Scripture: Psalm 27:11-14 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Princer of glory died;
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Writing to the new Christian community in Corinth, Paul establishes the cross as the central paradox of the Christian faith. It is hard for us in the twenty-first century to appreciate the impact his choice of metaphor must have had upon the ears of our first century ancestors. First century Roman subjects harbored no ambiguity regarding the cross. For them the cross was the unmistakable symbol of Roman oppression and brutality. Crucifixion reigned as the favored official method of keeping subjugated people in line. That Jesus hung on the cross for three days can be described as getting off easy. Most people placed upon a cross remained there on display long after death. The official purpose of crucifixion extended beyond the offense of the individual. Crucifixion was intended as a warning to others. That is why crucifixions were public affairs. Behind every crucifixion was the tacit warning, “This could be you.” This is the context in which the Christian message of discipleship took hold. “Take up your cross and follow.” “Be crucified with Christ.” Paul is kind when he describes this as foolishness to the ears of those who are lost. It is more than foolish. The cross was a scandal to the common sense of every first century heart. It represents extreme paradox – a kind of cross purpose that stunned first and invited later.
It would help if we could recapture a sense of the scandal of the cross. Instead we have cleaned it up. Our crosses are likely to be pretty and polished. In our time, the cross is more likely to be a fashion statement than a faith statement. We tend to do that with things of great power. In trivializing a symbol we avoid the message it conveys. We wear it on the surface in order to avoid making it real in our lives. Frequently, the crosses we display demand nothing of us. We wear them and then go on about our lives with no thought as to the sacrifice and the triumph over death that the cross of Christ represents. Mostly we intend no disrespect in the wearing of these crosses. It is simply that the cross of Christ is too profound for us to keep at the forefront of our consciousness. Things of great power and meaning need to be kept under control or they will completely take over our hearts.
For nine years during my active ministry, I served on the Board of Ordained Ministry examining candidates for ordination. I always described that experience as the most difficult work I ever did for the church. In that process we liked to ask each candidate weighty theological questions. Over and over again we ask what each candidate thinks about God and Jesus and salvation. Over and over again we hear that Christ died upon the cross for our sins. Candidates told us that on the cross God gave his son as a sacrifice for our sins. They told us that Jesus expects us to take up our own cross and follow him. They told us that in the cross of Christ I glory. It was all very well meaning, all very earnest, and all very sincere on the part of both the questioner and the questioned. I’ve had a long time now to reflect upon that experience and I have come to the conclusion that it also seriously missed the mark.
I know how harsh this sounds. Maybe it’s just me. I confess to you that I do not like this assessment. It feels to me like the beginnings of a small faith crisis in my life. After so many repetitions even great fundamental elements of my belief have begun to sound like silly gibberish. That God would require the sacrifice of God’s own son – that the cross was God’s conscious intention for Jesus – that the suffering and the death of Jesus was the result of following some pre-ordained cosmic script. These are all elements of faith that I have accepted. They all represent ways that I have thought about the cross in my life. I remember at one point looking out on to the expanse of Lake Huron and praying that God would allow me to know less about what these candidates think about Jesus and more about how they experience Jesus and through experiencing Jesus how they experience God, and having experienced God, how they intend to live. It is a good thing my days of appearing before the Board of Ordained Ministry as a candidate are over. As a retiree I have the luxury of entertaining a small crisis of faith.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.
It is not the doctrine of the atonement that my heart longs for. It is the experience of a God who in the form of Jesus of Nazareth loves me to the point of willing suffering. Jesus did not face the cross to play out some cosmic script. Jesus faced the cross because evil and sin cannot stand the presence of perfect love.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Surveying this quality of the wondrous cross I come to realize that salvation has less to do with my gaining a heavenly reward and much to do with my living a Godly life. The mingling of God’s love and sorrow upon the cross calls me to a life in which I expect to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living – in which I expect to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. These are the words of Psalm 27. They speak of experiencing God now in a re-presentation of profound love. Love willing to face the cross calls the same out of us.
But the love of the cross is mingled with sorrow. Do I advocate a return to a dower and joyless Christianity? I do not. I do advocate a love that sticks and I advocate a love that tolerates failure. Thus sorrow becomes part of the mix. This is a love more profound than the love understood by the present culture. We live in a world where love is trendy and lacking in endurance. Surveying the wondrous cross I see a love that will not let me go – a joy that seeks me through the pain – a love that calls me to live likewise.
Fred Craddoc, storyteller and preacher par excel ant, warns that one of the dangers of the coming season of Lent is that we confuse confession and meditation as a form of self-examination. We think Lent is about knowing ourselves better. But Lent is about knowing God better and renewing a place for God in our lives. Lent is about self only so far as it invites us to place the truth of ourselves before God and in the direct path of God’s healing and forgiving love Lent invites the healing of our spiritual selves through the giving up of that self to God. Witness the metaphor of the cross itself. The instrument of death is transformed into the gateway to true and meaningful life.
Now, when I survey the wondrous cross I no longer worry about substitutionary atonement theory or any other ancient church dogma. Now I see God’s persistent and inclusive love at work in my life. I think of the love extended to me by this congregation through the long months of Terry’s illness and in the years of healing that followed. I think of the joyful love that Jane and I now share as we recover from loss and recognize that it was God’s love that sustained us through our respective darkness and brought us together into a new future. This Lent I invite you to think on how you have experienced God’s love in your life. I invite you to reflect on how you might live in such a way that God’s love flows through you to others in need of that love. Survey the wondrous cross and respond. The ancient implement of death has been transformed into a present symbol of love. It demands more than just a chain around our necks. It claims our very lives in response.
Hear it once again.
Where the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands me soul, my life, my all.
Thanks be to God!