The scandalous cross can only be understood relationally because its central message is about God’s redeeming love for the world in Christ.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Feast of the Holy Cross
Texts: 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
When I first started the process toward ordination, my pastor gave me some advice to help me prepare for the essays I’d have to write and the interviews I’d have to do with my candidacy committee. I remember him telling me, “You’ll need to be able to say something about what the theology of the cross means in your life.” I dutifully wrote that down and filed it away mentally as something I’d need to figure out along the way. I thought I’d just spend some time thinking that one through, and then, I’d come up with a reasonable answer. Then, I’d understand what the cross means.
My approach was a little bit like that of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. Nicodemus was really drawn to Jesus’ astonishing teachings about the radical new life that’s possible in the kingdom of God. But he couldn’t quite figure out the logistical details. So he finally mustered up the courage to approach Jesus and asked him, “I can’t quite make sense of this. How does new life actually work?” The Gospel passage we heard this evening is part of Jesus’ response to Nicodemus.
Now, if Nicodemus was looking for a logical explanation, this isn’t it. He’s trying to wrap his head around something that he needs to wrap his heart around. The new life that is possible in the Kingdom of God isn’t about analytical answers. It’s about relationship. It’s about God’s love for the world. Jesus tells Nicodemus this. He says, “God so loved the whole world that God made a way for the whole world to have life forever.” And the one standing right in front of Nicodemus is that way.
That’s not the kind of truth you can rationally understand like you understand a math equation or a financial transaction. Love is a deeper kind of truth. If you were asked to explain why you love the people you love – your children, your spouse, your friends – it might not make sense to someone else. But anyone who has ever loved or been loved knows how deeply powerful and true love can be, even when it doesn’t “make sense.” If we experience that in our human relationships, can you imagine how much more transformational the love of God can be? The new life that Jesus speaks about is the reality of being in that love. That’s where the life is – in relationship with God!
Anyone who believes in God’s great love for the world will have that eternal life, Jesus tells Nicodemus. This doesn’t mean ‘believe’ in a cognitive sense, as in something you know in your mind. This means trust, as in something you know in your soul, something you’d stake your life on. Jesus is saying, “Anyone who puts their trust in God’s great love for the world, will find life.”
And it is truly a trust-worthy love. God would give up everything for the sake of that love. Indeed, when the incarnate God lived as a human being in Jesus, God did give up everything for the sake of that love. God died for the sake of that love, a painful, humiliating death on a cross. That symbol, the cross, is a reminder of just how trustworthy God’s love is. God’s love is wide enough to hold the whole created world, faithful enough to give up everything for its beloved, powerful enough to bring life out of death. What good news!
But for those like Nicodemus who interacted with the person of Jesus, it was also surprising news. We don’t get to hear Nicodemus’ reaction to Jesus telling him that “the Son of Man must be lifted up” on the cross, but we can imagine that this was a confusing thing to hear. Impressed by Jesus’ miracles and drawn by Jesus’ message, many people expected the Christ, the Messiah, to embody a different kind of power. Surely, the savior of the world would be strong and in control. Surely the savior of the world would win, not lose. Otherwise, how would the world be saved? Even Jesus’ closest friends and disciples expressed concern and doubt as the shadow of the cross loomed nearer. Surely the savior of the world won’t be arrested and executed like a common criminal. As Jesus was hanging on the cross, dying, some were still saying, “If he is indeed Christ, the Messiah, let him save himself” (Mark 15:31). Even those who stood later in the empty tomb, who encountered the risen Christ, even they struggled to understand how God’s power was at work in the world. The self-giving love of Christ on the cross looked so unlike their expectations. God’s kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world (John 18:26).
Thousands of years later, people still look at Christ and expect a different kind of power. Too often, we expect life made easy, pain taken away, problems triumphantly solved. We can lose sight of where the real power is, where the real life is. It’s found in the relationship of love that God has for the world. It’s found in the way of the cross. That’s the scandal of the cross: it disrupts all our expectations and definitions. Power in surrender. Victory through sacrifice. Life from death. The scandalous cross keeps us from ever getting too comfortable with our own intellectual understanding of God’s way. It will always keep surprising and confounding us.
You have to be some kind of fool to be able to trust in such a mysterious, paradoxical kind of power. Or at least that’s how Paul puts it: “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.” In other words, if you look at the cross from the outside, it looks like nonsense, but if you experience it from inside God’s love, you can see its salvation. You never totally “make sense” of God’s love in Christ; you trust it. You never really wrap your head around it, but you give your heart to it. You let it transform you, and you live out that sacrificial love in your own life.
To remind ourselves of this, we have hung that scandalous symbol in the central place of this holy space of worship. We bow to it in reverence. Because we are foolish enough to put our hope in it. Because we know that it is not a symbol of death but a symbol of life. Because we know that the most powerful force in the world is not dominance but self-emptying love. The kind of love Christ showed on that cross. That’s the kind of love could save the world. Indeed it already has, it still does, and it always will.