You can’t enter into God’s wisdom until you are able to see God’s foolishness. Then you will see your life and the whole world transform in God’s love.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The feast of the Holy Cross
Texts: 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
You can’t enter into God’s wisdom until you can see God’s foolishness.
That’s our paradox as we gather to honor the cross of Christ by worshiping the Triune God and celebrating with Word and Sacrament this symbol of our faith.
The feast day itself is part of the problem. From the fourth century, when St. Helena supposedly discovered the true cross as her son Constantine was building a basilica, venerating the cross has been part of the Church’s liturgical life, often centered on the relic itself or parts of it, or in our case, the symbol. By the end of that century, St. Egeria reports that the cross – encased in a silver container – would be taken out of that container on Good Friday and deacons had to guard it so that pilgrims wouldn’t bite off pieces to take away when they kissed it. Within a few centuries festivals celebrating the cross had emerged and persist to today.
This is a lot of adoration – of a relic, of a symbol. Jesus’ death on a cross placed into a beautiful box to be admired. And what of us? When we reverence a beautiful gilded version of the cross, when we put one over our altar, even when we gather tonight to worship, are we doing anything other than the same?
Paul insists there is deep wisdom in the cross, wisdom that gives life to the universe. But to get to that wisdom, we need to first admit the foolishness.
You need to take the cross out of the silver box, off the gilded pole to start with.
This was a humiliating death for the Son of God. Brutal torture, extreme emotional suffering, agonizing death. None of us have the stomach to witness something like this.
But the foolishness runs deeper. Jesus of Nazareth revealed the creative power of God, with the ability to heal, to change physical reality. Jesus didn’t have to face this cross. He had power to do whatever he wanted.
But in the wilderness after his baptism he faced the lure of using power to help himself, using power to force the world to bow down to God’s ways, using power to save his own life. Once he rejected that use of divine power, the cross became inevitable. He preached and lived God’s love and grace, and when that threatened his people’s power structures, they denounced him as a political threat. Revolutionaries suffer the cross under Roman rule.
So this is the heart of the foolishness: God’s Son comes to us in love, and is not willing to set aside that love to protect himself.
This is the power of God, Paul says: weakness dying in shame. This is the wisdom of God, Paul says: foolishly risking everything out of love. That’s what we need to understand.
John agrees: the cross reveals the heart of God.
It’s easy to claim that John sees the cross as triumph and glory, and to a certain degree he does. But to read John carefully, it’s not triumph and glory as we usually understand them. It’s a triumph of losing. It’s a glory of shame. And it starts at the beginning of the Gospel.
In chapter 1 John claims the foolishness that Jesus is the living, creating Word of the eternal God, who takes on our human body. And in this embodied Word of God, John says, we see the heart of God. And nowhere more than at the cross.
John brings the cross front and center. The other Gospels introduce the cross at this Sunday’s Gospel reading, in the middle of Jesus’ ministry. John names it already in chapter 3. What we heard tonight is an astonishingly potent claim about God’s foolish ways. Jesus, God’s Son, will be lifted up on the cross because of God’s love for the whole cosmos. So that all things, all creation, including all people, will be healed.
For John, this is the reason behind all of Jesus’ ministry, and the heart of God. On the cross, Jesus says in John 12, he will draw all people to him. And since Jesus is the face of the Triune God for us, this means on the cross Jesus will draw all people into the life of the Triune God.
So it is a victory, this cross. But a victory that looks to the world like a humiliating defeat. That’s what we need to learn.
This foolish act of God reveals God’s true wisdom from before the dawn of time: life is only found in love that gives itself away completely.
The cross isn’t a doctrine that we keep in a box, guaranteeing that our sins are forgiven and we get to go to heaven. The cross is the definitive witness of the heart of God for this creation, and for all humanity. It is God’s witness of love that is, as we will hear Jesus say on Sunday, now intended to be our witness of love as well.
What Jesus – the Word of God from the beginning, the face of God – what Jesus reveals of God’s heart is that the whole universe is created and sustained by self-giving love. The creation is designed by this self-giving Word to operate by vulnerable giving of love, one creature to another. A vulnerability first shown by the Triune God in creating human beings with the free will to reject God’s love.
Yes, the cross is the sign that our sins are forgiven. But not by some legal transaction. But because the cross is the definitive revelation of God’s love. And yes, the cross is a sign of a life after we die. But not because it gives a ticket to heaven. But because the cross is the beginning of our understanding of a divine love that is willing to die, a love that then conquers death itself, a love that shapes all reality.
This is the wisdom the foolishness of the cross reveals for our lives and for the healing of the universe.
That only this kind of love – a love that looks to the world like losing – only this kind of love can transform individuals, can restore relationships, can even bring life to a world filled with death and pain. The cross is the template, the pattern of foolishness, for how we will live as Christ in the world for God’s healing of the cosmos.
Paradox can look utterly foolish. Life that dies to live. Power that finds strength in weakness. Love that loses to be found. If you don’t see this foolishness in the cross, keep looking and praying.
Because once you grasp just what God is doing for the whole cosmos at this cross, and that you are included, God’s wisdom that brings you and all things into life and joy will begin to dawn in your heart. Your path of love, shaped like a cross, will emerge. You will find, as God longs for all creatures to find, abundant life beyond your wildest dreams, and the healing of the nations.
In the name of Jesus. Amen