Back from Holidays and Back to Preaching. Which is a good thing. 🙂
Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 3 September, 2023. Lessons for this Sunday (Yr A): Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6,23-26,45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16: 21-28
“… Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and be killed, and on the third day raised” (Mt 16.21)
For Christians, the cross has been a symbol of our faith almost back to when the church first began, but there are different crosses and some are easier to look at then others. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first let me tell you a brief (and I hope relevant) story about my time as a military chaplain when I was confronted with a certain cross.
If you drive out of Medicine Hat, Alberta, and head west on the Trans Canada Highway, in about forty kilometres you’ll come to a small military base called Suffield. I was posted there in the summer of 2010, and when I arrived, I was shown the chapel where I would conduct Sunday services.
The chapel was an old, long rectangular hut. At one point it had housed the Protestants at the south end and the Roman Catholics at the north end, but in the years after mandatory church parades had thankfully ceased, changes came. The Roman Catholic wing was deconsecrated and turned into an army wives club, and all of the furnishings ended up in the Protestant side.
When I went there to get my handover from the outgoing padre, he opened the chapel doors and the first thing I saw behind the altar was a large wooden cross, about six feet tall, and on the cross was carved the lifelike body of the suffering Christ, what our Catholic friends would call a corpus christi. The padre explained that the cross was carried over from the Catholic chapel, along with the stations of the cross and the statues of Mary and Joseph, and had all stayed there.
It was a bit of a shock to see that cross there, because it’s not something that Anglicans, or Protestants generally, are used to seeing. The crosses we put in our churches, or which some of us wear around out necks, are almost invariably empty. Now my congregations were temporary, and tended to change as people came and went; there were some Catholics who thought an Anglican eucharist was close enough, there were British Army Fijians and Africans who just wanted to sing, but there were always some protestants, pentecostals and Mennonites, who were just a little freaked out by that body on the cross.
As one said to me, “Padre, we need to get rid of that cross, we’re not Catholics”. To which I said, “That’s not a good enough reason, that’s just tribalism. You’ll need a better reason than that to make me change my mind.” I never did hear a better reason, and I could never think of one.
I have heard the argument that Protestants display empty crosses in our churches because we are a people of the resurrection, but that’s just tribalism with a little theological window dressing. All Christians are properly people of the resurrection, but some of us may prefer the empty cross because we like Easter better than we like Good Friday, or some of us may just have trouble looking at that body on the cross. And if that’s true, then maybe we are in good company and may we have more in common with Peter in today’s gospel than we might care to admit.
Poor Peter. In mid August we heard how Jesus pulled him from the water and hauled him to safety, and I guess Peter had some time to think about that, because last Sunday we heard him tell Jesus “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16.15), which earned him a blessing and the title of the rock on which Jesus would build his church. Well done, Peter. Top marks.
Sadly, today Peter goes from Hero to Zero. He simply can’t accept Jesus’ teaching that he is going to Jerusalem to suffer, be killed, and rise again. It’s as if Peter is so appalled by this prediction that all he heard was “suffering” and “be killed”, and so couldn’t hear the words “rise again”. You can’t blame him, really, because the resurrection was so far beyond Peter’s understanding that Jesus’ friends at fist couldn’t believe that he’d risen.
I think for we who know the whole story, it’s easier to think about the risen Christ than it is to think about the suffering, dying Christ. I well recall watching the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ” and being repulsed by it’s stomach-turning, graphic scenes of Christ’s flogging and crucifixion. It’s a film I would never watch again. Once was enough.
But there was a time when Christians made the body of the suffering Christ a key part of their piety. Where in the early centuries of the church the figure of Christ on the cross was serene, by the later Middle Ages His tortured body was depicted realistically. The topic of the Five Wounds of Christ became central to poems and mediations to inspire the faithful to love and adore Jesus for suffering for them. It’s this old tradition of piety that Gibson as an extremely traditional Catholic was mining in his film.
