Looking Through the Cross

Notes for a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona) on Sunday, March 4, 2018.

What do we see when we look at the cross?

2000px-Coa_Illustration_Cross_Easter.svg.pngI am sure that everyone of us would answer this question in differing personal, theological, and spiritual terms. I am no less sure that we here today share something in how we behold the cross. After all, it has been the principal symbol of our faith since the 4th century. We know about Jesus’ death on the cross. We decorate many of our churches with crosses of all descriptions. Some of us make the sign of the cross. Many people wear crosses on their persons.

The cross is all around us. When a symbol is so all-pervasive, it can become a constant reminder of the reality behind it or … sad to say, it can become wallpaper. We live with it, but it rarely affects us.

When Paul came to Corinth, he did not come carrying a cross, but rather bearing “the message about the cross.” Some people received the message he proclaimed, but many others dismissed it.

Depending upon their background, they heard Paul’s message as a “stumbling block” or simply “foolishness.”

Foolishness? If you expect your God to be a mighty and victorious warrior, immortal and invincible, proclaiming the divinity of a person who died a shameful death is nonsensical. “Real” Gods don’t do that kind of thing!

Stumbling block? If you expect your Messiah to be visibly blessed and honored by God, the assertion that a victim of crucifixion is the Christ is outrageous. More than that, it is scandalous, in the Hebrew sense that it is heard as something that causes a person to sin. (Note that our word “scandal” comes from the Greek for “stumbling block” — skandalon.)

Whichever way people heard it, the actual story of the cross of Christ was clear and immediate to the people of Corinth—a city of the Roman Empire, a regime which kept the peace through violence and intimidation. Rome’s ultimate means of punishment was crucifixion, which was reserved for the worst enemies of the state. In 2018 it is an act about which we must remind ourselves, but in the year 50 in Corinth, it was a common presence in people’s lives. No one needed to be told what it meant.

And today? Can we still be scandalized by the cross? Do we ever see it as mere foolishness? I would suggest that the answer to both questions is “yes,” in the wider world to be sure, but also among folk who are seeking to follow Jesus.

Our Thursday morning study group has just read a book by the late Christopher Lind, entitled “Rumors of a Moral Economy.” Lind wrote of how contemporary society is dominated by a competition-driven economy, which when allowed to function without restraint leads to greater and greater concentration of wealth, and a diminution of the common good.

In pure competition, there are only winners and losers: a system at best indifferent to human needs. In a competition-driven world, proclaiming Christ crucified can easily be heard as exalting a loser.

Lind’s book also pointed to how a moral economy must be rooted in community and a sense of the common good. When community breaks down (as it easily does in a purely competitive situation), people become isolated, and spiritual needs often end up being expressed in questions about what God can do for us. When faith is all about meeting our own needs, nothing less than a totally divine saviour will do, and then we stumble over the idea that Jesus ended his life rejected by all. Some of them will say, “Well, Jesus really was God, so the crucifixion didn’t really matter.” This is an ancient heresy, called “Docetism,” the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human.

Make no mistake: Jesus was as human as you and me. He ate and drank, he slept, he wept, he felt all the things we do. And just as surely, he died as all of us will in our own time.

Jesus gave up his life on the cross to reveal the power and the wisdom of God—already embodied in his own person.

As Paul wrote:

… though he was in the form of God,
   (he) did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.                                       (Philippians 2:6-8)

The cross defies any ordinary human explanation. There’s no logical deduction, no “standard wisdom,” no simple text-book answer that leads us to the truth of the message Paul brought to Corinth.

God’s power and glory is revealed here, not in a mighty triumph, but in the death of one who was sinless, who gave up his life as a holy sacrifice on behalf of all of God’s people. It is the ultimate act of self-identification with us: all whom Jesus came to redeem.

So: what do we see when we look at the cross?

Let me rephrase the question: what do we see not when we look AT the cross, but when we look THROUGH it?

