Feast Day: Holy Cross Day
Readings: 1 Corinthians 18-24; John 3:13-17
“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.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
Today we commemorate Holy Cross Day, the day in which the Church recalls with intention and humility that great symbol at the centre of our faith around which the Holy Spirit is gathering a people—the cross.
Holy Cross. The pairing of these two words is familiar to us. Perhaps even comforting. Certainly, they do not strike many of us as odd. But they should strike us as odd for the cross is a great paradox as the Apostle Paul draws out in that magnificent passage that we heard from from 1 Corinthians moments ago: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The word of the cross is foolishness says Paul, scandalous as he puts it a little later. My concern as a pastor is that our familiarity with the cross may mean that it’s scandal and foolishness is lost on us. This morning, on this Holy Cross Day, I want us to try to recapture together a sense of the great paradox of the cross.
The reason why the cross appears as foolishness and a scandal to so many, in our day as well as in Paul’s, has to do with the shame associated with this manner of execution.
Years ago in an effort to try and help another church think upon the great shame of the cross I used a rather crass example, Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ. Piss Christ is a photograph that depicts a small, cheap plastic crucifix submerged in a container of the artists own urine mixed with the blood of a cow. The following Sunday after mass had ended a very gentle and well mannered older woman pulled me aside. She told me that she had been greatly disturbed all week by this image of Christ submerged in such a foul liquid and that she took offense to my referencing it in a sermon. In my mind I pictured myself taking her gently by the hand, looking her directly in the eye and saying, “Precisely. Now go and weep for your sins.”
Of course that is not what I said but she got it. That week where she was unable to get away from the disgust of the image, she began to understand what I want us to understand this morning: the utter shame and degradation of the cross. The humiliation, the condemnation, the abandonment, the casting off as less-than-human of all those who were hung up on the wood of the cross.
In her book The Crucifixion, the Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge devotes an entire chapter to trying to help her readers understand just how shameful a thing it was to be crucified by the Romans. The title of that chapter is ‘The Godlessness of the Cross.’ The Cross is Godless. What does she mean by this?
It is not simply the fact that Jesus died that is the scandal, it is rather the manner in which he died that creates offence.
Crucifixion as a method of execution was never used on Roman citizens. It was, rather, reserved almost exclusively for the scum of humanity. The lowest and vilest of creatures. And the point of crucifixion was to degrade, to rob the crucified person of any last shred of dignity. They were hung up there in public, tortured, stripped of their clothing, and subject to the merciless and diabolical ridicule of passersby. Crucifixion was the means by which human beings were made less-than-human and strung up like beasts. “It was a form of advertisement,” writes Rutledge, “this person is the scum of the earth, not fit to live, more an insect than a human being.” It is this stigma associated with crucifixion that we need to try and imagine if we are to comprehend the offensiveness of worshipping a crucified Christ.
To Jews and Greeks alike crucifixion was just about as low and despised as one could get. And yet it was precisely into this state that Christ entered, and joyfully so. He subjected himself to the shame and degradation of a crucifixion, he was condemned to the death of a beast, not even of a man. He was rejected and despised, deserted even by his own disciples. A nobody.
The Hebrew Scriptures themselves anticipate the shame of Christ’s crucifixion. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account,” (Isaiah 53:3). Moreover it is written in the book of Deuteronomy, “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon that tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” (Deut 21:22-23). Despised. Rejected. Cursed.
This helps us to understand what Fleming Rutledge was getting at when she spoke of the Godlessness of the cross. The cross is Godless because it is totally counter to what we anticipate religious experience is meant to be like. Who would have ever projected their hopes, wishes, longings, and needs onto a crucified man, let alone a crucified God? Christianity is unique in that it is the only religion to have as it’s centre the degradation of its God.
To be executed in such a shameful way was to be rejected by one’s people and cursed by one’s God. Yet from the beginning Christians have worshipped the crucified Christ. This is why Paul said that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. A shameful death is not the sort of sign that religious people look for when they look for the presence of God. We are like the Jews in that we desire signs from God. God, show me you are real. God, if you are real then remove this suffering from me. Show us some razzle-dazzle Lord! And yet the good news is not that God comes rushing in to save us with a show of flamboyance and strength. But rather that he takes on our human form in Christ, entering into our captivity to sin, only to become nothing, to be weak and powerless, to be mocked and degraded. That Christ helps us in this way, by virtue of his weakness and suffering, turns our expectation of God on it’s head. Folly! Scandal!
Yet this is precisely what God’s love looks like. As we heard in that towering gospel passage this morning: For God so, what? Loved the world. That he? Gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life, (John 3:16). Christ voluntarily and joyfully gave himself up on the cross to be condemned, enslaved, and made subject to death, entering into the deepest darkness of our human condition, and he did so for us—in our place and on our behalf—so that you and I might be liberated from the power of sin and death. Thanks be to God!
A crucifixion is, as Rutledge puts it, totally unsuitable as an object of faith. And yet not only is it an object of faith, for those who are being saved it is the power of God, writes Paul. The love of Christ poured out on that shameful Cross is powerful and accomplishes much. For by the cross we are brought out of darkness into light, out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. By his suffering and death, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him. Not the cross plus something else. Just the cross. Whatever it is you are facing at whatever moment the cross is sufficient for your weakness. For “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (John 3:17). And, as we come to the altar rail in a few moments we will eat of the fruit of the tree of the cross, Christ’s own Body and Blood.
It is for this very reason that we must resist the temptation to hide our faces from the cross and to esteem it not. In the same letter that we heard read this morning the Apostle Paul writes that he is willing to set everything else aside except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). My prayer is that we as a church would take the same approach. That the one non-negotiable for us would be the proclamation of Christ crucified. That we would hold on to this more fiercely than we would any of our other beloved traditions, no matter how long “we’ve always done things this way.” If we’re going to be absolutely rigid and uncompromising about anything, let it be the cross. May we be a community that is growing, always growing, in it’s knowledge of and trust in the love of God poured out for us and for the world on that shameful cross. May God grant us the courage to draw nearer to this unimaginable act of God’s love for human creatures. And may we come to know more deeply the wisdom and power of God.
 For these few paragraphs on the shame of the crucifixion I am indebted to the work of Fleming Rutledge. Particularly the second chapter of her book The Crucifixion entitled, ‘The Godlessness of the Cross.’
 Rutledge, 92.
 Rutledge, 75.
 Rutledge, 75.
 Rutledge, 75.
 Rutledge, 82.