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Archive for April, 2009

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

– Peter Rollins

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Soren Kierkegaard:

What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.

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John 19:1-37

We’ve just read St. John’s account of Jesus’ final hours – his flogging, the conversation with Pilate, his last interaction with his mother, his final words. He has breathed his last. Jesus has died on the cross.

His body has been removed. The women, his mother among them, have removed the crown of thorns from his heavy, drooping head. They have prepared his body for burial, cleaning it, wiping away the spit, the blood and the dirt. They’ve covered his cold, pale skin with oils and herbs and wrapped him with fine linen cloth. This lifeless body is all that is left of the man they knew as Jesus.

The hands that touched lepers cannot extend in kindness and healing anymore. The voice which spoke of the Living God with such a strange sense of authority has been silenced. The smile that communicated welcome to sinners and those on the margins of his world is gone. The arms which enwrapped children and embraced his friends are folded upon one another on his motionless chest.

He is dead. They’ve all gone home, now. There is nothing left to be done. They had to be thinking, “It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Jesus was the Messiah. He was God’s promised, anointed one who would bring deliverance to his people. He was supposed to usher in a the new age of peace, hope and prosperity that was long promised in Scripture.” They are confused and grieving.

What about us? Why are we here? We aren’t like Mary and the friends of Jesus. We weren’t there. And from our perspective here, we know the cross wasn’t the end. We know indeed that YES he WAS the ONE. We have the benefit of knowing about the resurrection and Easter Sunday. Wouldn’t it be better to move from the celebration of Palm Sunday directly to the joy of Easter? We can’t sit here and pretend or imagine Easter Sunday away. So why do we linger here in the messiness of the cross? Is it appropriate to be intentionally somber when we know the glorious reality that the cross was not the end of the story? It’s a fair question. Why are we here?

We are here for the same reason that the cross is the universal symbol of Christianity. We worship under it tonight. Why isn’t that an image of an empty tomb? Have you ever thought about it? Why has the Church most identified itself with the cross?

For our brothers and sisters in the early church who would have been witness to the horror of public executions on the cross, it could not have been an easy choice. Think about this. It was one of the most grotesque and disgusting images in their culture. What would that image be for us now? Can you imagine? It’s certainly not the cross anymore. For us the cross has become domesticated and safe. It’s worn by many as a beautiful accessory rather than as identification with the agony of our crucified Lord.

But in its day the cross was THE icon of merciless suffering and pain. I have been told that death by crucifixion is the most dreadful way to die. It deliberately delays the moment of death until the victim has undergone the maximum measure of physical torture and suffering. A person could hang for days before dying. Can you imagine what that would be like? The only mercy on the cross was when the victim’s legs were broken, to hasten death.

It’s common for a religion or political movement or ideology to adopt a symbol which encapsulates and communicates its core meaning. A symbol is chosen because it best articulates what lies at the heart of the thing.

So why a cross? There were other options. It could have been a butterfly (a symbol of rebirth), or the manger, to emphasize the incarnation, or a basin and a towel to emphasize Jesus’ servanthood. Or as I’ve mentioned before, the empty tomb or the stone which was rolled away from the empty tomb to point to the resurrection.
But a cross?

The earliest Christian art discovered in ancient catacombs – where persecuted Christians gathered to worship, in hiding deep below the cities – was primarily the image of the fish, which served only coincidentally as an acronym. The Greek word for fish ichthys contains the first letter of each word in the phrase “Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior.”

Scholars agree that these images were used instead of a cross to avoid identification by the anti Christian authorities. But around the late first and early second century the bare plain cross came into widespread use by Christians. They drew it, painted it, engraved it, and made the sign of it on themselves and others.

Why? Why was the implement of such extreme penal suffering so irresistible?

It comes down to this: In his wisdom God was pleased to make the cross, which had been the ultimate symbol for merciless human cruelty and punishment, the place where He would reveal his merciful Divine love and mercy. This is why we worship under a cross.

Jesus told his disciples again and again and again that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. He Must. Why this Must? Because our sin separates us from our Holy God. It was imperative because the cross was necessary for God to deal with the problem of human sin, on the one hand and the holy character of God on the other hand.

As it incriminated those in the early church during the times of persecution, it incriminates us as well. On the cross Jesus achieved salvation for sinners. That’s us. My sins your sins: the lies, the deceptions, the pride, our greed, lust, and anger -it was all heaped on him there.

Because of Christ’s work on the cross, sin isn’t what it was. It’s still bad. There are still consequences for our sins. But sin doesn’t have the place in the universe it once had. Now in Jesus Christ, we can look sin in the face and say, “Sin you aren’t what you were. You do not have the same authority over me that you had before Jesus died for me. I do not have to listen to you. In Christ, I am now free to do what is right.”

Moreover, when Jesus suffered on the cross, it was the moment when all the powers of evil and darkness and injustice were gathered up into him – into God Himself – to be dealt with once and for all. The death of Jesus may have appeared to be a defeat but it was a conquest. The victory of God was won!

So now when we are overwhelmed by the evil and injustice we see in the world, when we feel like our lives are falling apart, when our sufferings seem to be too much, we can know that we know that we know that all the powers and forces that seek to destroy us MUST contend with the cross. We can say to the evil and darkness, “You aren’t what you were! You do not have the same authority over this world that you did before Jesus died for it. I will not be undone by you. I am free to trust and hope in the Living God! I know my Redeemer lives!”

This is why we worship under the cross. The truth is there could be no other symbol for us just as there could be no other way. This is why we stop and linger on Good Friday. We can no sooner move past this day then Jesus could. Certainly, it would be nice to go from Palm Sunday directly to Easter Sunday without having to go over Golgotha – but it would be a lie. There are no shortcuts. There is no work around.

And even though we know what comes next, we can’t skip past it to Easter Sunday. We cannot avoid the shadow of the cross on Good Friday.

In fact, we are here precisely because we know what comes next. Let’s face it, if Jesus died on the cross and stayed in that tomb where those women placed him, we wouldn’t be here together doing this. Oh sure, there may be a line in a history book somewhere about some revolutionary named Jesus of Nazareth. But we would not know him as Jesus Christ – Jesus, God’s anointed one, the savior of the world.

We gather on Good Friday BECAUSE we know about Easter Sunday. We are here BECAUSE the resurrection affirms, confirms, and celebrates what happened on that cross. Scripture tells us time and time again, that Jesus died for our sins. It does not say He rose for our sins. Easter Sunday is God’s resounding AMEN to Good Friday. The Resurrection is heaven’s exultant YES to what was accomplished on the cross.
Our task today is to contemplate the mystery of God’s amazing love for us. He’s done this for us – us sinners and a broken world. He did this for us. In the end, the only answer to these questions is to gaze upon the love of God in Christ.

Therefore to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed all greatness, honor, glory, and worship, now and forever.

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