Sermon for Holy Cross Day
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
1 Corinthians 1:18-24
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
When Helena, the mother of Constantine, searched for the remnants of the True Cross around the year 320, she didn’t have Google Maps or Waze or any other modern technology to assist her. Instead, the story goes that she spoke to an old man living near a Jerusalem trash dump. This man said he knew many Christians, and that they had told him exactly where the crucifixion happened. And indeed, when she went to the place the man showed her, she did find three wooden crosses, one even bearing the name “Jesus.”
|Walking the Via Dolorosa, Good Friday 2018|
And then, because there was no Facebook, the people of Jerusalem lit fires of celebration on the mountaintops. As the message spread, so did the fires, and soon the peaks of all the mountains from Jerusalem to Athens were aflame, proclaiming the good news: The True Cross of Christ had been found! For this reason, here in Palestine it is still a tradition to light fireworks on Holy Cross Day. In fact, the day holds so much significance that in many Orthodox families, sons born on Holy Cross Day are named “Saliba”, which means “cross”.
The Cross of Christ is central to our faith, to our theology, and to our spirituality. It has often been said there can be no Christianity without the cross. For this reason, small fragments of the cross Helena discovered can be found in churches and private collections across the world. People naturally grasp on to this tangible evidence of the event that changed history. The problem is, if you gathered all these tiny wooden pieces from around the globe, many thousands of crosses could be assembled!
|Anglicans and Lutherans walk the Via Dolorosa together on Good Friday 2018|
And so, as the church today celebrates Holy Cross Day more than 1,700 years after Helena found that piece of wood, just around the corner from where we sit, we must really ask the question:
What is our relationship to the Cross?
Do we put our trust in something we can grasp and easily fit into our pockets?
Or do we put our trust in the True Cross of Christ?
Now, to be fair, it’s difficult to define what we mean by the “true cross.”
Last Sunday, as I was walking here to Redeemer Church, I passed through the Holy Sepulcher courtyard and saw a man carrying not one, but three large wooden crosses on his back. One might have thought this was a very spiritual man! But of course, I knew this man was carrying the crosses to the 1st Station of the Via Dolorosa, where he would sell tourists the opportunity to carry one for around 400 shekels.
Now, it’s true that walking the Via Dolorosa carrying one of these life-size crosses can be a meaningful experience for pilgrims. People come from around the world to carry these pieces of wood, which feel in some way closer to the “true cross” Jesus carried. But the sight of this man, starting his day of work hiring out crosses, reminded me that even in the Holy City, the cross can be a business. Sometimes it’s entertainment. It’s often decoration for our necks or our homes. The cross has even become a tool of the empire.
All this is true because we have not always carried the cross as Christ did, with humility and in solidarity with the suffering people of the world.
“Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said—but Christians have engaged in some very strange interpretations of that invitation. For example, Christian crusaders fought proudly and viciously here in the Holy Land under the sign of the cross. In the same city where Our Lord suffered with and for all the oppressed, our fellow Christians turned the cross into a symbol of imperialism and conquest. In their hands—or I should say, in our hands—this sign of salvation and new life became a certain sign of death and destruction. As I said in another sermon recently, we love to sing “They will know we are Christians by our love”, but we should never forget that across history, many people have known us by our swords.
This morning we heard the second reading for Holy Cross Day, from the 1st chapter of 1 Corinthians, which tells us:
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Unfortunately, these verses have often been interpreted by preachers to mean that we alone, as believers, have the ability to understand the cross, while others remain in confusion. We alone possess truth and certainty, while others stumble. But we must be careful not to condemn those who do not share our faith, because the truth is that the cross always frustrates human understanding. Of course, we stumble over the idea that a tool of state torture could be our path to salvation. Of course, we desire wisdom and power over others, and scoff at the idea that vulnerability and sacrifice could be the path to healing and wholeness. This holy foolishness has never been easily accepted or lived.
And so, over the past two thousand years, the Cross of Christ has been twisted and corrupted, used and abused. This is true not only for the Crusades, but also for the Holocaust, and slavery, and the patriarchy, and the occupation of Palestine—among other horrors. Our history proves we are much better at building crosses than we are at carrying them.
