the treasure of the core stories of Scripture: the cross

Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 9:21-25, 23; Hebrews 2:10-18; Philippians 2:1-11

The cross—the crucifixion, the suffering and the death of Jesus—collectively called the passion of Jesus comprises the bulk of all four of the gospels. It’s vitally important. I have a commentary on Mark, in fact, the title of which, A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Robert H. Gundry), suggests that everything in that gospel is offered to help understand the cross.

You wouldn’t get much argument from many that the cross—the crucifixion of Jesus—constitutes the center of our faith, and the cross is indubitably the symbol most identified with our faith. No other image even comes close. It’s an image at the heart of much of our theology, many of our hymns and lots of sermons. As such, it’s an image in our sanctuary. It’s in fellowship hall. It’s on top of our steeple. We give an olive wood cross necklace to each person we baptize. When Heike, Greg and I robe, we wear olive wood crosses over our robes. It’s our bulletin cover this morning.

Within all these affirmations, a comment—a reminder amidst the decor and the architecture and the jewelry, all the symbolic imagery—a reminder of the gruesome reality that the cross was the electric chair of its day—the brutal means by which the powers that were executed their enemies. I can’t quite wrap my head around a gold or silver (or olive wood for that matter!) electric chair pendant on a chain, an electric chair at the front of a sanctuary, on a steeple, on a bulletin cover, so the fact that I don’t think twice about the cross thus presented should probably make me think at least twice about the cross thus presented.

Having thought about the cross a good bit more than twice this week, what do we say? What do we say in our worship about this core story about an execution? And we could go into all the gory details of a scourging and a thorn crowning and a crucifixion as described in the gospels. I’ve heard some sermons like that. And there’s some value to knowing. But I saw The Passion of Christ and the violence and the gore, in and of themselves, really don’t do much for me. What Jesus went through—the painful specifics of what Jesus went through—become important only because of why he went through them. What was so important to Jesus that he would endure what he endured seems to me the more significant question than what did he endure?

See, here’s the thing: we have this tendency to separate the parts of Jesus’ story from each other. Even our core stories do. We talk about Jesus’ life and ministry, Jesus’ passion and the resurrection as if they were distinct from each other. Part of the point of that commentary on Mark is that that’s totally inappropriate. We can’t (at least we shouldn’t) separate the cross from the living that led to the cross and the aftermath of the cross. And it was, in fact, the particular and the intentional living of Jesus in response to the call of God to be as God that led inexorably to the passion. It was because of his living (the depths of his living) that he endured his dying (the depths of his dying).

So back to our question about what to say. We could talk about Jesus dying well. No small feat that. And we know of what we speak. Important people here at Woodbrook have died well. We’ve had good models. Whether we think back to John Duvall or Sonya Park or more recently to Margaret Oshida, we know people whose faith led them to invite us to walk with them even into the shadow of death there to find in them, even in their dying, the light shining that no darkness can overcome. A too easily overlooked truth in Jesus’ case with all the attention given to other aspects of what his death meant. He died well. No small feat.

Or we could talk about his death as a meaningful death—a death full of meaning. And what I mean by that is that it wasn’t a natural death; it was a death foreseen—a death that could have been but was not avoided, but that was neither sought after. And we’re back to the living that led to the dying—to the being put to death—the uncompromised priorities that constituted and still do constitute such a profound challenge to the status quos of then and now. There’s value to that. There’s a lot of value to that.

I actually come back to this regularly: the “yes” more important than any subsequent “no’s”. Nothing—nothing makes of the cross a joy for Jesus, but at the same time it was his deep joy that led to the cross—a life of hope, of grace and faith and love, of seeing the beauty and value in all things and in all people, of consistently committing his living to his best understanding of God’s desires, not to the worst inclinations of human desires. The death of Jesus was loaded with the meaning of his living.

And again, we know of what we speak. We’ve seen meaningful deaths and heard about the “yes” that shaped those livings and sustained them in the face of death. In a speech in Memphis the day before he was assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.” In an interview a couple of weeks before he was assassinated Oscar Romero said, “If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people … A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” In the same interview, he said, “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.” Jesus’ meaningful living led to his being killed and a death we look to as full of meaning.

All of which is well and good, but at what point do we begin talking about Jesus as salvific—as qualitatively different from anyone else? When do we talk about Jesus making our salvation possible—restoring right relationship with God? A lot of traditional language and theology would suggest it’s precisely in his suffering and death: the fountain of blood, lift high the old rugged cross.

As part of such a focus on the death of Jesus, there’s much talk about the sacrifice of Jesus (either as Jesus’ willing act or as God’s requirement), but in the case of sacrificial language (substitutionary atonement, theologically speaking), the life is important—is valued—just so the sacrifice is pure. And that sells the life short. So we say Jesus lived a sinless life to die for us—a perfect and complete sacrifice. I don’t think so. Makes us a little too important. And Jesus didn’t die for God either. Jesus lived for God and for us in such an uncompromised way that led to his being put to death. It’s not that Jesus wanted to die, it’s, again, that he wanted to live and live in such a way that led to his being put to death. If you don’t sell the life short, you can’t make it all about the death—about a sacrifice. It is rather about the commitment to the priorities of the living—the absolute commitment to the priority of God.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America wrote about going to a tent revival to hear a preacher stressing the importance of believing in Jesus to get into heaven. As she looked around at the people who were struggling just to feed themselves in this world, she thought, “Jesus makes his appearance here as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist is never mentioned once, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.” Barbara slipped out of the service when the preacher wasn’t looking her way and remarked as she went out into the darkness to look for her car that she “half expected to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole” (quoted in Don Flowers, “God’s Journey With Us—the Cross,” preached at Providence Baptist Church, Charleston, SC, April 17, 2011 quoting Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America [New York: Henry Holt, 2001] 68-69).

