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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

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Holy Cross Day
14 September 2014

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner


John 12:31-36a


In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Holy Cross Day, as the feast is named in the Anglican tradition, is celebrated with slightly different points of emphasis in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.  In the Roman missal, the historic Latin description is translated “The exaltation of the Holy Cross” and it has since come to be called “The Triumph of the Cross.”  In the Greek Orthodox Church it goes by the name “The raising up of the precious and life-giving Cross.”  The differences from tradition to tradition are not the sort to throw the church into turmoil, and in fact what one tradition makes explicit, especially the Orthodox, the others leave implicit.  In each case, the key descriptor, “exaltation” or “lifting up,” draws on the language (from the Greek and later in Latin) used in the NT Scriptures as they reflect on the meaning of the cross.  The Orthodox, however, added the idea of “life-giving” to “lifting up.”  I suspect most of us are fairly comfortable with this language of veneration, but it contains, and, in its familiarity in our ears, conceals a fundamental paradox.  We won’t get to the end of it in these few short minutes; but if I can only succeed in deepening the mystery, my job will have been done.

How did this demented instrument of execution and torture come to be the object of celebration and adoration?  The cross entered the Judeo-Christian, or the Messianic movement’s, world of thought as a puzzle and a scandal.  Saul of Tarsus, who would become Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is a case in point.  For him, it was the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion that fueled his rage and rampage against the very early churches, for in the mind of any zealous Pharisee, to be hung on a cross, or in the parlance of the Hebrew Bible, to be “hung on a tree,” was a scandalous thing.  It marked the one so executed as being under God’s curse.  How then did Paul come to be able to say of the cross, as in our lesson today, “far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ?”  What he says at the outset of 1 Corinthians underscores the continuing dilemma that the cross posed to Jews and Greeks: “Christ crucified, scandalous to Jews, foolishness to Greeks; but in reality, God’s reality, the cross represents the power of God and the wisdom of God. 

As Paul tells the story, it was the revelation of the resurrected Lord to Paul that forced him to view the death of Jesus in a new light.  And in his mind, the one who had been a failed, messianic pretender was transformed into the glorious One who had walked the path of the suffering “Servant of God” described in Isaiah 53 to become the exalted, glorified “Servant of God” in Isaiah 52.  Here was a paradox in its own right.  But the entire second half of Isaiah was dealing with another puzzle—that of the absence of God, the hollow, empty Temple—a situation stretching back to the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians.  This was a serious problem for Judaism.  In the absence of God, these writers began to wonder if God would return, and if so, how; and several streams of thought began to run.  Isaiah spoke of God’s personal return to his people, and foresaw God doing something completely unexpected, unimaginable, and he introduced the figure of the Suffering Servant.  The writer of Ecclesiasticus, Jesus Ben Sirach, spoke of the in-breaking of God’s Wisdom.

These were fresh avenues of thought and theology, and once Paul looked at all of this with a fresh pair of eyes, he began to see that they all came together in Jesus: in Jesus God returned not to inhabit the Temple but to suffer death in an unimaginable way so that a new living Temple, the body of Christian believers, might come into being.  God would inhabit this temple but only after submitting to the unthinkable.  As Paul came to see it, God broke the power of the last enemy, death, by canceling the power of the world’s most horrific instrument of death.  The cross, a scandal to Jews and utter nonsense to Greeks, in God’s hands becomes emblematic of life.

John comes to the same conclusion, though his way to it involves unraveling his riddling sort of language.  His own translation of the Jesus story, the unusual language and concepts he draws on, works in an almost opposite way to the first three Gospels.  Often, in John’s case, the deeper meaning of the story of Jesus lies not in what is said but in what is not said, or in what lies beneath the visible surface of the text.  The cross is not mentioned in our Gospel text today; it is rather imagined in the language of “lifting up.”  John knew this language was ambiguous, so he adds the editorial explanation that Jesus said this in reference to the way he would die.  The crowd that overhears this statement is the same crowd that welcomed him into Jerusalem as the King of the Jews; they came out to him because they had heard that Jesus had brought Lazarus back to life; and just ahead of our text, they had heard God’s voice thunder from heaven—and the theme of that thunder was glory; and now they listened as Jesus spoke of the “lifting up of the Son of Man” and they were confused. They were beginning to put the pieces of the puzzle together; Christ/Messiah and Jesus’ teaching about the Son of Man.  But faced with this notion of “the Son of Man being lifted up,” which they took to infer death, or possibly an Elijah-like departure from earth, they ran into a problem.  They had been taught that the Christ remains forever; Jesus was tweaking that story.  So they asked, “Who is this Son of Man”? What is this lifting up?  So, let us follow briefly the trail of John’s thought. 

First, “lifting up” harks directly back to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, where he said to a very puzzled Pharisee, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.” Lifting up is linked to giving life.  And this statement bounces back to the book of Numbers and the wilderness grumbling of the people of God.  God sent serpents among them, and those bitten, were dying.  When the people confessed their sin to Moses and Moses interceded for the people, God instructed Moses to craft a serpent of gold and attach it to a staff, and lift it up.  Those bitten, would see the serpent, the agency of death, but would also see God now with that very instrument of death granting a reprieve.

Second, and at the same time, the language of “lifting up” goes straight to Isaiah 52 and the fourth, climactic Servant Song, where God says through the prophet, “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted (that is, glorified) and lifted up, and shall be very high”; but, this last song of the Servant takes a frightening turn; glorification and lifting up become intertwined with suffering and rejection.  John, in his way, compresses the Servant’s exaltation and suffering into a single picture, Jesus the Messiah—Jesus’ lifting up on the cross with the glory of God and exaltation. 

Both Paul and John find their way back to Isaiah’s contradictory image of the Suffering Servant.  And each in their own way discovers and brings to expression the astonishing irony of the cross.  In Pauline terms, God defies the last enemy, death; he dares it to come into the ring with him; he taunts it by willingly suffering the worst that death had to offer.  But for both apostles, ultimately, death provided the very means of its demise.  It only wanted the Wisdom and Power of God to come together in the Son of Man, the suffering servant.  The humiliation of the cross is transformed into glory and exaltation.  The instrument of death becomes the means of life.

We’re nowhere near the end of this winding mystery of the cross.  But it is this convergence of death and life, horror and hope, that is the doorway to reflection and amazement.   Amen.


© 2014 Philip H. Towner