We typically sing the rousing lyrics on a Sunday in Lent: “In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time.”
The idea of the cross towering over various “wrecks” across the ages became all-the-more poignant in the harrowing days of anger and grief after 9/11. That twisted, iron-girder cross rising from the rubble of Ground Zero came to serve as a grim icon of that horrific time and place.
That’s what crosses do, right? They mark or memorialize terrible, awful, very bad, often-fatal events. Fields of crosses sprawl across Arlington National Cemetery and the vast World War II graveyards of France, Belgium, Italy, and Germany. They even pop up along roadsides to mark the spots where horrific crashes claim lives.
We customarily place crosses at locations of traumatic death, but we usually don’t erect crosses in places of life and liveliness, or hustle and bustle, or anywhere else associated the everyday business of our comings and goings.
In Lower Manhattan, before September 11th, no crosses rose from the World Trade Center Plaza. And with good reason! Seeing a cross sprouting smackdab in the middle of this country’s greatest symbol of economic power would be absurd – and probably more than just a little sacrilegious.
After all, a cross has little or nothing to do with stock deals, bond trading, corporate takeovers, and all the other high-octane business that big wheelers and dealers once conducted in the Twin Towers.
In a special edition published after the terrorist attacks, the editor of Time magazine declared, “If you want to humble a nation, you attack its cathedrals.” The Twin Towers were cathedrals of commerce unto themselves and thus had no need of crosses. With rooftop antennae scraping the sky, the Twin Towers stood tall as is, as grand basilicas of power and wealth, sturdy citadels with no need of adjustment or change.
Yet, in this morning’s Scripture lesson, as he always does, Jesus turns our notions on a dime. He presents the cross as something to which we must cling every day — not merely as an admission ticket through the pearly gates but also as our one sure hope of syncing up our living, moving, and being with his.
As we resume the biblical story of God with us, listen and watch for the always-surprising and sometimes-disturbing Word of the Lord midchapter in Matthew 16.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:13-28)
Christians are familiar – perhaps too familiar – with the idea of “taking up a cross” and following Jesus.
You and I talk of bearing crosses whenever hardship befalls us, and that’s not entirely off base. But the Lord’s command to “take up a cross” is actually quite revolutionary and counter-cultural, cutting across the grain of expectation for which the cross stands.
For some, the cross these days conveniently morphs into a political statement, flaring into public consciousness and controversy whenever someone wants to plant a cross in the town square, outside the courthouse, or within a public-school classroom.
Which begs a hard question of faith: Do we in the Church understand the daily reality of the cross in our own lives, or do we tend to “reserve” the cross for special occasions, political fights, quiet cemeteries, and sanctuary accoutrement? Far too often, it feels like the latter, the shiny bling of cross necklaces and other adornments overshadowing the true-but-demanding, life-altering, attitude-adjusting power of the cross.
In the tiny European country of Lithuania stands “The Hill of Crosses.”
It took shape in the 1800s when the neighboring Russian czar was murdering scores of Lithuanians. As each family member, friend, or neighbor fell to the czar’s murderous whims, the survivors memorialized the victim with a cross. With the czar on a relentless, bloody rampage, crosses soon blanketed the hallowed ground of the hill. The Russians hated the somber display, so they tore down the crosses.
Refusing to be intimidated, the townsfolk kept adding and adding more and more crosses to honor their dead, and today there are thousands upon thousands of crosses. And what started off as a memorial of hopeless death eventually became a defiant symbol of new possibility.
Bold hope and new possibility arising from the cross – that’s the bottom line of our Scripture lesson, though the disciples don’t see it that way, and maybe some of us don’t either.
On the heels of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Lord tells the disciples to keep the exciting news of the Messiah’s arrival to themselves. But what Jesus doesn’t want to keep secret are the implications that becoming one of his followers demand. And the main thing about becoming a disciple involves an emblem of suffering, shame, and death – the cross. That’s why Jesus talks about those grim topics, Matthew’s Gospel says, “from that time on.”