Now you don’t have to wear a cross at all, or if you do, it doesn’t have to have the body of Jesus on it, and don’t worry, I’m not about to put one in the church. But, just as Jesus scolds Peter and tells him to pay attention to his prediction of his death, so must we not look away. We may be Easter people, but we can’t airbrush the body of Jesus off the cross. What happened on the cross, however horrible, was necessary and good, an extraordinary act of God’s love for us.
The theologian Karl Barth wrote that all that happens in the gospels, the whole story of our salvation, “is essentially the history of the passion” (CD IV.1.167). The cross is the great moment in the gospels, the hinge on which everything happens.
Think about where we are today in the story. Think about everything that’s happened so far in Matthew’s gospel. All the teachings, all the parables, all the miracles, everything that has led up to this moment where Jesus has revealed himself to the disciples as the Son of God, and Jesus doesn’t mention them now. It’s as if his achievements thus far are unimportant compared to what he must do.
What he must do. Notice that Jesus says “that he must go to Jerusalem” to die and suffer. That word “must” speaks of something unavoidable, something essential, something that absolutely has to be done. Jesus is speaking of nothing less than the Father’s plan to save us. To save us from the judgement. that we deserve. To save us from the collective guilt of our sin.
It is as if Jesus is already seeing the people of Jerusalem before Pilate shrieking “Give us Barrabas” and “We have no king but Caesar”. And don’t we on Palm Sunday see in these words our terrible human frailty, our tendency to go off the rails and put our faith in idols and bad causes? Isn’t this exactly what the Prayer Book means when we confess that “there is no health in us?” Jesus knows that he must die if we are to be saved from our selves.
The theological word we need here is “atonement” which basically means how God saves us from the judgment that we deserve. Jesus saves us by taking on the judgement that we deserve, but as he says to Peter and the other disciples, if we want this salvation, then we must be willing to be changed, even die.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
These are hard words and time doesn’t permit me to speak much to them, but here’s what they don’t mean: Jesus isn’t saying that suffering is good. Jesus isn’t saying that everything about our lives up to now was bad and must be cut loose. I think what he’s saying is that if we want to follow Jesus, then we must want to be changed.
Here’s the essential way in which Christianity is different from the religions that went before it. Barth wrote that until Jesus, humans prayed to gods to give them more of the same: more fertility, more power, more crops, more wealth. But Jesus says, no, I’m not going to give you more of the same. Jesus says, I want to change you.
Any maybe that’s the scary thing about the cross for us. Maybe it’s not just Jesus’ body that we see there, maybe it’s our body. Maybe we’re afraid of the price Jesus might ask of us, maybe we’re afraid of change. But if so, this is the same sort of fear that we have before going to the doctor and hearing about a difficult surgery or course of treatment. At the end of the day, don’t we want to be better?
And that’s the thing about our call as disciples, that if we want to follow Jesus, if we want to be at peace, then the way leads to the cross. As Paul writes in Colossians, it’s though the cross that we find peace, peace with one another, peace with God, pave with useless: “through him God was pleased to reconcile us to himself in all things, whether in earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:19-20).
This is the peace that comes when we let go the old selves that we don’t much like. Our selfishness and suspicion? Jesus says, let them die on the cross. Our fear of the stranger? Jesus says, let it die on the cross. Our dislike of the homeless and the poor? Our prejudices and our angers? Jesus says, let them die on the cross. Our shame from the past and our inabilities to forgive or to ask forgiveness?, Our resentments, our jealousies, our petty intrigues? Jesus says, let them all die on the cross.
The cross is our way to new life as disciples. There is no other way. And it is a good way. It’s a peaceful way. It’s the way of life.
So at the end of the day, does there need to be a body on the cross? Well, it depends what you want to be grateful for. If there is a body, it is Jesus who died for us because he was faithful and obedient to God who loves us and who wants to save us. And if the cross is empty, it is because Jesus has gone ahead, to invite us into the new life that we were always meant to enjoy.
Maybe the cross is like a coin. Full or empty, both are valid, both are signs of God’s love in Christ, and both should inspire our love, our gratitude, and our adoration of Jesus who saves us.