Friday, March 25, 2016

Redeeming the Cross

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22:1-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18.1—19.42
Friday, March 25, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

We have just heard John’s account of the Passion Narrative. The horrifying and shocking story of the last few hours of the life of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. A man who is sinless and without guilt. How this righteous, sinless man was falsely arrested, subjected to a mock trial, found guilty in a miscarriage of justice, and sentenced to execution by crucifixion. By being nailed to a cross – not just a means of death, but a cruel instrument of torture. Said to be the most painful and horrific form of execution ever devised. As we witness these events, we undoubtedly, and rightly, feel such a mixture of emotions. Negative emotions. Shock, disgust, dismay. Now, as we stand at the foot of the cross looking at the innocent man hanging there, how can we not feel a sense of sorrow? And what else? How do you personally react, what are you feeling, as you stand here, looking up at the cross? And what of the cross itself? Particularly in light of what we have just witnessed?

Throughout Christian history, we have used the cross as a symbol of our religion, of our faith. We adorn our buildings of worship with crosses, inside and out. Some very simple. Some very ornate. Some that are an empty cross, as when Jesus’ body was removed for burial. Some that contain a corpus, an image of Christ still hanging on it, as at the moment of his death. Despite the form, these serve as a sign of what such places are about.

Some of us adorn our bodies with crosses. Again, of varying designs. For some such adornments are for mere decoration. For many of us, wearing a cross is a subtle statement of our faith. I personally always wear a cross. Most of the year, it is a Christus Rex or Christus Victor – a cross with an image of the Risen Christ, adorned in glory. A symbol of Christ resurrected. A symbol of who he is and what he has accomplished for us. For me. But during Lent, I switch to a simple cross of nails that I got at Coventry Cathedral. In Lent, when we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem and to the foot of the cross, it does not feel right to wear the cross of Christ’s victory, but rather a plain cross, which can symbolize so much, depending on how you think about it. But there are two days a year when I wear no cross. After the Maundy Thursday service and the stripping of the altar, when all symbols of Christ’s presence are removed, I remove the cross of nails from my neck and put it away for another year. For Good Friday and Holy Saturday, until the Great Vigil, I do not wear a cross. Just as the stripped altar is a sign that Christ is no longer in this world, my not wearing a cross is a reminder for me that Christ is in the tomb. That for these few days, his presence is absent from the world.

Years ago, my then rector, now my friend and colleague, David, preached a sermon about the cross. It may have been Good Friday. Probably was. In that sermon, he talked about how, in a way, it is actually pretty ludicrous, even revolting, that we adorn our worship spaces, and our bodies, with crosses. Because what is the cross? In its original context, it is nothing short of a symbol of oppression, an instrument of torture, and a means of death. As David noted, it really is the same thing as if one would wear an image of an electric chair around their neck. After all, the cross was the electric chair of its day. It represents the same thing – death, the end of life – sometimes justified but sometimes of someone who is innocent.

But the good news of this day, the reason it is (maybe not historically, but from my perspective) given the paradoxical name of Good Friday, is what is accomplished by Jesus on the cross. As we heard in the Passion Narrative tonight, the very last thing that Jesus says from the cross is, “It is finished.” “It is finished.”

Not that his life is finished, as some think. But rather, the Greek word translated “it is finished” is tetelestai, an accounting term that literally means “paid in full.” In using this term, Jesus declares that the debt owed to God has been wiped away completely and forever. He has eliminated humanity’s debt of sin.

Another term that is sometimes used in accounting that also applies in what transpired on the cross is reconciliation. The act of being brought into balance or harmony. Of being restored to wholeness, to relationship. The debt owed for our sins has been paid, reconciled. And in the process, humanity is reconciled to God, brought back into right relationship with God. This is what the cross is about. Bringing about reconciliation.

Back to my Lenten cross. I mentioned that I got it at Coventry Cathedral, in England. This has particular meaning for me, and makes this cross particularly appropriate for Lent, because of what happened at that place in World War II, and since.

From September 1940 through May 1941, England suffered a series of bombings by the Germans, collectively referred to as the Blitz. During the first three months of the Blitz, the industrial town of Coventry endured 17 bombing raids. On the night of November 14, 1940, 515 German aircraft bombed the city. It was the most devastating destruction to date. Perhaps most devastating was destruction of the Cathedral of St. Michael. All that remained were the exterior walls, leaving an empty shell. During clean-up efforts the following day, the cathedral stonemason saw two charred wooden beams lying in the shape of a cross. He tied the beams together and placed the makeshift cross on the altar of rubble. Sometime later, Fr. Arthur Wales, a local priest, made a cross from three nails from the roof truss of the old cathedral. The cross of nails that would come to symbolize Coventry Cathedral, and so much more.

The old cathedral ruins remain as a monument to the bombing and the folly of war. Cathedral Provost Richard Howard had the words “Father Forgive,” from Luke’s Passion Narrative that we heard on Palm Sunday, inscribed on the wall of the old cathedral. A new cathedral was build In the 1950s alongside the ruins of the original. The cross of nails now sits in the center of the altar cross in the new cathedral. This cross has become a symbol of peace and reconciliation across the world. Today, there are some 170 Cross of Nails Centres all over the world, committed to working for peace, justice, and reconciliation. All of them bearing a cross made of three nails from the ruins.

In the Coventry cross of nails, a symbol of complete and utter destruction has become a symbol of reconciliation. Just as the cross on which Jesus died, once a symbol of torture and death, is now a symbol of reconciliation. Of the reconciliation between God and us, his beloved children.

In a few minutes, we will have opportunity to venerate the cross. To approach the cross as if we are actually standing there at the foot of the cross on which our Lord was crucified. As Christians that is our rightful place – at the foot of the cross looking up at the one hanging there for our sake. Who stands in our place being judged guilty for our sin, so that we might not have to face that same pain ourselves. For that is the harsh reality of our faith. This is not about feeling a sense of guilt. This is about love. This is about gratitude. Because the other reality of our faith is that Jesus chose to go to the cross for us. We didn’t have to ask. Who of us would dare to ask someone to do something like that for us? But it was done by his choice out of love for us.

As we stand at the foot of the cross this night, we recognize that yes, something horrific did happen here. But we also recognize that something absolutely astonishing happened. In the pain and suffering of the innocent man who hung there, the pain and suffering that could have been caused by the sin of each of us, of all humanity, has been averted. The debt has been paid. In so doing, we are reconciled to God. And the ugliness of the cross is redeemed, transformed from an instrument of death into a means to new life.


No comments: