Meaning of The Cross

Sermon First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles, November 11, 2012

1 Kings 17:10-24, Mark 12:38-44

I used to love playing monopoly with my brothers and sister years ago on the farm. We were pretty poor, but as we sat around the kitchen table, throwing our dice and romping around the board, passing Go, collecting $200, buying railroads and utilities, property of all sorts, we felt rich. The worst thing that could happen to us was landing on, "Go to jail, Go directly to jail"! There we would have to sit until we threw doubles. Unless of course, unless we had the magic "Get out of jail free" card.

If we had the Get out of jail free card all we had to do was play it and we were off and running, free once again. You might say, redeemed by the card. That was the smart play. You'd have to be pretty dumb to have a Get out of jail free card and not play it. Particularly early in the game, when the board was full of possibilities.

Today I want to talk about our "for real" Get out of jail free card. That of course, is Jesus’ action in freely giving up his life on that most primitive execution device, a wooden Roman cross. What Jesus did on the cross, and the events immediately leading up to it, are called his Passion. This entire event, in its full sense, is a sacrifice. Jesus willingly sacrificed his life. He sacrificed his life in a powerful act which "balanced the books" of the universe. This sacrifice, of course, is in effect our "get out of jail free card" for those who choose to play it. We'll talk more about sacrifice later. But for the moment, let's talk about the cross.

The hero of this action is Jesus. The cross itself is a passive actor in this drama. The cross did not do anything. Two wooden beams, a primitive man-made tree, happened to be the execution device of choice at that time. Somehow, over the years, the cross has been elevated to an exalted status replacing the first symbol of Christianity, the fish. The early symbol of the Christian church was the sign of the fish. The Greek word for fish, ιχθων (icthus), is an acronym for the Greek phrase, “Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior.” Early Christians would recognize each other by making or displaying the sign of the fish, as a symbol of their belief. When an early Christian met someone who might be a believer, he would draw one shallow arc, and if the stranger drew the second half of the arc, completing the sign of the fish, he was a friend, not an enemy. The fish was also featured in Jesus' feeding of the multitudes, in the events of letting down the nets, in his breakfast after the crucifixion, in Jesus' challenge to the Apostles to make them "fishers of men," and perhaps most important, in the sign of Jonah - three days in the belly of the fish - which Jesus fulfilled by his history-changing resurrection after three days in the tomb.

But soon the cross took over as the Christian symbol. Maybe the sign of the fish wasn't heroic enough for Emperor Constantine. The cross looks more like a sword, and maybe it fit the imperial image of a triumphant, militant Christianity conquering the world better than a floppy fish. Certainly after Constantine, the cross supplanted the fish as the symbol of Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity.

Presbyterians historically do not feature the cross. In recent years crosses have popped up on some Presbyterian churches in America. This is not traditionally Presbyterian. Part of the reason is that Presbyterians typically considered members to be the Church, not the building. The building was the "meetinghouse"; just  a building to support the worship of God. The early Presbyterian immigrants to America considered themselves Puritans, referring to their separation and purification from the practices and symbols of the dominant Church of the time.

In Catholicism, the cross had become and still is very central in architecture, art and worship. Presbyterianism instead considers the pulpit as the central focus of worship. The pulpit is the focus of the proclamation of the word. And the proclamation of the Word is central to Presbyterian worship.

In recent times, some modern Presbyterian churches have departed from the austere focus of traditional Presbyterianism, and crosses began to appear on and in some Presbyterian churches. John Calvin would not have approved.

This does not mean that the cross and what it implies is not central to Presbyterian theology. Calvin, Knox and their Presbyterian followers wanted to avoid potential idolatry involved in the worship of any object, including the cross. Hence, no physical crosses. Our building is subtle in its acknowledgment of the cross. Like many churches and Cathedrals, our Sanctuary is cross-shaped. Craig tells me we even set the floor boards as the arms of the cross. As Craig has also said, the ceiling is a repetitive pattern of crosses.
However what the cross means, what it implies, and the lesson of the cross for the religious human being is critical to all branches of Christianity, and Presbyterianism in particular.

The Meaning of the Cross
What does the cross mean? What did Jesus mean when he says, "If you would follow me, take up your cross." Does Jesus mean he wants us to drag a piece of wood through the streets? Does he mean we should lift up a wooden cross at the head of our armies as we march against some foe or paint white crosses on our chain mail? Unlikely.

Some feel to take up your cross means resigned acceptance of whatever problems or infirmities life deals us. As in, "Oh, I have so many fat cells from my mother stuffing me as a child, I guess obesity is just a cross I have to bear." Or, "My boss is such a jerk, but I need this job. He's my cross I have to bear." Or, "Ah, my nagging spouse. He is my cross to bear."

As we recall Jesus' actions in Israel, he didn't say to the lame, the sick, the blind, the demon-possessed, "Learn to live with it. This is a cross you have to bear," Jesus urged them to do something about it. He asked them what they wanted, saw their faith - when it was present - and healed them. I don't mean to imply that God will heal or fix every problem we bring him. What I do mean is that passive acceptance of our problems without seeking solution is definitely not what "bearing one's cross" means. For truly incurable problems, I recall a better phrase I've heard holy women use. Rather than "bear your cross", I've heard them advise, "Give it to Jesus." The implication is Jesus can help you deal with this problem, don't try to carry it yourself. That is a very different attitude than passively accepting a bad situation as a "cross to bear."