But, of course, that doesn’t sit well with the politically minded disciples, starting with the one who had just made that spot-on confession of Jesus as Lord – and whom Jesus has just blessed mightily for having done so – namely, the apostle Peter himself.
Peter still holds the all-time world record for the fastest, most abrupt change in spiritual status.
Within the span of only a few minutes, Peter goes from a triumphant “Rocky Balboa the Blessed” to a cursed “Satan Incarnate the Scandal.” The change-of-status happens when Peter, later the interpreter of the Holy Spirit’s unexpected arrival at Pentecost, takes it upon himself to give Jesus a little lesson in theology. With an arm draped around Jesus’s shoulder, Peter quietly but sternly scolds Jesus. “God forbid that this should ever happen to you, Lord!” And in response, Jesus labels Peter a devil.
But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. He goes on to label Peter a scandal, which in their day refers to a rock over which a person stumbles. Peter is still being depicted in terms of rocks, but now he’s somehow morphed from cornerstone to trip-hazard!
Then, just to be sure, to emphasize the difference between being a useful building block and a dangerous stumbling block, Jesus launches into his famous words about cross-bearing – then to Peter and now to us.
The cross, and our willingness to let our everyday life be shaped by that cross, is what makes all the difference in the world – literally and figuratively.
And that difference is this: The one thing that even hell itself cannot extinguish is not something powerful in the ways in which the world reckons and measures such things. No, the powerful force that evil cannot destroy is, in reality, something weak: The power of the cross, the ultimate symbol of weakness and vulnerability, yet still the source of new possibility – if we let the cross work that miracle.
The Gospel way of the cross demands self-sacrifice, suffering-but-eager servanthood, gracious-and-courageous loving of friend, neighbor, and stranger – attributes, qualities, and behaviors that really do hold the power and ability to make a difference and change the world.
Pushing back on those desires of heaven are the devil and his minions. Their attacks are relentless but futile, because they’ll never-ever win over a soul that’s been truly transformed by the cross or capture a heart that finds its strong hope and blazing energy in the example of weakness and vulnerability that just is Jesus on the cross.
Jesus warns that just viewing life the way he views it – from the cross – will itself lead to a degree of suffering.
If the cross, and faithfulness to Jesus who died on that cross, is going to shape our everyday lives, then conflict with the attitudes and beliefs in the prevailing culture should be expected. There might be certain job promotions we shouldn’t get or take as Christians, certain business opportunities we should decline, certain things we won’t go along with, say, or do, certain politicians who don’t deserve our support, certain actions and activities that ought to take priority over others.
A person can gain the whole world, Jesus sternly cautions, but still lose his or her soul. And if, in the end, when Christ returns in glory, a person does discover, much to their horror and chagrin, that his or her soul has been forfeited, then not all the riches of this earth will be enough to buy back that soul.
Some things come to us only as gifts of grace.
Life with God is just such a gift, and it was purchased for us by Jesus on a cross, and it is sustained by wonder of resurrection. Every day and in every place, that cross towers over us, and we shouldn’t want it any other way.
For by some miracle of heaven that defies human understanding but is nevertheless confirmed in our baptism, you and I were nailed to that cross with Jesus. And three days later, you and I walked together with Christ from the empty tomb, raised to living a life that’s supposed to be far different from the one we left behind.
To cling to the old rugged cross – to see glory in a cross that towers over the wreckage of your time – means leaving behind the ways and means of the world and hitching your spiritual wagon to the abundant love, never-ending grace, and peace beyond understanding that’s made known to us in Christ Jesus.
In the heart of God and in the eyes of Jesus, you and I are spiritual works in progress, easily awed by and lured into cathedrals of commerce, and grand basilicas of power and wealth, and sturdy citadels of the status quo.
But Jesus calls us to take up a cross that adjusts our attitude and changes our priorities. And so we sing:
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me;
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Thanks be to God, we glory in the cross that towers over the wrecks of our lives and our world. For in the cross, there is glory and joy that through all time abide.
Ancient words – heartwarming, mind-altering, and ever true – changing me and changing you. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Pentecost Sunday, June 5, 2022. It is part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by M. Eugene Boring and Scott Hoezee inform the message.