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The Place of the Cross

Sermon - 3/22/09
Michael Kennedy
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Galatians 6:14-16

May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

One of the key symbols of our faith is the cross.  We see it on the top of the church, we find it adorning graves, and we wear small ones around our necks.  What I want to explore with you today is the proper place of the cross. 

One possible place to locate the cross is in history, for indeed the crucifixion was an historical event.  The Biblical narrative by John tells us of the original location of the cross:  “So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Scull, which is Hebrew is called Golgotha” (John 19:16b-17).  Luke said:  “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:33). 

The famous Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, who wrote The Antiquities of the Jews, a history of the Jewish people from creation to the end of the first century, recorded this in the reign of Pilate:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, a doer of wonderful deeds, a teacher.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. . . And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men around him, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named for him, are not extinct at this day. 

Thus, there is no doubt that the cross is a part of the historical events and is properly located there in the first century.  But, is that the only place or even the best place to locate the cross?

One of the dangers is that we can simply see the cross as an historical event and nothing more—something that happened back there, awesome and noble, but with little relation to the here and now.  We can become more comfortable with the cross located back then because it makes no demands on us; we can study it as a founding event of our faith and leave it there, in the first century. 

Another place that we can and do locate the cross is in the church.  We have indeed placed the cross in the church and the church has taken it for its symbol.  The cross has been placed on banners, erected on steeples; we have constructed sanctuaries in its shape, and elevated it to prominence in the front by the pulpit.  It often becomes an architectural element, carved into the ends of the pews or on doors.  It has been covered with gold or silver or precious jewels, its design has varied to fit its surroundings.  It has been made in miniature so that the church members and clergy can wear it on rings or on chains around their necks.  I often make it a game to see how many crosses I can find in the church, especially when I attend a new service. 

Here, again, it is an appropriate place to locate the cross.  It belongs in the church and it can function as an aid to help us remember what Jesus gave for us, whether it is at the front of the sanctuary or if it is worn as a necklace.  The cross belongs in the church but the church has not always made appropriate use of it.

The church has painted out its ugliness, provided it a placed of prominence and reverence, and then proceeded to forget what it symbolizes.  The church often welcomes its beauty and overlooks its demands.  The church has relaxed in its compassions but has been insensitive to its commands.  The cross indeed stands appropriately in the church as a call to sacrificial concern, not as simply an object for adoration.

Actually, it is Jesus himself who tells the proper location for the cross.  In the Lukan passage read this morning, Jesus says:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke9:23). 

The old poem puts it this way: 

            Though Christ a thousand times
            In Bethlehem be born,
            If he’s not born in thee,
            Thy soul is still forlorn.
            The cross on Golgotha
            Will never save thy soul,
            The cross in thine own heart
            Alone can make thee whole.

 

The believer must take the cross and locate it in his or her life.  It cannot be forced upon us.  We have to accept it.  And the unavoidable hardships of life cannot be equated with the cross.  Rather, the cross is that which causes us to step out of our accustomed and anticipated way and clasp it to ourselves—perhaps first for its comfort and compassion to us, but then as followers of its insistent challenge.  The cross is never adequately located until it has not only charmed us but has changed us, until we have moved from admiration for the love it symbolizes to a new life based on its demands.

At a youth meeting held in the sanctuary of a church that I served, I noticed a lovely worship center featuring a beautiful painting of Christ that had been placed at the front of the church.  After the service I happened to move to the front of the church to converse with someone, and in passing I looked more closely at the worship center.  The lovely painting was made to stand by being propped against an object a little smaller than the painting itself which was hidden by the painting.  The object it rested against was a cross!

Here to me is a parable of our plight.  Having created nice and lovely pictures of God and humanity, of ourselves and the nature of the Christian life, we blot out the view of the cross; we hide it so that we cannot see it.  In the worship center of our lives we mask the cross and its demands so that we can paint pictures that are more to our liking. 

What does it mean to locate the cross in our lives?  Part of what it means is to be aware of the needs of all of our brothers and sisters, for whom Christ died.  It means not placing ourselves first but becoming the servant for the other.  It means listening to the pain and suffering that is present in so many lives.  It means deciding where our talents and skills and knowledge can best be used and then, daily, doing what we can to be Christ’s hands and feet.  It means praying constantly for God’s strength so that we can take up our cross and follow him.

Let the time be now during Lent, and the place be in our own lives, when and where we locate the cross.  Jesus calls us to, daily, take up our cross and follow him.  We dare not mask it or try to paint over it so that we will not see its demands.  We need to proclaim with Paul from this morning’s scripture:  “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

Let us pray:  Father, help us to locate the cross in our own lives so that we may live in accordance with your call to us to follow you.

 

 


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