A sermon for 17 Pentecost Year B Proper 19 from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, Amen.
Oh, Peter. He was so close. The Teacher asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and he all but raised his hand like Hermione Granger on a double espresso and blurted out The Right Answer: “You are the Messiah.” Dingdingding! Gold star, A-plus, yessssss.
And then, he blew it. When Jesus began to speak of rejection, suffering and death at the hands of the authorities, Peter just couldn’t help himself. “No, no, Jesus, that’s not what Messiahs do.” Jesus’ hissed response, “Get behind me, Satan!” has become a catchphrase for anyone rejecting evil or temptation. What a way to be remembered.
Peter has gained quite a reputation for cringeworthy moments in his spiritual journey. But perhaps we should give him a pass here, because isn’t he actually articulating our own discomfort at Jesus’ words? Like Peter, wouldn’t we sometimes rather focus on the good stuff about Jesus– the life and ministry, the healings and miracles, the Christ at the right hand of God, without having to deal with the pain and messiness of a suffering Savior, and what that means for us as Christians? There are those who find a focus on the Cross—particularly the image of Jesus upon it—to be distasteful; to be too much of an emphasis on guilt and suffering rather than on joy and love.
The other day, wandering around the Nave, I was a little surprised to see this conflict reflected in our own beautiful windows. At both East and West, the central figure in the window is Christus Victor and Christ the King, respectively. These are the largest, most commanding and attractive images, showing strength and glory.
Yet, as Jesus pointedly stated to Peter and the disciples, we can’t have glory without suffering. And sure enough, a closer look yields, on the west, the Crucifixion at bottom center. On the east, we need to hunt a little more. See it? Way at the top. I almost missed it. But notice that Christ’s hand in the center, raised in blessing, points straight at the image of the Crucifixion—an unmistakable connection. (I don’t know if that’s part of the iconography, but there it is.) Peter couldn’t avoid it, and we can’t either: We must let Jesus bear the Cross. And we must try to understand what it means to bear it ourselves.
This past Friday the Church observed Holy Cross Day, the commemoration of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 335. While the Christian household observes times of veneration of the Cross at different points during the year, especially on Good Friday, the Lutherans and the Anglicans observe Holy Cross Day in September. It’s a little jarring, isn’t it, to find oneself pondering the Cross, not in Holy Week when winter still hovers over the bare trees, but in the golden mists of autumn when thoughts of homecoming and new activities seem much more appropriate than meditation on the Cross and the Crucified One.
This disconnect–this tension–is perfectly appropriate when you consider the circumstances under which the Cross became a symbol, not just of the Church, but also of the Empire that tried for years to eradicate it.
After the conversion of Constantine in 312, when he had a vision of the Cross that he believed gave him victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which resulted in his becoming Roman Emperor, Christianity became safe from persecution; its followers free to come out of hiding and to worship publically.
No longer a vulnerable, marginalized, countercultural movement, the Way of Jesus became the religion of Empire, from which some say the faith has yet to recover. Verna Dozier, in her book, The Dream of God, refers to this moment in history as the Third Fall—the first being Adam and Eve in the Garden and the second when the people of Israel insisted upon a king—choosing the kingdom of this world over the kingdom of God. Dozier writes that while many say that 312 was when the church subdued the state, that it was actually the opposite; the state domesticated the church.
The story of the finding of the True Cross bears this out. Constantine’s mother, Helena, oversaw the excavation of Jesus’ tomb, over which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now sits. This is where the True Cross was reportedly found and identified as authentic when it was brought near enough to a sick woman to heal her. This simple wooden cross was divided into three parts and distributed to three centers of the faith: One part stayed in Jerusalem, one went to Rome, and the third to Constantinople, it was said, to render the city impregnable through its miraculous powers. The nails were also found, and Helena had them incorporated into the Emperor’s helmet and his horse’s bridle.
Think about it.
A simple wooden cross. An instrument of imperial torture made the protective symbol of that same Empire. Housed in silver and gold reliquaries. Carried into battle ahead of armies. It’s like incorporating an image of an electric chair into the Great Seal of the United States. The irony is outrageous.
Christianity was now safe from Empire, but at what cost?
How does the irony of Empire and the Cross play out today? What does the Cross say about our Christian identity and how we act in the world? What do people see when they see someone wearing a cross? Do they see a follower of Jesus, or do they see only the irony of a complicit church? Do they see the gold and silver-encased Cross in the halls of power, where faith is measured by prosperity, or do they see the simple wooden Cross standing outside of those halls, calling those inside to see that Gospel faith is measured by surrendering to compassion, forgiveness, and justice?
Or to put it more starkly, how does the Cross save us? In close proximity to power, or in opposition to it?
Isn’t that what the conflict between Peter and Jesus was all about in the first place?
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Peter was able to identify the Messiah, but he had yet to understand how Jesus would turn the concept of the Messiah, and the world itself, upside-down. Peter didn’t understand that an abundant life is one that is given away. He didn’t understand that the way of the Cross is the way of love, not the way of might.
This is what Peter had yet to learn, and frankly what a lot of us need to embrace as well: that Love is the foundational principle of the Cross; God’s transformative love for Creation, for the vulnerable, and for the suffering. A deep engagement with the meaning of the Cross needs to begin here—with Love–not with guilt, but with compassion; because that is the true nature of Jesus’ free and costly gift of himself—to show us that death and evil and injustice do not have the last word—love and life do. We see on the Cross the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of all of the marginalized, the forgotten, the Crucified. The Cross calls us to really see them as Jesus does and to love them and to become conduits of healing for each other and the world.
That, friends, is how the Cross claims us and bids us bear it.
The Cross isn’t a magic wand to grant our every wish, nor is it a rod to punish us for our mistakes. The Cross–no matter how it is portrayed in art on walls or in stained glass, or in the jewelry we wear–the Cross, first of all, is what marks each Christian at Baptism, calling us to bear it with humility, vulnerability, forgiveness and, above everything else, with the Love that is woven into all of Creation.
That is where we begin.