We’ve said an emphatic “no” to that. We’ve suggested it inappropriate to separate the death from the life, the crucial words of Jesus from the cross of Jesus, the sayings from the suffering, the path from the passion, the teaching from the taunting. I started having too much fun with that. I had the parables from the pair of thieves, but decided not to push it too far!

This is important, isn’t it? To be able to consider precisely what it is that’s vitally important. Isn’t that, after all, what we’ve been trying to do with all our core stories? Asking what is it that matters most here? What is this story trying to say? And now here we are at Jesus, asking those same questions. I wondered about this last night. Is this important—at what point we start talking about Jesus as salvific? And it is. Not sure it’s interesting, but that’s a different question! As Christians though we separate this particular story (this story of Jesus) from the rest of the story (of God with God’s people). Then we separate this one into parts. Then we say this part (the passion, the death, the resurrection) is most important when, in fact, I suspect it’s the whole story of Jesus that’s reflective of the whole larger story that’s what’s most important.

Part of the gift of our core stories is the way each is seen as commentary on the other—elucidation, elaboration in which the larger story—the primal narrative—is illuminated. And last week, we noted that the life of Jesus resonated with the core stories that have guided us through the primal narrative of God. We said we believe the story of Jesus illuminates most clearly, but doesn’t illuminate anything new or different: the call of God, the desire of God to bless everyone, the call to be as God is and to lead those suffering out of their bondage, the affirmation that within the presence of God, we move forward and that whatever the circumstances that unfold, God will work with us to resume God’s story, and what we have today is no different.

Even before we get to resurrection accounts, we know to trust the story—to trust God. You see, before there’s ever the resurrection of a person, we have seen and heard—we have experienced (time and time again, actually) in the primal narrative of God—throughout these core stories— the commitment of God to always be God—to always be with us—to always work for the redemption of all—to work within all the ways we twist the story—to work for what can yet be. And so we have, in truth, seen and heard and experienced the resurrection of a story—the resurrection of a relationship—the resurrection of hope and belief—time and time again. That’s what we’ve been discovering through the primal narrative of God, isn’t it? That whatever we do reject and betray the being of God, to flaunt the commandments of God, to crucify our relationship with God, God still always resurrects love and possibility.

That’s so very important because part of the challenge that is the death of Jesus on the cross is explicitly not just about Jesus. Right? He commissions us—all his followers: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Mark 8:34-35; Matthew 16:24-25; Luke 9:23-24). As unique as the cross of Jesus is, it’s also example for all of us who seek to follow in the way of Jesus.

Which means what? Live with your death? In 2005, Steve Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University and asked, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” He went on to say of his own living “whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” Good important words. Is that what we’re talking about? Kind of makes it all hypothetical, doesn’t it? Pick up your hypothetical cross—your daily Ash Wednesday reminder that you are dust and to the dust you shall return.

But sometimes it’s not hypothetical and at the time of that commencement address, Jobs had already been diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer. You know the expression, “Well, that’s my cross to bear.” Not one we hear that much any more actually. Used to be more common I think—and used to say, “That’s what fate has sent my way.” “That’s my problem in life.” “That’s my diagnosis.” Not to make light of the profound problems many face in life, but that’s not what we’re talking about.

The expression used that way suggests that our inconvenience becomes our discipleship—our problems—our challenges. What we have to put up with is our faith. And we might be back to dying well and a potentially meaningful death, but unless we’re talking about having lived in such a way that the status quo commits its vast resources to squelch us because of our opposition to its priorities and presuppositions, that’s not our cross to bear.

One of my favorite folk singers, John Gorka (we actually saw him here in Baltimore now several years ago at the Cellar Stage over on Harford Road in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Irene. The power was out at the venue, and they had a bunch of candles out and he opened with “This Little Light of Mine”)—anyway John Gorka sings, “I didn’t know where to look for you last night. I didn’t know where to find you. I didn’t know how I could touch that light that’s always gathering behind you. I didn’t know that I would find a way to find you in the morning, but love can pull you out of yesterday as it takes you without warning…. It’s from me, it’s to you …. It’s a weight, a wonder that is wise. I am here; you are there. Love is our cross to bear” (John Gorka, “Love Is Our Cross to Bear,” [High Street/Windham Hill, 1990]).

There we go. Love is our cross to bear. The living we are called to embrace. The “yes” that sustains us—that justifies the “no’s”—that makes consequence bearable. So our questions for today—even in the shadow of the cross: does love characterize our relationships —not just with family and friends, but at work? At the club? The gym? The restaurant? The service station? Does love inform the way we treat each other? Is love of God’s creation manifest in our relating to the earth? Does love characterize the treatment of the “least of these” in the cultures of which we’re a part? Do we work toward that? Does love drive our financial planning? Our calendaring? Our priorities? Our politics? Our commitments? “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” Love what you do, yeah, that’s great, but we’re talking love of God, love of self and love of neighbor. We’re talking about a loving living working toward the blessing of all people and the redeeming of creation.

“If any want to become followers of Jesus, let them live love daily—and follow love into thus following Jesus and conforming our own living to the still ever unfolding primal narrative of God.” The living words of Jesus that shine even in the deepest valleys of the shadow of death for the people of God gathered for worship in this place.

Thanks be to God.

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