Monday, September 14, 2015

Hard Wood of the Cross


I'm a little foggy about the details, but I remember a seminary professor celebrating the three prayers for mission that were added to the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer in the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer in place of the prayers for the President and Those in Civil Authority, for the Clergy and People, and for All Sorts and Conditions of Men. Although the use of the Daily Office in public worship has waned considerably in the Episcopal Church, those prayers are worth knowing and saying on a regular basis, and, on Holy Cross Day, I'm drawn particularly to the third prayer for mission in Morning Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of thy saving embrace: So clothe us in thy Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know thee to the knowledge and love of thee; for the honor of thy Name. Amen. (p. 58)


Those words echo the gospel lesson for today (John12:31-36a), in which Jesus says, "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." It is a remarkable missionary vision to hold the crucifixion of the messiah as the means by which all people are united in the one faith and worship of the one God.

On the one hand, the crucifixion was a sign of defeat. As Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian wrote, the story of Jesus as the Messiah is plausible...except for the fact that he was crucified by the Romans. That one detail, in his estimation, made the entire gospel story unbelievable. No one worships an executed rebel. If Jesus' movement to free Israel from the bondage of Rome had been successful, which is to say worth buying into, he wouldn't have died at the hands of those he had come to defeat. Clearly, the gospel--namely the resurrection on the third day--has something else to say about that.

Add on top of that the absolute repulsive horror than a crucifixion represents. Nails driven into body parts. Sun-baked and burned flesh. Gasping a wheezing. Coughing up blood. Helpless misery on full display--and by full display I mean totally and completely naked display. Crucifixion was gruesome for a reason: it was to warn any other rebels not to cause trouble in the Empire. Now, I like to rubberneck at a car crash as much as the next guy, but I couldn't stand to watch a crucifixion. It would push me away. Yet, in God's kingdom, the very horrible event of the cross is that which draws us in--indeed draws us to the crucified one.

As followers of the crucified one, we celebrate his death as much as his resurrection. Partly that's an acknowledgment of the humility and perfect sacrifice that was offered by Christ on the cross (see Philippians 2). But it's also more than that. The cross and our veneration of it is a recognition that the exaltation of the messiah could not unite all peoples without first breaking down the ethno-religious barriers that separate us. The Jewish expectations for a Messiah--one who would defeat the enemies of Israel--could not become the hopes for Gentiles without the cross. The cross is God's way of saying God's victory is universal. Otherwise, we get a noble Jewish king who rules in power but cannot draw all people to himself.

Celebrate the cross. Celebrate the reversal of our expectations. But, as you celebrate the cross, don't fall into the same trap. God's victory alone can unite all people. It is not our victory. The cross made us sure of that.

No comments:

Post a Comment