Holy Cross Sunday – Historic Lectionary – John 12:20-33; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 – September 10, 2017
(The Feast of Holy Cross Day – September 14)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Cross is never alone, it never stands by itself. And no matter how it is depicted, in paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows, it is never actually empty.
The Holy Cross is rightfully called Holy, because it always connected, it is always bound to the flesh and blood of God.
Without that connection, the Cross truly has no meaning, if it is divorced from the Crucified Christ then it is to be emptied of its power.
Without Christ and Him Crucified, without that present reality, it then becomes nothing more than an image of torture and death.
In that case it would really be just as helpful, and just the same, if we were to wear little guillotine icons around our necks, or if we were to paint a hangman’s noose into our stained glass windows.
The Cross by itself means nothing more than cold and dark death. And it speaks no better word than the blood of Abel hitting the dirt.
It only has meaning, it only has glory, and even a feast day in the Church Year, because of what it bears, what it holds up and is given to lift up from the earth.
In this way, Holy Cross Day, could be probably best be understood as if we were to have a day in the Church Year dedicated to the Holy Manger, or the Holy Donkey that rides into Jerusalem, or even the day of the Holy Altar, or the Holy Table.
All of these things command our reverence, our listening and our singing, all because of what they bear, what they hold up and lift up from the earth.
This is why we reverence and bow towards the altar even outside the service of Holy Communion, even outside of the Liturgy itself. In fact anytime we enter the church whether on this day or throughout the week, anytime we approach the table, we bend our necks and bodies and revere this Holy Altar.
Not because it is holy in itself, but because it has been given one of the highest vocations of all created things, to hold and bear up the very flesh of God Himself.
So it is, that if we divorce Jesus and His passion from His cross, we end up with a faith that is not only meaningless and empty, but it is truly dangerous.
Martin Luther’s own Holy Cross Day sermon is one of his most scathing and deep-cutting proclamations of repentance.
In Luther’s world, Holy Cross Day had become something all to itself, and likewise the Holy Cross by the middle ages had become thoroughly divorced from the actual flesh and blood of Jesus.
By this time most of the Church had taken up the devotion of simply worshipping and revering the things of God rather than God Himself.
And so Luther, in his sermon, displaying the best of his sarcasm, observes that in Germany there are so many shards and splinters of the so-called true Cross, that were you to put them all together, you could build an entire house.
That really wasn’t so much a joke as it was a simple fact. Splinters of the cross, bones of the saints, and nails that had supposedly pierced our Lord’s hands and feet were in fact filling Europe to the brim.
Luther passionately calls the people of Germany to repentance, to leave their lifeless idols in the gutter and cling simply to God Himself, to that place in which He has promised to be, to that reality of the cross and that the flesh and blood that has come and still comes now to draw all people to Himself.
When it comes to the Christianity of the middle ages, there is probably something in us that might laugh or mock the superstitions of those ancient Christians. We might scoff at their obsession with objects and charms and gimmicks.
We might very well be tempted to think that we have overcome, in the sophistication of our modern age those particular trappings and pitfalls.
But I would argue, especially today, especially on this feast of Holy Cross Day, that you and I are probably facing an even more deceptive and damning idolatry than they were.
We are constantly confronted with a Christianity that wishes to blast out of the middle ages, and shake off the dust of that superstitious earthy religion of things.
Instead, this Christianity wishes to sterilize itself from the tangible, to get rid of anything that smacks of what you see and taste and touch and hear.
We want a spiritual religion. A Christianity in the abstract. And especially as it has become popular, even among us, a personal faith.
Even though Jews and Greeks are the ones listed in our reading from 1st Corinthians, it is actually to us, and to our idolatry and attempts of divorcing of our Lord from His Cross, that our epistle is directed.
The Jews demand signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but our Lord preaches Himself crucified, in the flesh, for us, finished and risen from the dead.
When the Jews demand signs, it is like saying signs of political power and might. For they longed to see a Messiah rise up and topple the Roman Government. For a Christianity to make the world a better place.
This idol might not take the form of splinters or the bones of saints, but it is an idol nonetheless, to divorce our Lord’s authority and might from the cross of His passion, from the forgiveness for all men.
To preach Christianity as being valid, only because it proclaims a political philosophy, a profound way in which to love your neighbor, a life of peace lived in your community and with tolerance to your neighbors.
