September 14,, 2008
September 14th is Holy Cross Day – a festival dating back to early 4th century Jerusalem when a church was built over the traditional site of the crucifixion. There are many different versions of the cross, but whatever the version, it shows us Christ as an outcast, rejected, vulnerable. But to reflect on the cross is also to say as we do on Good Friday: “Behold, the life-giving cross.” What an odd juxtaposition of words: life-giving & cross. St. Paul goes so far as to say: Christ crucified: the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Seven years ago now when news of 9-11 first reached TV screens, a photograph showed a woman gasping and making the sign of the cross over her body – the cross: the power and wisdom of God. And many asked, “Where was God’s power on that day?”
A similar question was remembered by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Perhaps you’ve read his book Night. Wiesel tells of three people during the Holocaust being hung on gallows. Two were adults and died quickly. The third, a young child, had so little weight to his body that he hung there suffering. Someone asked in angry exasperation, “Where is your God now?” A voice behind him answered, “There is God on the gallows.”
That’s also where God was on 9-11 – suffering with all who suffered and suffer still. God suffers for and with life. That is the face of God we see in Jesus. Yet we say, “Behold, the life-giving cross.” In one of the beloved hymns of the church we sing “When I survey the wondrous cross.” There it is again, that odd juxtaposition of words: Wondrous/cross.
Life-giving, power, wisdom, wondrous – the church makes a strong statement here. Artists make the cross beautiful. We wear crosses around our necks. We make them into earrings. We hang them from ceilings and on walls. We decorate them; put them on buildings and on gravestones. It is a universal symbol transcending every language. Wherever we go in the world the cross identifies Christians. The cross is all this, yet we know the cross is much more.
In Martha Stortz’ The World According to God, she writes, “Too often Jesus’ words from the cross play with “Hallelujah” choruses in the background. [If] we fast-forward to Easter” (109) skipping over Good Friday we miss the power of God’s willingness to suffer.
The cross tells us how much God loves the world. It tells us God accepts suffering when that is what comes with choosing to love. The cross tells us God is so unrelentingly in love with created life that God enters it fully without destroying its freedom.
God could have prevented Jesus from being crucified, but that would have been to interfere with human freedom. God loves too much to do that. But in honoring our freedom, God’s freedom is not diminished. God’s freedom is seen in its power and wisdom to come up with another way. Jesus died and never came back to live and work as a Nazarean carpenter again. The life-giving nature of the cross isn’t as we often wish it was – a rolling back of time – letting life make better decisions or at least different ones than those that were made. The life-giving cross isn’t God altering Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial. What happened, happened. God didn’t interfere.
But God did love. Love is creative. It begins again. It makes new. And God’s love makes new in a startlingly unexpected way! The shape of the glorified cross is the same shape as the crucifying cross. The Easter cross is recognizable as a cross, but it is also radically new. Christ crucified and risen is recognizable as Jesus, but Christ is also radically new.
The disciples recognize him when he stood among them. He is the person they know. He still has nail marks in his hands and a spear wound in his side. He is the same, yet he is not the same – which is precisely the endlessly joyful gift and grace.
In love, God creates anew in continuity with the old. We die, but it is also we who are raised. We confess: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” But we do not mean by that, as Krister Stendahl makes clear, that we expect to live forever in our “little houses with white picket fences.” Life will be different, but it is us who God raises. It is us who are brought to new life – as Jesus was.
When Jesus is raised he is still known by the disciples, but he now walks through walls. He is hidden in bread and wine. He is recognized in water and word. His new body is present as the Church – living as he lived – loving enough to suffer for the sake of what God has in mind for creation.
Suffering goes along with following Christ in an imperfect world. Suffering cannot always be avoided when rules exclude and resources aren’t shared and jealousies wound and wars rage. To be a follower of Christ is to care as Christ cared that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. To follow Christ is to be willing to suffer for the sake of God’s reign of love.
We need not be afraid of this calling. The cross tells us we need never despair because God’s love will have its way – maybe not in the ways we hope, but surely in ways that surpass our expectation. Dr. Stortz also tells in The World According to God of a common complaint. You might have heard it too, or even said it yourself. She names the complaint: “I stopped going to church because it just wasn’t doing anything for me.” (9)
Stortz responds that church isn’t meant to do something “for” us. Its purpose is to proclaim what is done “to” us. In baptism what is done “to” us is that we become Christ’s body. What is done to us is a calling to be broken open for the life of the world on behalf of what matters – as Christ gave himself for what mattered. What is done to us is an encounter and empowerment to witness to God’s “love so amazing, so divine it demands our souls, our life, our all.”
Coming to church expecting something is done “to” us is actually riskier than if it was just a matter of hoping something is done “for” us. What Christ does “to” us as we gather around word and sacrament, in the midst of others willing to be done “to,” just might change us if we let it, empowering us for God’s purposes.
I find something extraordinary about the fact that the life-giving cross is still a cross – that Jesus still has nail marks in his hands. Two seemingly opposites are held together: the crucified is alive; the cross is wondrous. It is a mystery and a grace – God’s love embraces the worst and, in God’s good time, makes it come up roses.
The new is created in loving continuity with the old. Losses are not erased or denied, but are instead gloriously redeemed and joy gets the final word. “When we survey the wondrous cross; when we behold the life-giving cross; when we proclaim Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God” we witness to the heart of the Christian message. May we discover more and more what that means for how we, the Church, are to live as Christ’s body, given for the life of this world God so loves.
+Pastor Peg Schultz-Akerson, to the glory of God
Faith Lutheran Church, Chico, CA