It is not so much the cross that should demand our attention, but the reality that lies behind and beyond it: the loving-kindness of the God who loved us into being, who loved us enough to send his Son, and who loves us and all humanity every day of our lives.

Let us then hold the cross before us.

Let us see in and through it how Jesus laid down his life for us, in the ultimate and defining act of love, in words from the 1st letter of John.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.                                                    (1 John 3:16)

And Jesus said

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12)

The message of the cross is the power of God, and the power of God is love. May this be our proclamation in word and deed, today and always.


Is it about you?

Last night, at All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Edmonton, Bishop Jane Alexander ordained three people to the priesthood and seven (!) to the diaconate. If I’m not mistaken, it was the largest ordination in this Diocese since at least 1986. The Cathedral was almost full, and there was a large turnout of the diocesan clergy. Some of us had speculated about how long the liturgy would take, and we were agreeably surprised when it came in at about 2 1/4 hours. I didn’t hang around too long afterward.  Bun fights in tight spaces make me a bit anxious, and my hearing issues (hypersensitivity to crowd sound at voice range) make it difficult to function in that kind of noisy environment. Nonetheless, I did have time to greet one of the ordinands, a person with whom I have had a long and special relationship.

I don’t ever recall being at an ordination service for so many people. Most of the ordinations I participated in during my time in the Diocese of Brandon were for individuals. I have no problem with the church celebrating the new ministry of a person who has been raised up for ordination. What has often troubled me is that these celebrations often become about the individual. Ordination should not be about a person having “made it,” but about the church renewing its leadership.

Last night’s service filled me with joy. I knew three of the ten ordinands personally, one better than the other two, but that’s not really the point. I saw ten (count ’em – 10!) people being affirmed in ministries that we prayed would be of benefit to the church and the world. It wasn’t about any one of them, but about the church engaged in the continuous and joyful renewal of its leadership. It was wonderful! I give thanks for the privilege of being present for all ten, even if seven of them were previously totally unknown to me except as names on a list.

On Holy Cross Day, our preacher recalled for us the love displayed and exemplified by Christ’s death on the cross. It doesn’t make sense to some people, but that’s okay. The ten who were ordained last night will share in proclaiming that truth, in their lives and their ministries. (Is there really any difference?)

Today, I welcome three people to the fellowship of the Holy Priesthood and seven people to the company of Deacons. May they continue to proclaim the love of God at all times and all places.

Finally my question to anyone who may be considering ordination in the church. Is your call about what YOU want to do, or about what GOD needs in the world. Is it about the church (God’s people) or about you? I pray that you may be able to answer that question prayerfully and honestly.

The Cross—From the Other Side

Notes for a Good Friday sermon preached at Holy Trinity Strathcona
Edmonton AB, March 25, 2016

3 crossesWhy did Jesus have to die?” is a very common question, arising from believers and sceptics alike.

St. Anselm’s simple answer, known as “substitutionary atonement,” was that this was the only way to pay the price for our sin. It has become the dominant answer in much of Western Christianity. The early church did not have the doctrine and the Eastern (Orthodox) churches have never embraced it, but almost every hymn in the Holy Week section of Common Praise shows its influence.

The doctrine found early roots in the High Middle Ages, a troubled and turbulent era, when many theologians emphasized the wretchedness of human existence. Its influence continued into the Protestant churches, finding fertile ground in the teaching of John Calvin and his followers.

It works on a kind of quid pro quo economic system: Everything has a price, so somehow someone has to pay the price of sin.

However—it’s a very troubling doctrine in many ways, depicting God as vengeful, demanding blood sacrifice – of his only Son! Some have called it “divine child abuse.”

Under Anselm’s system, the Incarnation (God taking human form) was necessitated by the need for the cross. Jesus’ ministry was almost by-the-by. Our creeds don’t help us in this respect: both Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds contain “the great comma,” sliding directly from Jesus’ birth to the passion.

As one writer pointed out in a recent blog, the whole thing could have been accomplished much more quickly if Jesus had perished with the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem.

