Holy Cross day - Behold the wood of the Cross

A sermon preached by Fr James Heard in the United Benefice on 14 September 2014

We are delighted today to be baptising Margot. I don’t know what sort of gift(s) she might be getting today. I heard a story of a young girl who went to a jeweller’s shop with her Godparent to choose a crucifix for her confirmation present. The jeweller asked her: ‘Do you want a plain one, or one with a little man on it?’ For a large percentage of the population, wearing a crucifix has become a fashion accessory. It has lost any religious significance at all.

Today, on Holy Cross Day, we celebrate the cross itself, as the instrument of salvation. While Good Friday is dedicated to the Passion of Christ and the Crucifixion, today we focus on the wooden cross itself, which, according to legend was discovered in 326. Relics from the supposed actual cross upon which Jesus hung could probably build several hundred crosses. A large part of the Protestant tradition did away with such things. They rejected the idea that the sacred could be mediated through earthly things; they rejected the theology that the Divine could be experienced in certain places, people, icons, art, and, of course, relics. But the Reformed tradition had other ways in which the cross was venerated. Hymnody being one of them: When I survey the wondrous cross. Preaching on the cross is another. And today we honour the cross.

Week by week we are immersed in the Gospel story through the liturgy, we hear about the cross, particularly in the Eucharistic prayer. However, we can become so familiar with the rhythm of the liturgy that the cross needs to be focussed on more explicitly, because it is through the mystery of the cross that we are redeemed. It is the cross that saves. Jesus said, ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.’

We heard in today’s Gospel reading, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. Our first reading tells us of the account of the Jewish community on their great exodus through the desert to the promise land. They had revolted not just against Moses but also God. God’s response (which is rather disturbing if taken at face value – but which needs a whole other sermon to unpack) is to send snakes to kill them. The rebellious Hebrew community recognised the error of their way and asked Moses to approach God. This he does and he’s given these strange instructions: make a symbol of a serpent and mount it on a pole. Anyone who has been bitten will be made well if they simply look at it.

One way to look at this story is to reflect on the nature of sin, which is described by using the metaphor of snake bites.  The pain of the fiery snake-bite is a symbol of the hurt that comes about by distancing oneself from God. Genesis describes that we are made in the image of God, which means that we are designed to be in a close relationship with him. Sin is like slamming the door on love, and then being lonely (or angry or melancholy, and on so) because you feel unloved. The answer, the remedy, is to open the door again (Fr. John Foley, S. J.). And of course, the people do just this. They look on the bronze serpent, which is the symbol of their sin. Gazing at this serpent brings healing.
The Bible presents an ambiguous view of serpents: on the one hand we have the rather talented (but deceitful and evil) talking serpent in the Genesis story. On the other hand, there is this one in the wilderness that brings healing. Interestingly, the Greek god of healing, As-clee-pius, was represented by a serpent, and today the symbol of the medical profession has a serpent entwined around a pole.
This is the context into which we are to hear Jesus’ words: When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself. Behold the cross. Jesus must be lifted up on the cross, so that all who gaze on him may be transformed, set free, healed, liberated to be the people God wants us to be. The cross isn’t therefore simply a symbol; something we hang on the wall or around our necks; it’s not a mark we put upon our crusading shields when we go to war against the infidel. It is more like an icon that draws us into a Christlike way of life.

And here we have one of the most famous verses in the Bible, John 3.16. In contrast to the rather mixed picture of God that gets painted in the Bible, this verse starts by stating emphatically that God loves: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ This is the motive of God: he loves. This is what God’s love looks like: he empties himself and pours out his life for others.  ‘God so loved the world’ – the world is the other word that needs to be emphasised. Because he came not to the Church of England, not to the Jews, not to the righteous, but the world. God so loved the world in all its pain, its failure, its hurt, its sorrow.

Behold the cross. On the cross, Jesus absorbs the poison of the world’s sin and by so doing, he free us from our fears and addictions. As we look, we will be healed. The sting of sin has been removed, along with its inevitable painful results. As we look our broken relationship with God, with others, with creation, begin to be healed. Of course the healing of the world, of ourselves, doesn’t happen automatically. It most certainly doesn’t happen in an instant. Our brokenness lies very deep; and our healing is a process. So we start our long journey of redemption, restoration, renewal, healing… salvation.

Behold the cross. As we look at the cross, touch it, believe in it, we ourselves start to follow in the transformative steps of Jesus. This is how the hymn from Philippians puts it, ‘Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others…[be like Jesus who] emptied himself’, who freely poured out his life. And so as we pour out our lives to serve others, we start to empty ourselves of our ego, our self-interest, our self-gain, our self-absorption As we look to Jesus, we start to life lives of generosity, compassion, agape love, a love that expects nothing in return. This is salvation. We don’t run away from those who are broken, those who are different, the difficult to love. It’s not easy and we make plenty of mistakes but, with God’s help, we embrace them, knowing that as we do we are embracing Christ.

Behold the wood of the cross whereupon hung the Saviour of the world. Thanks be to God.
Holland Park Benefice