For this reason, one might ask the question: Given our foolish history, what need is there for the cross today? The church has taken bold steps to disavow many harmful theologies and doctrines which no longer serve us well. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Doctrine of Discovery have all now been relegated to the rubbish bin of Christian history. Should we then also disavow the cross? Maybe the question is not can we, but should we have Christianity without it?
If we are talking about the cross of imperialism, the cross of colonialism, the cross of military conquest and occupation, the cross of white supremacy and patriarchy, then the answer is a resounding YES! These false crosses we strongly disavow. There must be a Christianity without these cross-shaped lies. Christians individually, and the church as an institution, must boldly and publicly lay down these and all other false crosses which have so often defined us.
The church, and the world, have no need of these crosses. But I believe the True Cross still has meaning and significance for us. We need the True Cross of Christ today because innocent people still suffer at the hands of the state. People are still killed for speaking truth to power. Black men are lynched. Women are raped. Palestinians are denied right of movement and right of return. Refugees are left to drown in the oceans that separate them from life and liberation. For these reasons and many others, it is still a holy scandal that the Son of God chose to suffer with us and for us. It is still Good News to the poor, to the oppressed, to the voiceless, and to the sinner, to hear that Jesus, Son of God, fully human and fully divine, in great love emptied himself in order to save this broken world. Amen!
And so, in spite of its complicated history, the cross is still relevant today because it chafes against everything we’ve been taught to seek and to desire. The cross is not merely a logo for a social club called “the church.” The cross is not a flag that we wave to prove we have it all figured out, while other religions have it all wrong.
Rather, rightly understood, the cross is the symbol of our dependence on God. It speaks radical love over political power. It is our salvation and our hope, a simple piece of wood revealing just how far God the Creator is willing to go to lead us home—and how far we are asked to go, that our neighbor would know the same love, liberation, and wholeness.
I want to tell you a story shared with me recently by Bishop Emeritus Munib Younan of the ELCJHL. Some years ago, when His Holiness Pope John Paul II visited Jerusalem, Bishop Younan was invited to visit the Haram al-Sharif with him and other religious leaders. After they greeted and welcomed Pope John, the bishop walked out of Al Aqsa Mosque wearing his clergy collar and cross. There he encountered an extremist Muslim man who shouted, “This is a Muslim place! Take that cross off now!”
But one of the guards, who was also a Muslim, reprimanded him, saying, “Keep quiet! He is our bishop.”
Just a few minutes later, as Bishop Younan walked through Bab al Sinsli, he encountered an Israeli settler woman and her three children on the street. She saw the cross and spat in his direction. The shopkeepers who witnessed it were all urging him to do something, maybe even spit back at the woman. But as he tells it, Bishop Younan merely prayed: “Father, forgive her, for she does not know what she is doing.”
Soon after, the bishop arrived at the office of the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah. He told him of the visit with the Pope, and also shared what he had experienced on the way. Patriarch Sabbah said, “Munib, we must always be ready as Christians to bear both the glory and the humiliation of the cross. This is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian.”
Now, even as I share this story, I do worry that it could encourage certain prejudices against Muslims, or against Arabs in general, or against Jewish settlers. Some may hear this story and take it as confirmation that our religion is superior, or think I’m encouraging Christians once again to carry the cross as a sign of our group’s exclusive victory over all others.
But this is not the message I want to impart today.
Rather, I hope only to remind you—and myself—that carrying the cross of Christ always comes with a price. It will always be scandalous to take up a tool of state power and violence and claim it as the symbol of love and liberation. It will always be risky to be vulnerable, to be open, to tell the truth about ourselves, about God, and about the world. And yet, this is the meaning of that piece of wood Helena discovered, which the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built to honor.
The True Cross can’t fit into our pockets, and can’t be rented for the afternoon. It can never be sewn onto a flag or claimed by one political party.
The True Cross is love. It is radical solidarity. It is risking criticism and even humiliation for the sake of the other. It is speaking truth to power. This is the cross our Lord carried for us—and this is the cross we, his followers, are called and empowered to carry today. The world needs exactly this at this moment in history: followers of Jesus who will lay down false crosses and pick up the True Cross of Christ. The world needs Christians who will light fires on the mountaintops to proclaim the Good News of God’s love for every nation, for every race, for every gender, for every sinner.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.