If the Cross is not a militant, triumphalist flag, nor a burden to be carried passively through life, what is the meaning of the Cross? The Cross is the symbol of Jesus’ Passion. The Passion culminated in Jesus' sacrifice of self - and his resurrection. Not just sacrifice and death, but resurrection to glorified life.

Sacrifice is not a popular word today. This is November 11, Veteran's Day, remembrance of the reality of war and sacrifice on the part of everyone involved.  We now have a couple of generations that have grown up unfamiliar with the term, sacrifice. The closest we hear is, "No pain, no gain." As if the thought of immediate personal gain is the only reason to suffer or make any sacrifice. Politicians do not call for sacrifice. We can have everything. Guns, butter, wars and whipped cream can all be ours today and we'll pay for it later. As Wimpy used to say, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today." 

Our scripture lessons today are about sacrifice. Without mention of a cross, the lessons are about the sacrifice implied by the cross. Life and death issues. King Ahab, the worst king in the history of Israel, set up idols and a temple to Baal. God sent Elijah to let him know a terrible drought will hit the land and wouldn't be relieved until the Prophet said so. Our first reading takes place after God directed Elijah to get out of town fast. God sent ravens to feed Elijah by a brook. The drought got so bad the brook dried up, so God sends Elijah to Zarephath, on the Mediterranean coast. God tells Elijah he has directed a widow there to feed him. This must have been news to the widow, because when Elijah arrived she said, "I have no bread, only a handful of flour in a little jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am on my way to get some sticks to make a fire for the last meal for my son and myself, and then we will both die." The prophet says, "Go and do as you say, but first make me a little loaf of bread from what you have and give it to me, then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel says: 'the jar of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.'"

The widow obeyed God, and there was food every day for the woman and her son and for Elijah. The flour lasted and the jar of oil did not fail. In the mysterious epilogue, the woman’s son dies. She appeals to Elijah who carries the son to an upper room, prays to God, and the son returns to life. In obedience to God, the woman sacrificed her life as she knew it. In return she receives miraculous new life and the resurrection of her son. A foreshadowing of the cross.

Our New Testament lesson is also a foreshadowing of the cross.
In Mark's gospel Jesus is at the Temple. We're getting close to Passover, throngs are coming to Jerusalem, to the Temple. Jesus sits down right across from the large offering box where people are placing their offerings into the temple treasury. Jesus watches the rich throwing in large amounts of money. Then a poor widow shuffles up to the treasury box and carefully puts in two very small copper coins worth only a few cents. Jesus calls the disciples over and points to the widow, and Jesus says, "Truly I tell you this widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on." This was not a symbolic giving. The widow gave all. She gave her livelihood, her living, her self. Her life.

This happened only two days before the Last Supper. One of Jesus's final acts before his Passion, before the physical cross, was teaching the meaning of the cross through pointing out the life changing sacrificial action of this poor widow, a foreshadowing of the cross.

So what does this mean for us today. The cross was only part of the Passion story. Better we remember the empty tomb that could not hold Jesus. We are taught to live in imitation of Christ. This doesn't mean to go out of our way to speed up our physical death. Imitation of Christ is to freely let go of what the world values, what pumps up our "old self", our animal lives. Jesus taught us who are the Blessed:  heaven belongs to the poor in Spirit, the sorrowful shall find consolation, those who hunger and thirst for justice will be satisfied, the merciful will receive mercy, the pure in heart will see God, the Peacemakers will be God's children, those who suffer insult, persecution and slander for acting as Christ, these have a richness of life in the life to come. Jesus taught humility, not pride and self-importance, compassionate vulnerability not self-protection and vanity. This is sacrifice of the old, animal self.

Jesus willingly, in obedience to the Father, willingly suffered the humiliating and painful exchange of his mortal life. Jesus did this to re-weight the scales, to correct the distortion and imbalance in God's Creation caused by our selfishness and pride, our jealousy and envy, our anger and lust and greed. Jesus willing sacrifice created a limitless stack of "Get out of Jail free" cards available to anyone who repents of these sins and follows Jesus. The meaning of the cross is very simple, yet very hard. It's easy to wear a cross around our necks, but very difficult and painful to recognize and repent of our sins. It's not easy to put our old animal self to death. Our human nature struggles to live on exactly as before.

As Paul said, we want to put on our new selves, our new lives, like a new suit of clothes over our old body. Jesus demonstrated we have to die, die daily to self. This is our sacrifice. This is our cross. Daily death of our old self. But which of us is willing to do that?

As you struggle with life, as you work to live in imitation of Christ, remember how the Passion story ends. It does not end at the cross. It ends with the empty tomb. Death of self is rewarded by resurrection and a glory so great we can only see and hear in hints and glimpses. "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the heart or imagination of man, what God has prepared for those who love him." How do we show our love for God? "I urge you, present your very selves to him, a living sacrifice." This Church offers you opportunity to do this. Take it.

How do we sum up? As Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, we do not worship the cross. We worship the living God to whom the cross points.  And if we choose to wear the cross as a symbol of our faith, good. But remember, the cross means I am committed to sacrifice of my self, to put others before my self. The cross means I promise to forgive others all they have done to me - and the cross means I sincerely repent of my own sins and in humility and thanksgiving, I ask to be forgiven, and accepted and know that I am loved as I love – and we go on to share in “what God has prepared for those who love Him.”