a loved one into the presence of our Lord. Yes, the baptized are marked with the cross as Christ’s own forever, no matter what! But what might that look like for someone not familiar with the story of Jesus? If someone asked you what the cross means how would you answer?
The image of a cross is founds in all sort of places …it is used in jewelry, tattoos, tapestries, carvings and public works of art. Millions of people with little connection to Christianity instinctively recognize the cross as iconic; and some call for it to be removed from public spaces, some have recommended that the cross be removed from churches, too. They say that the cross points to a God who condones violence, brutality and judgement. Is the cross a stumbling block and foolishness or the power of God?
I fear that we are in danger of losing the connection between the cross and the full weight of the Gospel given to us in scripture. For you see, the cross of Jesus is not any old cross. In the ancient world, for those who first followed Jesus, the cross was a symbol of despicable suffering as well as shame and terror and despair. It struck fear into the hearts of people. The cross was used by the Romans as an instrument of public execution to silence those who to dared to challenge Roman authority. Jesus was executed on a cross for treason, as an enemy of the state under Roman Law and for blasphemy under Herodian Law.
But the cross of Jesus is not any old cross. If we understand the cross only as an historic instrument of Roman execution and if we separate it from the full story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, if we separate the cross from who Jesus is, we risk losing our grasp on the life-giving meaning of the cross and so the heart of the Gospel gets diluted, misunderstood, forgotten.
For you see, scripture tells us that on the cross of Jesus, God himself took on the worst humans can throw against his plan for the redemption of the world, the lies, the pride, the hatred. He takes on all of that and more and nails it to a cross in order to confront and defeats it. He takes on himself the punishment of sin so that the grip of the evil powers in the world would be broken. And God won.
God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that all who believe in him, all who follow him will not perish but have eternal life. The power of love, God’s love poured out on the cross, defeated the love of power. The power of God’s love was lifted up on cross in the suffering and death of Jesus. And the power of God’s love was ultimately, finally and perfectly demonstrated for all to see on the third day when Jesus rose from the dead. A stumbling block is transformed. Wisdom replaces foolish, love replaces fear. The world turned upside down, the cross of Jesus points us to the power of God’s love in action. On the cross the power of love defeated the love of power.
And further, God’s love cannot be contained, try as we might! When he rose from the dead Jesus’ followers realized this could only happen if he had exhausted the power of sin and death itself. As Jesus rises, he breaks the bonds of death, launching God’s new creation! Place the cross of Jesus in the centre and we see it holds the heart of the Christian Gospel and points us again and again to the new life God makes possible in and through it!
Paul says it this way: for the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
If we are tempted to water down the message of the cross so that it becomes less offensive, less subtle and seemingly more palatable we need only to hear again from today’s readings, John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’.
And so we begin to grasp this what it means to put the cross of Jesus in the centre: out of his fathomless love the creator God sent His own Son, Jesus, not simply to share in the mess and muddle of our human existence, to come alongside our suffering, but to take upon Himself the task of being the place where He would confront and pass sentence upon sin itself, sin as a fact, sin as a deadly power, sin as the poisonous snake whose bite means death itself. The sentence was passed and the power of sin and death was defeated as Jesus is lifted up on a pole. God did what we cannot do…so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
So then, what does the cross of Jesus mean to us, today?
The first thing I want to proclaim is that the cross of Jesus shows us who God is: the loving creator of the world who will die for it, to rescue it. The cross of Jesus shows us God in action. It shows us the power of love against the love of power.
Second. The cross paved the way for new life now and life beyond the grave. There has been a reunion of gargantuan dimensions! It means that believers have fellowship with God, now and in the life to come.
Third, and building on the first two points, the word of the cross means that life can be different now. Rooted and grounded in God’s love, signed with the cross, marked as Christ’s own forever, we are liberated, set free to assume our true vocation as His image-bearers, to worship the living God freely and with joyful praise and to live as His agents of healing and transformation in the world by following the self-giving, compassionate, gracious way of Jesus. Faith is not only a matter of personal salvation. It is to be worked in community, we are sent into the world as people of the cross.
And so finally the cross of Jesus reminds us to be attentive to the fact that God’s will and agency are not made known primarily in moments of success, the easy times, the high points of achievement, physical strength and material comfort. I do not believe that God wills suffering of any kind but I am certain that God is present in it, and God uses the meek, the vulnerable, the poor, the sick and broken-hearted to transform the world; to restore creation to its intended harmony and beauty. That is where we are to look for God; that is where we encounter God’s presence and activity. Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says.
Reflecting on the meaning of the word of the cross this week, I was filled with gratitude for some in our midst who are battling addictions, straining to follow the steps and finding strength in God’s word in this community of faith; I recently had a conversation with a neighbour who is taking courageous steps to end an abusive relationship and I remembered a dear man in another parish. Stephen had a deep faith, he hungered for the gospel; he had a sharp sense of humour and he loved to host dinner parties; he was a relentless supporter of the parish’s ministry among the poor. His eyes sparkled. Soon after he retired from his law practice he suffered the first in a series of strokes; each one took more of his mobility until he was bedridden. The last one resulted in aphasia – he couldn’t speak even though he knew what he wanted to say. The verbose barrister had been silenced, or so I thought. His personal care giver was an angel…she cared for Stephen as a complete person, including praying with and for him when the 3 of us were together. As his physical body declined, as Stephen faced his own mortality and the frustration of not being able to speak or move; even as we sat together to plan his funeral, especially that day, his eyes sparkled even more. Lift High the Cross would be the recessional hymn at his funeral, he told me. He had written “hymn 602” on a scrap of paper. And so it was.
Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all the world adore his sacred name!