There are other problems, but let’s not spend much time on them. Let’s instead try to look at the death of Jesus of Nazareth through the teaching of another medieval saint – Francis of Assisi, who turned the whole equation around, only a century after Anselm.

Francis held that God’s fundamental act of redemption and salvation was the Incarnation. By entering into human life, God blessed and redeemed all of human existence. God loved humanity enough, that to step into our midst, and pitch his tent among us. And the Incarnation led inevitably to the cross.

What do I mean by that? Simply put: when the Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, “flesh” included and assumed all of human existence. Jesus had to die because Jesus was human – and human beings die.

This human being differed from all others in his pre-existence as the Word (Logos), but as a human being he lived into the failings, all the limitations, all the frailties of ordinary people like you and me.

This human being – God incarnate – came to his own people – and “his own knew him not.” He was rejected by those who should have known him, religious leaders who accused him of blasphemy, people who looked for a human solution to their oppression and found Jesus wanting, leaders of the nation who were prepared to sacrifice one man for his supposed sedition to keep the peace, disciples who were drawn to him but could not hear the fullness of his message.

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
(Isaiah 53:3-4)

He came to bring divine light into this world. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) Jesus came to open the doors to eternal life. And what does that take?

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)

This is the action of a loving God – who desires that all his people should share his divine life, which is what eternal life means.

Jesus offended the blinded leaders of his nation by his words and actions. He made their lives uncomfortable, making it expedient to have him executed.

Crucifixion makes an example of the offender. It did so in this case, but ultimately not in the way his accusers could ever have imagined. Jesus died as one of us, taking with him to the cross all our triumphs and defeats, all our joys and sorrows, all our gains and all our losses. He died the most shameful death his age could give him. He died a criminal’s death, turning that death into victory, shaming those who wielded the lash and drove the nails, triumphantly proclaiming at the last “It is finished!”

He took the worst the powers of this world could muster against him, and turned it against them through the power of love.

In his birth, in his life, and in his death, God in Jesus took upon himself all that it means to be human.

When we rejoice, remember how Jesus rejoiced over his disciples.

When we weep, remember that Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb.

When a child is born, remember that Jesus also was born of a woman.

And when we meet death, remember that Jesus also knew its pains.

Today we remember that God loved us so much that he gave us his Son to lead all people to eternal life. As we look to the cross, let us see not a sign of shame and suffering but the throne of the King of Glory. Our King is crowned with thorns, his face streaked with tears for the people who would not receive him as their king, and handed him over to the powers of this world.

Today and every day, Jesus weeps for us.

Today and every day, let us weep for him and with him.

But finally let us remember that today is not the end of the story. We will tell the next chapter over the great 50 Days of Easter, as we rejoice in the fullness of God’s salvation of the world.

[repeat John 3:16-17]

Thanks be to God!

Wearing the Cross

Notes for a sermon for Holy Cross Day, 2014, at Holy Trinity, Edmonton.

Texts: Num 21:4b-9; Ps 98:1-6; 1 Cor 1:18-24; John 3:13-17

cross222At Choir practice on Thursday night, one member asked what this “Holy Cross Day” was. Good question! It goes back to the year 335, when the Church of the Resurrection (now called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem was dedicated. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, the chief organizer of the building of the Church, had found some wood on the site which she held to be the True Cross of Christ. The day became associated with the exaltation of the cross as the symbol of Christ’s victory. It has been in the calendar of the RC Church and many Orthodox churches ever since.

In Anglican practice, it was regarded as a lesser feast, which meant it was never observed on a Sunday. The revision of the calendar in the BAS raised it to the status of a “Feast taking precedence over a Sunday.” Because it’s on a fixed date, it doesn’t turn up very often—today is only the fifth time since the new calendar came into use, and the first since 2008. I am glad that Fr. Chris chose to celebrate Holy Baptism on this day, because the symbol and the sacrament are closely related. The cross is the most widely-used symbol of Christ’s victory over death. In Baptism—the sacrament of new birth—a person is brought into participation in the Risen Life: the old self is dead! Our practices of Baptism obscure that a bit, but if you have ever taken part in an outdoor full-immersion Baptism, the symbolism can’t be missed. There’s danger here!