On the other hand the Greeks demanded wisdom, they demand a faith without the body.
This is a Christianity about lessons, about morals and inspirational thoughts. It seeks to see beyond the crude flesh of Jesus, and instead extract the real lesson, the real mystery of what He was ‘trying’ to teach.
It is the quest for an intellectual faith, and only an intellectual faith, it is the idol of worshipping the mind, removing God from His Word, and using His person only as a springboard to pursue the real things, the real truths, the real Christianity.
And so we divorce the things that God promises from God Himself.
We want peace, and we might remember that Jesus promises peace, but we don’t want the kind that He gives, instead we judge the Christian faith by how much peace we feel, or how peaceful our lives have become.
We want love, but we refuse to hear the Lord’s Word on what this love actually looks like.
We want justice, equality, respect, and salvation, and even positive family values, but we have plugged our ears to the answers He has given in flesh and blood.
We want a personal faith, we want something that we can manage and sustain on our own, that we don’t need to go to Church, to be gathered with other sinners, to sit next to people we don’t care for. Wouldn’t it be better to do it on our own, to be church ourselves?
Regardless of our modern sensibilities, of how far we’ve come from the middle ages, we are by nature bound to create an unending host of idols.
We divorce the things of God from God Himself.
But thanks be to God that He does not leave us here. He is not abstract or simply personal, and He does not deal in the things of men, He does not come to convince you by your own faulty reason or your vain attempts at wisdom.
Our Lord comes in flesh and blood, and He comes to us and for us in this flesh.
Indeed, we need Holy Cross Day more than ever.
We need to hear again from Christ Himself, that He has come to be found in something, somewhere for you.
The scandal and foolishness of the cross, is that our Lord is concerned with earthy things, with tangible realities, with a faith that you can touch and see and hear and taste.
For when He is lifted up from the earth, He does not draw all men to Himself in some metaphorical or abstract sense, He does it in reality, in flesh and blood, in the reality of fact.
This is the scandal of Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, and the Holy Word, indeed, the very fruits of His Cross, found in the body lifted up, the blood poured out, the water rushing forth from His side, and the living speaking lips of Jesus preaching from the throne of His glory.
Our Lord locates Himself somewhere, in some thing for you.
Indeed, our God is present everywhere, but He is explicitly present for you, and for your good, for your life and salvation and peace and love, somewhere.
If you stick your hand in a burning fire, you will have stuck your hand somewhere that God is present, but in the fire He is not present for you, He is not present in the burning flames singeing your flesh for your good and for your life.
He is present in His Holy Cross, in His Holy Food, His Holy Water and Holy Word.
There He draws you to a wisdom that you were not trying to find, there He shows you signs and wonders that you did not expect, there He binds you and communes with you not in thoughts or feelings, but in matters of reality, of flesh and blood, a real body given in your real place, a real blood, covering you with real forgiveness, and a real Word that shatters even the prisons of your idolatry and foolishness.
This is why, Luther himself, proclaims that “The Cross alone is our theology”
(Crux sola est nostra theologia)
The Cross is never alone. It is bound to the passion of our Lord’s Body and Blood. And in that marriage, is found all of the Christian faith, all of God and His mercy, all of Christ and His salvation.
The Cross is only considered alone, as Luther says, because it is the one event, the one flesh and blood reality, by which God has made Himself known.
If you wish to see Jesus. Then the Cross is it.
Therefore, we do not, and we should not, say that the manger alone is our theology, or that the Sermon on the Mount alone is our theology, or even Jesus welcoming and hugging the little children. We do not even say, even if it seems strange to us, that the empty tomb alone is our theology.
If you wish to truly see the affection that our Lord has for the least of these, for the children, if you wish to see the entirety of the Christian life, of vocation found in the preaching of the Sermon on the Mount, if you wish to understand the true comfort of the empty tomb, then our Lord directs you to His glory, to His passion, to His cross.
In this, we behold God as He has made Himself to be known, we see His true Face, His heart, mind, body and soul. We see Him namely, for us, in our place, taking up our flesh, burying our actual death into His actual body, shedding His actual blood, for our actual sins.
Indeed, you, the baptized are rightly called the Holy Ones. For you are never alone, you never stand simply by yourselves, and no matter how you feel or what you think, you are never actually empty.
You are Holy, for you the saints of God, bear and are lifted up the Holy One, the flesh of Jesus, the cross of His glory.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.