Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Over time, images can lose their significance or, in some cases, can attract new meaning. Christmas trees and wreaths were originally pagan symbols that were used to celebrate the winter solstice, but, when most of Europe was converted to the Christian faith, they lost their identity as trees worthy of worship and became a reminder of the everlasting life that Christ brought to the world. But that's not the whole story. Many of us have forgotten that, after the Reformation, evergreen trees were displayed in the homes of upper-class Protestants as a refutation of the Catholic tradition of erecting a crèche in one's home. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) I doubt that you, when you decorate your tree, are intending to thumb your nose at the Catholics across the street.
The cross of Christ, which we commemorate in the collect and epistle lesson for Tuesday in Holy Week, is its own complex image with a long history of meaning. As the collect states, the cross was originally "an instrument of shameful death," yet, through the story of Jesus, God has made it "be for us the means of life." Paul gives us a glimpse at that transformation, writing, "We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." Paul couldn't help but think of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which proclaims that anyone who dies while hanging on a tree is cursed by God. Remember that the bible's preferred method of capital punishment in stoning. Hanging was reserved for notorious criminals of whom the leaders of Israel wanted to make an example. Deuteronomy, however, limits the punitive nature of a hanging, demanding that the body be taken down and buried before sunset.
Jesus was killed in much the same way for mostly the same reason. The cross was a Roman institution--a way to kill slaves who rebelled against their masters or notorious political rebels who attempted to usurp Roman control of their territory. The sign above Jesus read, "King of the Jews," which was Rome's way of saying, "Look what we will do to anyone who tries to lead your people into freedom! Where is your king now?" Traditionally, bodies were left on the cross until the vultures had picked the skeletons clean--a lingering warning to any who would follow in their footsteps. Jesus was spare that fate, of course, as the Jewish leaders asked if they could keep their custom and bury him before sunset.
Paul's mission was to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to Gentiles, and he needed a way to overcome the stigma associated with a leader who was killed on a cross. The Jews who opposed the Way of Jesus would point to Deuteronomy as proof that God's messiah could not have been killed on a tree. Greeks would have sympathized with that argument, knowing that only the most shameful criminals would have been executed by Rome. As Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian put it, the concept of a killed and resurrected leader is pretty far-fetched, but the redemption of one who was crucified is beyond thinkable. Coming back from death is one thing, but no religious or political leader can come back from the cross.
Paul, however, had seen the crucified and resurrection one. Jesus had met him on the Road to Damascus, completely overthrowing everything that Paul thought he knew about how God works. His strategy in overcome the cross wasn't to avoid it but to embrace it. "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." For the entire history of God's relationship with God's people, God has been in the business of using small, rejected things to accomplish God's great and powerful plan. God chose Abraham and Sarah, an elderly couple long past the time of fertility, to inaugurate a great nation as numerous as the sand on the seashore. The people of Israel, a rogue band of travelling herdsmen, make their long and winding way to Egypt after Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. They planned it for evil, but God planned it for good. Not only were the children of Jacob saved during a famine, but Joseph's position in Pharaoh's government enabled the salvation of the whole world--enough grain to go around. The cross was the ultimate expression of failure, rejection, and shame, which, as Paul wrote, is the exact reason that it was the perfect instrument by which God would reach out to all peoples with God's saving love.
During the Passover festival immediately before Jesus' death, some Greeks approached Philip and asked to see Jesus. When word of their inquiry reached Jesus, what was his response? "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." This is how God works. "Now is the judgment of this world," Jesus said. "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." The only way for God's upside-down way of salvation to reach beyond the covenant God had made with Israel was for the reign of this world to be supplanted by the reign of Christ. The powers that be must be replaced by the power of God--a power not expressed in triumphant victory but in triumphant death. "It is too light a thing," the prophet wrote in Isaiah 49, "that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
Regrettably, we do not say Morning Prayer very often anymore, but, in the 1979 Prayer Book, the rubrics require that," unless the Eucharist or a form of general intercession is to follow," one of three prayers for mission will be said. The third begins with a beautiful statement of the far reach of God's salvation as embodied on the cross: "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..." (BCP pp. 57-58). Those arms, bloodied by the whip and exhausted from carrying the wooden beam, were forcibly stretched out and nailed in place by those for whom that act was the ultimate repudiation of the victim's agenda. Those nails were confirmation of Rome's victory over the crucified one and his followers. Yet that same image, with which we now adorn our churches and the jewelry we wear around our necks, has become for us the ultimate sign of God's victory--God's salvation for all people. Were it not for the traditional, historical, theological rejection that the cross represented to both Jews and Greeks, the cross of Christ could not have become the very means of the salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike. It is the very transformation of that image that is the transformation of our future. Through it, we, too, are brought from a verdict of guilt and rejection into a state of justification and acceptance by God. It is those very arms, spread wide upon the cross, that come down to embrace each of us as one who belongs to God.