In that light, we observe that the cross can be a powerful symbol of danger and death. Again, our practices have tended to shield us from that reality: it can be hard to see a gleaming, jewel-bedecked cross as an instrument of torture and death, but that’s where the symbol comes from.

The cross was almost unknown as a symbol for the church’s first three centuries. The most common symbol was a fish. At a time when Christian faith was at best tolerated by the state, and at worst persecuted, the cross was a reminder of Imperial oppression and cruelty. Perhaps paradoxically, the use of the cross as we now know it only began to appear after Constantine had made the faith legal, and after the abolition of crucifixion as a mode of punishment and execution—right around the time when his mother is said to have discovered the True Cross. (If that seems like an odd coincidence, well…maybe it really isn’t.)

Revolutions bring huge changes—that’s what the word means! Among other things, Constantine’s religious revolution made the church safe for the first time in its history. Somewhat ironically, the church then adopted the most “unsafe” symbol of all as its emblem. This exemplifies the upending of so much of the Church’s life in the 4th Century, some of which we heard about in the first session of our Thursday morning study. For one, we heard how Harvey Cox in “The Future of Faith” called the pre-Constantinian period “the age of faith” and the subsequent era “the age of belief.” The two things are not at all the same thing: belief has to do with thought, while faith has to do with action. “Belief” in this sense is a noun, while “faith” is really a verb.

The early church was primarily concerned with how people lived and behaved—a desire for “orthopraxy.” After Constantine, the church’s focus changed to what people thought—a desire for “orthodoxy.” Harvey Cox suggests that we are now in the early days of a new age of the church, which he calls “the age of the Spirit.” The cross stands as the pre-eminent symbol of the age of belief, and it has often been used to teach particular beliefs.

When I say “the cross,” you might well ask “which cross?” The commonest version is the so-called “Latin cross,” like the one I’m wearing; there are many variations on this very simple theme. Every one recalls in its own way the death of Jesus, but various churches and movements have adopted particular kinds of crosses, sometimes for historical reasons, but very often to emphasize a particular way of understanding Jesus’ death.

Latin crosses have no figure of Jesus, reminding us that Jesus has passed through death to the Risen Life.

Crucifixes remind us of Jesus’ suffering, a key aspect of substitutionary atonement, one doctrine of how we are saved through the death of Jesus.

Orthodox crosses have three horizontal pieces, a visual reminder of the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion.

Each cross in its own way recalls Jesus’ death and resurrection—the central story of the mystery of salvation.

To recall the story and to seek to understand it is one thing: that’s a matter of belief (orthodoxy). It is entirely another thing to ask “so what?” What difference does the cross make in our lives (othopraxy)? What kind of mission does it point to in the life of the church and of us as individuals? What difference will the cross on our candidate’s forehead make in his life?

It seems to me that we can talk about a “cross-shaped” or “cruciform” mission. The cross on which Christ gave up his life for us was rooted in the earth, reached up to heaven, and outward in loving embrace. Christian life and mission should therefore:

  • Be rooted in the here and now of human life.
  • Reach upward, seeking to want what God wants.
  • Not condemn, but reach out to the world.

And, above all:

  • Reveal the self-giving love that led Jesus to the cross.

Every Christian wears the cross, invisibly from our baptism. Many choose to wear visible crosses like lapel pins, neck chains, or bumper stickers. Whether visible or not, the question is then: do our lives reflect and proclaim the message of the cross we bear?

As we have inherited it, the cross stands as a challenge to the existing order: the symbol of state oppression and cruelty becoming the paramount sign of holy freedom and love. As Paul said, it was (and still is!) foolishness or a stumbling block to people outside the faith, but “to those who are the called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

May our lives, and the lives of all the baptised, proclaim the power, the wisdom, and the love of the God who gave his only son “in order that the world might be saved through him.”