Sep 142014

Today’s sermon, for Holy Cross Day and the second in our Fall series is here: A Cross-Chaped Church

Last week, we began to look around. We let our gaze take in the shape of our church. There’s the nave: the overturned boat inside which the faithful gather on their journey away from the chaos of sin and death and to God’s new creation. The chancel: the place that is separated, that is cut off, that symbolically expresses the place where we’re headed in our little ship. And there’s the transept: the aisle that both links the nave and chancel together and at the same time cuts across to keep them apart.

When the three sections merge in our minds, two shapes are encountered. First, there’s a human shape. There’s a head, shoulders and arms, and a body that together remind us of the cosmic scope of the Christian story. Christianity tells a story about humanity’s place in the world, and the about the God who has placed us here and why. Christians tell a story about the beauty, the wonder, and the power of creative love: the love of God from which the cosmos has come and to which it will return. The love of God that has made each of us a little lower than the angels and filled with dignity.

We noticed another shape, too, though. And this one is considerably darker. Nave transept and chancel also combine to form a cross. The familiar symbol for the faith as a whole and for its founder, the Lord Jesus. What does the cross-shape tell us about the God who is creative love? What does it tell us about the one who, in his own human body, became the person in whom God’s creative love was shown to be a strong and saving love? What does it tell us about the people who claim this story as their own? Those are the questions I would have us reflect on today.

That sounds fairly straight forward, but in fact this reflection is quite hard. Not simply because that’s a lot to fit into 17 minutes (yes, I do time my sermons), but because of our very familiarity of the cross as the symbolic expression of Christian faith. It might be wise for us to remember that it was not always so. In the first centuries of Christian faith, the horrible death of its founder was scandalous—to Jewish and Gentile people alike, whether they were his followers or not. For everyone, the cross was a symbol of the Roman power to take life, not of God’s power to give it. If we were to look for the cross, in fact, we would be hard-pressed find one in the first three centuries of Christian art. Today, after 1700 years of cultural acceptance, the cross is no longer simply a church decoration, it can be found everywhere. And in its omnipresence, it has been emptied of meaning.

If we are going to reflect together on the questions I just mentioned, and do it honestly and authentically; if we are going to wrestle with this hard part of the Christian story, then we need first to recover the scandal that the cross brought upon the first Christians. So let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose behind me on the reredos, or atop the crucifer’s staff, or large and gaze filling, as over the belltower chapel, you were to see a hangman’s noose. How would you respond? Viscerally? Negatively? Certainly you would! I would. Now, keeping that visceral negative lurch in mind, hear these words: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Christ, and him crucified.” (So wrote Paul to that educated, urban, and urbane group of Christians in the city of Corinth, reminding them of the horrific source of their saving hope).

In Corinth, as throughout the ancient world, the cross and its message scandalized Jews and Gentiles both. But early Christians could not excise the cross from their imaginations. It was part and parcel of the faith because it expressed something that actually happened. The one whom they confessed as Lord even over Caesar had been murdered on a Roman Cross. And indeed, they proclaimed, that death, that single event, was the site where the rift between human beings and God was bridged, where God’s enemies were defeated, and creation set right. The cross is thus both an offense, and the bedrock of the good news. Once we lay hold of both ends, the horror and the hope, we will be ready to reflect on the questions that come with a cross-shaped church.

What does the cross tell us about the God who is creative love?

It tells us that this God exercises his power in a way that looks awfully like weakness. The God of the Christian story is creator of all. “Baruch atah Adonai elohaynu melech ha olam,” if you’ve ever been to a synagogue or a Jewish wedding or funeral or bar mitzvah, you’ve heard those words. Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the universe. The Christian story cannot deny that any more than it can deny its own Jewish roots. Look at our scriptures—the Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible; the books of the New Testament with only two exceptions were written by Jews. But the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, does not exercise power the way we expect a king to do so. God exercises power by refusing to act as his enemies do. God exercises power by submitting to their judgment. God exercises power by going to the cross. God exercises power by giving up his human life.

And that is offensive. At least, it has been to many, many people. Not least, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This story, he said, valorizes weakness and dresses up the base in a false nobility. But of course, the offense is much older than that, isn’t it? What did Peter say when Jesus told the disciples that his way to glory was the way of the cross? “Surely not, Lord! This must never happen to you.” It’s offensive because it looks for all the world like a failure, like the worst of all disappointments.

Except. Except the creative love that is God, that was incarnate in the man Jesus, cannot stay dead. “I have power to lay [my life] down,” says Jesus in the Gospel of John, “and I have power to take it up again,” (John 10:18). The powers are free to do their worst. And Jesus on the cross submits, and yet refuses their word as the last word. He does not fight the enemy on the enemy’s own terms—with an army of angels visiting vengeance on the hordes of hell. He takes all his enemy can throw at him and swallows it in the divine mercy. And in the resurrection, the victory of mercy is announced. The last word is life. That is good news!

