Today is all about the Cross.
This weekend, many Christians around the world are celebrating Holy Cross Day – a Holy Day that, according to our own church calendar, ranks just below Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost.
This celebration of the Holy Cross is an opportunity for us to look at the cross once again, something we normally do in Lent and particularly on Good Friday, but to see it now with a different emphasis, to look at it in a different light.
Historic and Individual – Cosmic and Corporate
On Good Friday – and the majority of other times we think to the Cross – the focus is on the earthly work which Christ accomplished for us. What do I mean by that? Well, the focus is often on the Cross as an instrument of death, the Cross as the place where an angry crowd, a crowd in which we all find a place, was spurred on by jealous politics and empty pride to put an innocent man to death, a death, as we hear each time we celebrate the Eucharist, he freely accepted, offering himself to reconcile humankind with God. The focus, almost exclusively among some of our Christian brothers and sisters, is on the blood that was spilled, in keeping with the Old Testament imagery of sacrifice, where since that first time that animals were killed to make clothing to cover human nakedness, it was blood that paid the price for the shame of our sin.
On Good Friday, the focus is so often on the individual. Even in our music – “When I survey the wondrous cross”, or “were you there when they crucified my lord?”.
That focus on the individual isn’t a bad thing – in fact – to quote another old song, everyone one of us, at some point, need to decide for ourselves if we will follow Jesus (“no turning back, no turning back”).
But as good as it is to focus on the Cross as a place of sacrifice for us as individuals, and to focus on the Cross as a historical event which we recall when we gather, that’s only part of the story.
Today, the Church gives us an opportunity to view the cross not as an instrument of death, but as the symbol of victory; victory, once and for all, over the grip of death; victory, once and for all, over the power of shame and guilt for past wrongs to which we are shackled, and which so often hold us down until we’re crushed under their weight.
Today, the Church invites us to look at Christ’s death on the cross not only as a historical event impacting your individual life, but to view the power of the cross on a universal, cosmic scale: that singular moment of sacrifice and victory as a ‘big bang’, if you will, that ripples out through the whole created universe, changing the very fabric of life itself, as everything that happens when time and eternity meet, in that moment after we take our final breath, is forever changed.
Today, the Church invites us to think upon the power of the cross as it really is; though, like a star being born in a distant galaxy, the light, the experience of that truth is not yet visible to us as we journey through this mortal life.
Death defeated by death.
In the Cross, Death is defeated by death.
In the Cross, Death – the power of the grave over creation – is itself defeated as it tries to close its jaws on the one who cannot die.
And, in that moment, the lifeless body of the incarnate Son of God lying in the tomb becomes not a sign of weakness or mortality, but, as the scriptures say, he becomes the firstborn from the dead – a new “Adam”, piercing the veil between life and death and opening the door into the new creation – and, again as the scriptures tell us – not the fluffy, disembodied “heaven” of fairy tales or romantically inaccurate Sunday School lessons, but to lead us into the city of God, where we, in our resurrected bodies, share in the life of the resurrected Christ.
Of course, “death being defeated by a man who dies” hardly looks like victory to those looking on. Indeed, in our epistle today, Paul admits this as he calls out, “Where is the wise man? Where is the teacher of the law? Where are the philosophers of this age?” Come, explain this, teachers and lawyers! From a human perspective, from those only thinking about creation from our little place in the vast universe, “the cross is foolishness”. But, Paul quotes from Isaiah 29: this is no surprise, for God says that in the day when his power is put on display, the world will be turned upside down, the wisdom of the wise will be destroyed, and all the understanding and theories of the intelligent will be frustrated as a new structure is put into place.
We see this new structure, death defeated by death, foreshadowed in Moses. Like so much of what Jesus does on an eternal and universal scale, we see it first in earthly, human terms as God delivers his people Israel.
They are led through the Red Sea from bondage into freedom, as we are led through the waters of baptism. They are fed in the desert with food from heaven and water from springs, as we are fed with the bread of life and drink from the cup that runs over. And they are led through by God through a time of wandering in which they learn what it means to trust in God and to repent and return when they go astray, as the Holy Spirit leads the Church in our own day.
In the lesson we heard today from Numbers chapter 21, we find God’s chosen people growing impatient and wavering once again in their obedience and trust; as a result, they come across poisonous snakes who begin biting the people in their tents. Realizing that it was God who was protecting and providing for them, they repent and beg for the snakes to be taken away – and God says to Moses, make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and lift it up for the people to see; anyone who is bitten can look upon that pole – a sign of God’s power over creation – and they will live.
The very thing that was harming them – snakes – was defeated as God claimed his authority over it; and in looking upon it, they were healed.
We, like all people, are chased and bitten by death.
And, Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man will be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life”.
Death itself, an innocent man, beaten, bruised, stripped, shamed, tortured, abandoned, and hung to die – is defeated as God claims his authority over it; and that gruesome image becomes the gift of life to all who believe.
The power of the Cross is the triumphant power of life over death itself.
Searching for the Lost
But it’s not enough that God would defeat death and then leave us to figure it out.
The glory of the Cross – indeed, our whole faith — is that God himself sees the worth, sees the intrinsic value in each human man, woman, and child made in his image, and seeks to bring them home.
It’s that wonderful parable of the lost coin.
This woman has lost no ordinary coin. Rather, in 1st century Palestine, one sign of a married woman was a set of coins sewn to her headscarf; some suggest this was part of the dowry, and in times of need – like if the woman were to become a widow – it formed a small savings that could be used.
It’d be like one of us today who lost a wedding ring.
The ring might not even be of great monetary value – it might just be a plain gold band – but in the eyes of the ones who gave and received it as a sign of their vow, it is of incredible worth.
You look, you look again, you clean the house, you retrace your steps, you do all in your power to recover that thing that means so much because of the pledge, and the love attached to it.
And the Cross is the story of that person searching for that which is of great value, as each and every person – regardless of what they did with their life – bears the image of God, and was wired to live in relationship with him.
This is that part of the Creed that we recite each week: Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, he was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.
Or, in the older prayerbook language it’s even stronger: he descended into hell.
Think about that: God loves you and me and every person that he has made so much, that Christ not only died, but descended to the place of the dead in order to find and release those who were in bondage.
This is where the New Testament would speak of Christ preaching to the dead as his body rested in the grave on Holy Saturday, like the shepherd or the woman who doesn’t rest until every effort has been made to find that which has been lost.
And, in the parable, there’s great rejoicing when that which was lost has been found; and in the Power of the Cross, Jesus himself becomes that strong man of Mark chapter 3, who ties up Satan and the powers of Death, so that he can plunder his house, and that house – the place of the dead – now divided against itself will fall as Christ arises victorious, leading captivity captive as he invites us to share in his risen life.
This is the power of the Cross.
Not a fairy tale or a distant historic event, but a cosmic event whose ripples are moving throughout creation until that day that the light of that Truth finally reaches our eyes.
So, we live in hope – eyes firmly fixed on the Cross – that tool of death that becomes for us the way of life, as the one over whom death has no power destroyed death once and for all.
as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness – look up, and live. Amen.