Sunday, September 14, 2014
Homily for The Feast of the Holy Cross
John 12:20-33; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Numbers 21:4-9
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In 1951 the surrealist artist Salvador Dali painted an image of Christ upon the cross entitled “Christ of Saint John the Divine.” Now, while depictions of Christ upon the cross are anything but rare, most paintings and sculptures portray Christ crucified from the perspective of those gazing upon Him, looking up at Him or directly at Him. In contrast, Dali depicts our crucified Lord from the perspective of God the Father looking, not downward precisely, but down, and across, and upon Christ upon the cross and all the earth at the same time. This is to say that Dali’s “Christ of Saint John the Divine” spans the heavens over the face of the earth, at once enabling the viewer to step back and to ponder the universal significance of the event that is the death of the Son of God. As Christ proclaimed, “It is finished,” and breathed His last, so the Father gazes downward upon His mission accomplished for the life of the world.
Sometimes the surreal is simply more real that what appears to be reality. Indeed, Jesus Christ was crucified in atonement for the sins of the entire world, not just for a few thousand Jews, Greeks, and Romans residing in first century Jerusalem. Jesus Himself speaks of the cosmic ramifications of His crucifixion and death saying, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” This is the truth exhibited by Salvador Dali in his surrealistic painting, which is more communicative of ontological reality than the works of artists who tried to portray what Christ’s crucifixion might have really looked like as perceived with the limited perceptions of men.
Flesh and blood can only reveal a part of reality. Man’s eyes perceive a man dead upon a cross. Man’s ears perceive His perplexing words, faintly recalling the words of the prophets of old. Man’s hands perceive malleable and weak flesh, all too easily pierced and torn, mortal just like all men. But that’s only part of the story. There is a reality that is hidden to all perception but the eyes and the ears of faith. Those who are given eyes to see and ears to hear by the Holy Spirit of God through His Word confess the reality of who Jesus is and what He has done. St. Peter confesses, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” This truth was revealed to him, not by his flesh and blood perceptions, but by the Holy Spirit of God alone. So too did St. Bartholomew confess, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel!” And, St. Thomas confessed, “My Lord, and my God!” Even the demons, who see reality beyond the limits of perception, confess Jesus to be the Son of God. All of these could see that there was more to Jesus and, ultimately, to His cross, than meets the eye.
That’s why God prepared us to receive Him beforehand. God prepared us, not by giving us lots of impressive signs to see and hear, touch, taste, and smell, but he gave us His Word. Well, He did give us signs, but not often in the ways in which our sinful, fallen flesh, mind, and reason would desire. For example, God gave us the sign of the bronze serpent raised up on a pole. God had sent poisonous serpents to bite the children of Israel when they rebelled against Him and disobeyed, failing to trust Him to guard and protect them as He had promised. After many people died from the poisonous venom, the people cried out to Moses asking Him to pray that God would take away the serpents. Moses did pray, but God did not take away the serpents. However, God did provide a way that those who had been bitten could be healed and live. The LORD commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent and to raise it up on a pole, with the promise that whoever looked to it would be healed and live. This was a miraculous and marvelous sign to be sure! However, to the eyes and the ears of most it was absurd, offensive, and decidedly un-glorious.
This is precisely why Jesus alludes to that sign in the desert 1,500 years before His birth and He interprets it in relation to His being lifted up on the cross in death. Just as the children of Israel bitten by poisonous serpents could look to the bronze serpent lifted up on the pole and receive healing and live, so now all children of the New Israel, of all races, nations, and cultures, can look to Christ crucified and receive healing forgiveness and live. Indeed, Jesus’ prophetic words, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” were fulfilled in His death upon the cross for all people of all times and all places. Just as Dali portrayed in Christ of Saint John the Divine, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Thus, the cross of Jesus Christ and Him crucified is justifiably the center of our faith and our confession. We confess with St. Paul and preach Christ, and Him crucified.
But the cross is always offensive, scandalous, and even embarrassing. To the eyes and ears of men it seems pitiful, despicable, weak, and foolish. An ancient inscription was once found on the Palatine in Rome dating between the first and the third centuries. The inscription depicts a figure on a cross having the head of a donkey. Written in Greek beside it is the title “Alexamenos worships his God.” Mockery of Christians and their faith is nothing new. “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,” writes St. Paul, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Yes, the cross of Jesus Christ is the power of God, whose power is made perfect in weakness. On the cross, God showed the greatest love possible for you, laying down His own life and suffering death that you might live. And so, the cross is our faith and confession. The cross is our victory over death. We mark ourselves in the morning and in the evening with the sign of the cross, in remembrance that we were marked with the same cross when we were baptized into Christ. We begin and end our worship with the sign of the holy cross. And, when we are laid to rest, we are marked with the same sign once again at the end of our life that marked us at the beginning and sealed us throughout all our days.
The Feast of the Holy Cross is one of the earliest annual celebrations of the Christian Church. The day traditionally commemorates the discovery of the true cross in Jerusalem by Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. However, in our observance today, knowing the location of the true cross is of no more consequence than knowing the location of Noah’s Ark or the Garden of Eden. The cross without Christ is of no more value and significance than a pole without the bronze serpent. Further, neither the cross nor the pole nor the serpent had power to affect anything apart from the Word of God. And that is why the cross of Jesus Christ is so much more than a piece of wood or a pole, for upon the cross the Word of God made flesh sacrificed His life for the life of the world. The cross of Jesus Christ is the glory of God, for it displays His love, mercy, and forgiveness for all the world.
The Holy Scriptures would also have us see in the cross of Jesus the restoration of the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was most likely an ordinary fruit-bearing tree. What made it special was that God had attached His Word to it making it life-giving through its fruit. Jesus is the Word made flesh who, in turn, makes the tree of the cross a life-giving tree once again. Life is restored to all who look to Jesus in faith and trust in Him for forgiveness, the fruit of His life-giving tree. Now He invites you to take and eat and drink of His fruits in the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of sins, the strengthening of faith, and for life everlasting.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.