What does the cross tell us about the one who, in his own human body, showed God’s creative love to be a strong and saving love?

It tells us that the One who is both God and man knows what it is to suffer. There is a sense, of course, in which every instance of human suffering is unique. Tolstoy expressed it well in Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So it is with suffering. Every human being suffers; but each suffers uniquely. And yet, the God of creative love is not remote from such suffering, for in the grand refusal to abandon the objects of his affection, in the grand entrance into our space and time as one of us, he took on all that it meant to be human. He knows human suffering not in some remote way unique to being divine, but because as Jesus of Nazareth, God suffered as a man. So it is that, as the medieval imagination grasped during the plague epidemics that swept across the continent, this was one who knew what it was to suffer, and in some way suffered with them, even still, taking their suffering into his own being and offering it as a prayer for release to his Father.

It tells us, moreover, of the depth of his embrace of the human condition. If he has suffered even to the point of death, then he has left no depth unplumbed. He has taken all of it and made it his own. Whatever has not been assumed, said St. Gregory Nazianzus, has not been healed. What he meant was, the saving work of Christ depended upon his becoming human, his drawing of human nature—all humanity—into God by himself becoming a human being. If any realm of human experience, any space of human action, any piece of human being has not been been embraced by God the Son, then we are not saved. The humbling of Christ unto death, even death on a cross, is the Christian story’s way of saying, there is no remainder. He has embraced it all. And because he has, we are saved. That is good news.

What does the cross tell us about the people who claim this story as their own?

It tells us that we cannot save ourselves. That the fabric that once united God and creation, God and human creatures, has been so badly torn that it cannot be mended from our end. That all our attempts to mend it will finally fail. It makes plain the reality of sin. We’ve run into that word, sin, a couple of times. And perhaps we need to pause here to talk a bit more about it. The great Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge tells of meeting a parishioner having just come from a Catholic funeral for a teenager tragically killed in a car accident. “They prayed,” said the parishioner shaking with rage, “that she be forgiven her sins. This fourteen year old child. Her sins!”

Rutledge goes on to wonder why her parishioner’s imagination had so atrophied that she could not think of a teenager as a sinner. Perhaps it was because she was—like all of us—inclined to think of sin as a list of actions we shouldn’t do. Most fourteen year olds certainly haven’t got too long a list and whatever is on there can be excused because of youth, foolishness, and lack of life-learned wisdom. But the cross makes no allowance for age. It tells us—all of us—that sin has ripped us away from the God of creative love to such an extent that we cannot find our way back on our own. It is a sobering, even odious thought.

Except. Except that it also tells us of our value and dignity, the glory with which we were created. The glory we spoke of last week when we read Psalm 8 together. God will not leave his creation to its own self-willed destruction, and that means, that in God’s eyes we are still the objects of desire, delight, and eternal affection. God will not leave us on the wrong side of the rift. Rather than leave the rift in place and remain alone in glorious perfection, the God of creative love stepped across the abyss, entered into the mess, the suffering, the pain, the entirety of the human condition, embraced it and made it his own. “And he humbled himself,” chanted some ancient Christians, “and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” And Jesus did that so that no one would remain lost, isolated, and alone. So that no one would remain in sin’s prison. But that all would recover their true dignity as the image of God, and their true destiny as sharing as fully as a creature can in God’s creative love. That is good news!

But we’re not quite done yet. I just mentioned an early Christian hymn to Jesus that Paul preserves for us in his letter to the church in the city of Philippi. Here’s a little more of that hymn “who, though he was in the form of God, considered equality with God not something to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave and 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.”

What a beautiful expression of the cruciform shape God’s love took in the incarnation, ministry and death of Jesus. But let’s look now at St. Paul’s preface to the hymn: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in the Messiah, Jesus.” This mind. The mind that refuses the rights and privileges proper to one’s station. The mind that embraces radical obedience to God, even to the point of death. This mind, says Paul to the Philippian Christians—and to us—is to be in you, too! We serve not only a cross-shaped God, who embraced all that it means to be human for us and for our salvation, but as we do so, and insofar as we do so, we become a cross-shaped people. A people with the mind of Christ.

To love God’s creation even to the point of death, betting on the hope that creative love cannot abandon creation to destruction—now, that is an awfully big adventure! And that is the adventure to which the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth have been called. We are here, in this cross-shaped space, to become just a little bit more conformed to the cross-shape that is the shape of creative love in and for a fallen world. And I’ll talk more about that next week.


 Posted by at 12:29 PM
Sep 122014

As we celebrate Holy Cross Day on Sunday we give thanksgiving for the ministries of The Rev. Tim Perry and The Rt. Rev. Tom Corston who are celebrating the anniversary of their ordination to the priesthood. Congratulations Tim and Tom.  Joy  2014 -09-14PDF 2014-09-14 BCPPDF

 Posted by at 10:48 PM
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