Lift High the Cross

Year B, Lent 4: Numbers 21:4-9, Eph. 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21

Sermon to Pohick Church • March 14, 2021

The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi

Tom and I are fans of the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. You might remember one of our favorite stand-up routines: Seinfeld is describing a kid in a malfunctioning Superhero costume on Halloween.

When the rubber band holding his plastic mask pops, the kid yells to his friends, “Hey, wait UP!” Seinfeld notes it’s not “wait,” but “wait UP!” He says “Children are always using the word UP. That’s because when you’re little, everything is UP: Wake up, hold up, shut up, I want to stay UP!” His point was, kids are constantly looking UP to their superheroes, which is why they’re willing to endure those sweaty, defective superhero masks.

Why do children – and many adults – lift up our superheroes like Superman, Batman, and the Avengers, as icons of all that’s good? We look up to those Hollywood legends because they rescue victims from tall buildings, locomotives and speeding bullets! We rejoice when they destroy the forces of evil, avenge the villains, and save those in distress!

Looking up to superheroes as triumphant warriors reminds me of the somewhat militant language of the hymn we just sang, “Lift High the Cross!” I don’t know about you, but it’s one of my favorite hymns, and I love to sing it!  

For centuries, the Cross of Christ has inspired spirituality, mysticism, theologies, and hymns like this one. The story of the Cross is fraught with several very different notions about its meaning, and how we are saved by it.

Various theologians of the atonement have attempted to explain this symbol of our faith. There are misguided ideas about the crucified Christ as triumphant rescuer. Other theologies characterize the salvific power of the Cross as a debt paid, as ransom, or as victory over sin and death.

What do we believe? Can we get it right? If I asked each of you about the meaning of the cross and how we are saved, I wonder how many answers we would get?

Perhaps there is no one “right” explanation for the mysterious power of the Cross. Even so, discerning what the cross reveals about God is crucial. For what we believe about God is often how we mirror God.

Maybe the hymn “Lift the High the Cross” could lead us to new insights.

It’s essential to understand the hymn’s “back story.” It was written in 1887 by George William Kitchin, one of our Anglican predecessors from the Church of England. Designed to be a processional hymn, it was meant to be sung by the entire congregation. The cross bearer would lead the altar party and choir into the sanctuary, lifting high the cross as the central icon of our faith.

The hymn has a marching rhythm and a passionate energy, one reason I love it! Well, at least I love the music and tempo! But I wonder about the tone of the text:

Come Christians follow where our captain trod, our King victorious, Christ the Son of God. Led on their way by this triumphant sign, the hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.”

As John’s Gospel often proclaims, I do see the cross as a sign of victory. But I also wonder what the original cross bearer, Jesus, would say about the hymn’s triumphant and somewhat militant tone. The one who carried the full weight of human sin, endured the persecution of a world super-power, and suffered the violence of soldiers…What would Jesus make of this hymn, written in the height of the British Empire’s triumphalism?

And the British aren’t the only ones! Over the centuries, there are countless others who have lifted high the cross as a sign of force.

You may know the story of 4th century pagan Emperor Constantine in the waning days of the Roman Empire. In the fight of his life, an army twice the size of his was threatening to destroy Rome. The night before battle he had a dream in which he saw the cross rising like the sun with the message, “In Hoc Signo Vinces,” Latin for “with this sign you will win.” Against all odds, Constantine won, and proclaimed the Christian faith as the state religion. To his credit, he genuinely tried to interpret the message. I wonder if he ever grasped the meaning of the cross.

Besides Constantine, others have marched, fought and killed, as they lifted high the cross in the name of Christ. There were the Crusaders in medieval times, all the way to the persecutors of various faiths worldwide today.

Christians and the cross! It’s a story fraught with misunderstanding and misconception. Christians often connect God with coercion, guilt, retribution – the idea that his power should somehow rise up and crush by force all that is evil.

We have seen the damaging effects of this idea in our nation this year – from every part of our society, whatever the political persuasion. Last summer, militant protestors lashed out violently “in the name of justice.” This winter, an angry mob stormed the US Capitol “in the name of freedom.” You may know people who have dug into intractable trenches over their beliefs.

In our Just Mercy study about racism and capital punishment, we are addressing God’s justice. We ask, is it retributive justice (about punishment, paying debts, and violence)? Or is it restorative justice (about undeserved forgiveness, new beginnings, and grace)?  We are asking the question: how do we look upon the Cross and understand the saving power of Christ’s death?

For our image of God affects how we act. We can easily misinterpret Scripture, skew that image, and project it onto others. We have to be careful with Biblical metaphors; they are meant to be icons or signs that we contemplate – not literal descriptions. Jesus is clearly not a “lamb.” Nor did God demand Jesus’ suffering and death in payment for Adam’s sin. Jesus never speaks of his death as a ransom for sins, but as a gift of Love. And Jesus never, ever uses force.

Misinterpretations are the reason so many fear God, hate God, avoid God, distrust God, or are deeply disappointed in God. Many have been given a flawed image of God. Essentially, they cry out, ”Why doesn’t God do something about the world? Why doesn’t God crush evil?” and ultimately they wonder, “Why don’t we?

What Scripture and our lives do reveal about God, is the image that we see in technicolor on the Cross: God is neither coercion, nor threat, nor the great avenger of evil and sin! On the contrary, God is life, light, truth, and beauty.

Fr. Ron Rolheiser writes, Jesus does not crush evil by force; he intentionally absorbs evil and transforms it. He does not kill enemies; he forgives them.

God’s gentle, persistent invitation is like a mother coaxing a step out of a young child. He calls us to look at the Cross and discern the victory of self-less love.

Perhaps we cannot intellectually grasp the full meaning of the Cross. But by the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we can intuitively perceive and believe in the redeeming power of the Cross. As God’s beloved children, we can enlarge our vision, embrace the mystery, and believe in the source of love and forgiveness.

What we believe about Jesus lifted on the cross really does matter. In our gospel reading, John uses the word “believe” five times. Jesus says, “…so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

If we pay attention, what we perceive, believe in, and emulate, is a God who does not swoop in to rescue us from humiliation, pain, and death. We follow a God who redeems. Who breathes forgiveness and restores new and resurrected life after those experiences.

Perhaps there is no one “right” explanation for the mysterious power of the Cross. That said, the process of discerning what the cross reveals about God is critical. For what we believe about God is how we mirror God.

As we look upon the Cross, beware of looking up to Jesus Christ as superhero and rescuer. Instead, believe in Christ as redeemer. And as we contemplate the cross of our victorious king, we will mirror a humility, selfless love, and forgiveness that transforms and saves the world.

I leave you today with this word from mystic John of the  Cross:

“I looked upon the cross and heard there the song of love.”

Amen.