The Feast of the Holy Cross
“And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” John 12:32
(Listen to this sermon here.)
I was taught early on in my theological training that one must always read the Scriptures in context. A sage soul is supposed to have said, “A text without a context is a pretext.” The context is often understood to be the all of the rest of Scripture – the entire Bible. Rightly so. At a minimum, always read at least the chapter before and the chapter after the passage being considered. Yet in addition to the Scripture itself, there is also the context of the historical faith Tradition as well as life as it unfolds around us: our families, work and school places and yes, national and global history. Today we read the Scriptures for Holy Cross Day in the context of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center 15 years ago this morning.
It is one of those days when most of us remember where we were. One of the ways I remember is through this piece of stone (hold up stone) given to me by a dear friend who was one of the amazing first responders of the New York City Fire Department. It is from the rubble of one of the towers. On the day itself, I was sitting at my desk in my office of the Diocese of Central New York. I was the brand spanking new bishop-elect and had been in my seat all of 10 days when a staff member walked into my office a few minutes before 9 AM to say a plane had hit one of the towers. We all assumed it was an awful accident. Then, not long after, we heard of the other attacks. As a staff we gathered in prayer as we were shaken to our core. We called loved ones. We put together a liturgy to be held at noon at the Cathedral. Standing room only. I also had a former parishioner who worked in one of the restaurants at the base of the Towers and other friends who worked in the immediate area. It took several agonizing hours to find out they were alive.
Look with me at today’s Gospel in the context of the events of the 15th anniversary of 9/11. “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” John’s Gospel understands Jesus’ self-offering on the cross as his exaltation. Thus he is “lifted up” as on a throne. An instrument of death that was meant to be a political statement of Rome’s power, that was meant to humiliate and destroy, becomes, in the hands of God, an invitation of total love, mercy and forgiveness.
I wonder. Is it possible that the World Trade Center attack in 2001 that was meant to destroy, fracture and humiliate could become an occasion for the healing of the nations, even now, 15 years later? So far I have seen the original attack usher in more violence, more destruction, retribution, vengeance and more breaking of global relationships, not less.
The One lifted up, however, calls forth other possibilities. We can, in the power of the Spirit, choose how we respond just as Jesus did. For the record let me just state the obvious: the cross was no easy thing. Yet even in the face of the horror of the terrorism of the cross, Jesus’ desire was to draw everyone to his throne of love. What was lifted up on that cross was Jesus’ body yes, but also lifted up on the tree of life was a new way of believing, a new way of understanding, a new way of acting, a new way of choosing to live in relationship with one another. That Holy Cross calls forth a new way that approaches life with the desire to be a self-offering while we walk this planet, just as Jesus was a self-offering to God as he walked the earth. Do I dare say it: Following Jesus costs us our life.
Let us be clear. We are not talking here of pretending that something of a horrific nature did not occur and we just look the other way. One of the things the cross event teaches us, at the very center of our Christian faith, is that evil is real. Jesus experienced it and bore it, for us, meaning not so much that Jesus died instead of us, but that he died on our behalf, as one us, in the face of great evil. Of course we act in response to evil. The question for us who say we follow Jesus is: how will we act?
The cross is the event in the life of our Lord that pre-eminently reveals the very nature of the activity of divine love and manifests God’s character as love directed toward a broken world full of broken people. It is through the cross that we learn what it means that God is love as shown to us in Jesus, defined and revealed by the cross. The Letter to the Philippians and as it echoes the prophet Isaiah, sees the cross as God’s reclamation of the universe to God’s sovereignty and glory. It is indeed “Crux est Mundi Medicina,” the Latin title of the newsletter of the Episcopal monastic Order of the Holy Cross, meaning, “The Cross is the Medicine of the World.”
Baptized into Jesus’ death in order to be raised with him, we show forth our baptismal calling by emptying ourselves, taking the form of a servant, laying down our lives in order to give life, all out of a deeply developed and tended life seeking a relationship with the living Christ. Our work is not done until everyone has had the opportunity to know that same embrace of love that transforms us and all creation.
So, with what does the cross leave us? It leaves us with love as Jesus draws all to himself when he is lifted up. All means all, yet it has been said that, “The one thing that unites Christians is our forgetting how much we are loved by God in Christ” (Soren Kierkegaard). Although meant otherwise by Rome, in Jesus the cross is love, and as our baptismal reality assures us, we are grafted into Christ in our baptism in a love that will never let us go.
I got to see it once again in a woman just a few weeks ago when I celebrated the Eucharist in an Episcopal retirement center in New York. As we prayed the confession before communion, I saw her reach her hand and gently take hold of the cross around her neck and hold it. What I saw in that moment was that she knew the cross was her hope and on that cross was her love.
We go forth now forgiven, renewed, restored. Can we dare to believe, even on this 15th anniversary of 9/11, that the Christ is still drawing all to himself, making all things new, through us? We have a choice to make. May it be the way of Jesus, revealed on the cross, for there is the hope of the world.