Allies of the cross
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
March 17 2019—Lent 2C
Phil 3:17-4:1; Psalm 27; Mary Oliver’s “Snowy Night”; Luke 13:31-35
Brothers and sisters, as Paul points out, so many people live as enemies of the cross of Christ. And “their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and … their minds are set on earthly things…” (Phil 3:18-19). They feed themselves with hatred. And sometimes they arm themselves to the teeth, and they walk into mosques and they slaughter 50 of our Muslim brothers and sisters. And I do not know what the killer’s religious background was this time, and I do not much care. Because all I do know is that anyone who acts out an abomination like this has declared themselves an enemy of the cross of Christ.
Anyone, no matter what their faith. Even if they happen to think they are doing it in the name of Jesus, they are actually an enemy of the cross of Christ.
The cross, after all, is not simply a code word for “the church.” The church is perfectly capable of neglecting the truth of the cross. Because the cross is unsettling. The cross upends things. The cross stands against any system based in violence and retribution and insists that God has another way. The cross reminds us that God walked Godself right into the center of that system, was condemned and tortured by that system, and then overturned it not with bullets, not by the sword, but with a resurrection that proclaimed the ultimate power of forgiveness, love, and life.
The enemy of the cross then, is anyone who chooses violence and revenge, anyone who seeks victory through domination and death. In other words, the enemy of the cross does the exact opposite of what Jesus does. I mean, look at the gospel today! Jesus knew he was angering the political and religious authorities. He knew that Herod wanted to kill him. He could have stopped what he was doing, or he could have allowed his followers to take up arms. But he didn’t do either of those things. Instead, he continued his mission, and he walked the good news of the kingdom of God right into the earthly heart of violent oppression, and he let that kingdom put him to death.
And then, God raised him from that death. Which transformed the cross from a sign of Rome’s violent dominion into a symbol proclaiming the power of God’s kingdom. A kingdom of justice and mercy, of repentance and forgiveness, of healing and feeding, of the last becoming first and the first becoming last.
The cross, then, has no shelter to give to anyone wanting to justify his violent, hateful opposition to a person or group. That is an earthly thing, and its end is the destruction of all.
But what about the flip-side? What is it to live as an ally of the cross? How might we live a love so deep it can brave all consequences? How can we be a force for healing the wounded, and feeding the hungry, and freeing the imprisoned in this world?
Where do we even begin? The enemies of the cross, after all, begin with a conviction: that the most powerful force in the world is violence and the threat of death. As allies of the cross, we must ground ourselves in a different conviction. One that seems, I admit, much less evident than theirs. But nonetheless, we begin with the conviction that love and forgiveness are actually more powerful than violence and death.
It seems crazy, which is why we are best able to learn it at the foot of the cross itself. And according to John Green, it might help if it’s a really REALLY big cross!
He tells of encountering (as one does, when one travels by car across the Midwest) the world’s largest wooden crucifix. It’s over 30 feet high, which means you’ve got a 20 foot Jesus up there. And he was approaching this as though it was a roadside attraction. But when he got there, he describes, “Looking up at the crucifix, all at once I was overwhelmed by a feeling I could not name. … I was consumed by awe: not just wonder, but also fear. It was not a comfortable feeling, nor an entirely pleasant one, but I didn’t want it to end.” He said he felt very small, like when “the distance you’ve tried to create between yourself and the world falls away, and you’re left exposed to the beauty and the horror of mortal consciousness.”
And then he heard a voice. The only time, he says, that God ever spoke directly to him: “You’ll be okay.” And the truth of that pierced him. “Of course I know I won’t be okay,” he says. “But I also know I will be. And ever since I visited the world’s largest wooden crucifix, I have been seeking the reconciliation of those two contradictory facts, both of which I know to be true.”[i]
It’s a paradox. It’s absurd and it’s contradictory, and it’s a truth we best receive when awe has knocked us off our certainty. There, on our proverbial knees, we can breathe in a truth as immense as the universe and as tiny as mustard seed: love is, against all evidence, stronger than hatred, stronger than despair, stronger than death. This is the completely absurd and completely true truth of the cross, and to be an ally of the cross is to live with this conviction as your superpower.
The world needs a hero my friends, and nothing can stop you! Amen.
[i] John Green, podcast, “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” episode 8: “Whispering and the Weather,” released September 27, 2018.