Sunday, September 14th

HOLY CROSS DAY

Numbers 21:4b–9
Psalm 98:1–4
Romans 14:1–12
John 3:13–17

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross so that he might draw the whole world to himself. To those who look upon the cross, grant your wisdom, healing, and eternal life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Holy Cross Day originated with the dedication of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem in 335 C.E. This church was built by the Emperor Constantine on the site of what he believed to be the tomb of Jesus. Constantine’s rise and eventual domination of the Roman Empire marked a turning point for the church. Whereas before the church had been an illegal sect surviving on the margins of the empire, now under Constantine’s patronage the church was being placed on a trajectory that would ultimately lead to its becoming the official imperial religion. Given my ambivalence over this development and its consequences for the church’s theology and practice, I am more inclined to mark this day with sackcloth and ashes than with the “spirit of celebration” called for in the annual worship guide published by my denomination. Indeed, I was sorely tempted to ignore the day altogether and observe the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost instead. Obviously, I have opted to observe Holy Cross Day and preach on the lessons appointed for that occasion. I have made one exception, however. I will retain the reading from Romans appointed for Pentecost 14 rather than the Holy Cross reading at I Corinthians 1:18-24.

It is remarkable how within the space of half a century the cross, Rome’s chief symbol of terror employed against its enemies, became the honored symbol of its official faith. Even the staunchest critic of “Christendom” cannot fail to acknowledge the rich cultural, social and political contributions of the church to the development of what we have come to call “Western Civilization.” But equally as well, the champions of Christendom can hardly ignore the price of imperial cooption. Whatever potential for dialogue and reconciliation between the church and the synagogue remained at the dawn of the 4th Century died when Christianity became the faith of the realm. In its infancy, the church had only its witness and proclamation with which to battle its opponents. Yet even so, it experienced remarkable success in persuading them. By the time Islam came on the scene, the church’s interests were so thoroughly aligned with those of the empire that it had nothing more than the sword with which to do battle. Sadly, that mode of hostile confrontation has dominated the church’s relationship with Islam ever since. It became increasingly difficult for the church to identify with the marginalized who were of special concern to Jesus while occupying center stage in the drama of world domination. Gradually, the church’s mission drifted further away from being a radical alternative to empire and began to understand its role as constituting the moral underpinning for imperial society. That is why most European countries still have the cross somewhere in their flags.

This Constantinian understanding of the church is still dominant even in our own nation whose constitution draws a distinct line between church and state. A substantial percentage (perhaps a majority) of Americans would probably answer affirmatively if asked whether the United States is a Christian country. What this means to any one individual is anybody’s guess. But I suspect it means that our country is founded and held together by Christian morals. It follows, then, that the church is somehow responsible for ensuring that these morals are upheld for the good of society.

The church, however, was simply not designed to be an organ of the Roman Empire or any nation state. Its ethics were not created for ordering society, but for forming the mind of Christ among communities of disciples. The absurdity of making the cross a symbol of imperial faith becomes clear when you try to imagine an American congregation suspending a hangman’s noose over the altar in place of the cross. I can only imagine the shock, horror and outrage a stunt like that would inspire. Yet that is precisely the reaction the cross should inspire and would-if it had not been robbed of its symbolic content by years of imperial honor and adoration. This week I was reading an article on a blog maintained by one of a growing number of angry young atheists. After reciting a litany of abuses she had suffered at the hands of Christians, this atheist concluded with dripping sarcasm, “but what can you expect of a religion that has an instrument of torture as its chief symbol.” I think this young atheist unwittingly handed us a complement, albeit one that we have not rightly earned. She seems to assume that we fully understand what the cross is; that we remember what it was used for; and that we knowingly worship a man who received the death sentence upon it. Sadly, we don’t deserve credit for such presumed awareness. The cross has become a benign ornament suitable for use in jewelry, graphic design and road markers for traffic fatalities in some states. I could wish more Christians were as clear about the scandal of the cross as this atheist!

I am observing Holy Cross Sunday because it affords me an opportunity to talk about the cross. Now that the age of Christendom is drawing to a close and the church is finding itself at the margins once again, perhaps we are finally in a position to re-discover the power of the cross and the return to proclaiming the reign of God rather than frantically trying to prop up the reign of Caesar.

Numbers 21:4b–9

Numbers is the fourth book of the “Five Scrolls” or “Pentateuch,” sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Its title comes from the English translation of the Greek title, “arithmoi,” given to the book in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). I am guessing the name “Numbers” stems from the first several chapters of the book which narrate a census of each of the twelve Israelite tribes family by family. The Hebrew Scriptures use the title “Bemidbar” which means “in the wilderness” and aptly describes the content of this book narrating Israel’s forty years of wandering between the Exodus from Egypt and her entry into the land of Canaan. During this period the generation of Israelites that left Egypt with Moses and Aaron died and was succeeded by a new generation. From the old generation, only Moses and Joshua remain alive at the close of Numbers. It is clear that Joshua, not Moses, will lead this new generation into the land of Canaan. Throughout this period, the people are faced with numerous challenges that put their faith in God to the test. Though the faithfulness of Israel is often less than adequate, God remains steadfast from beginning to end.

Our lesson begins with the people of Israel setting out on a new leg of their journey following a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad. Arad was a Canaanite city of the Negeb located in present day Tell Arad, Israel. Its ruins consist of a large mound containing potsherds indicating that Arad was first occupied in the 4th Century B.C.E. The site is about fifty miles north of Kadish where Israel remained encamped for extended periods of time.

After this battle, the people set out from Mt. Hor (precise location of which is unknown) and take the “way of the Red Sea.” The Hebrew actually reads “reed sea,” but it is likely that the Red Sea is intended here. This road, which begins at Ezion-geber at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, would have taken Israel to the west of Edom rather than through it, the objective set forth in the text. Vs. 4. It is at this point that the people become discouraged, complain against Moses and even against God. They go so far as to call the manna with which God has been feeding them “this miserable food,” food to which the Psalms refer as “the bread of angels.” Psalm 78:25. Vs. 5. God responds by sending “fiery serpents” among the people, translated by the NRSV as “poisonous serpents.” The assumption seems to be that the serpents are merely a species of snake with a bite that causes a burning sensation. That would comport with our 19th Century penitent for interpreting the scriptures in such a way as not to violate cannons of the Enlightenment. But despite these noble efforts at ridding the Hebrew Scriptures of primitive supernaturalism, the problem remains. Not only are we lacking any known species of near eastern reptile capable of inflicting such a bite, but we are also faced with the biological reality that no snake of any kind travels in large groups. (When was the last time you saw a herd of snakes?) Nor do snakes typically attack without significant provocation.

More likely than not, the serpents were understood by the narrator not as any known species of snake, but as one of the many mythical creatures thought to inhabit the desert, such as the “flying serpent” referenced in Isaiah 30:6. In any event, the creatures, whatever they are, were sent by God to punish Israel’s faithless complaining. Recognizing their sin, the people repent and turn to Moses for aid. As he has so often done before, Moses intercedes with God for the sake of Israel. Vs. 7.

What follows is truly fascinating and, in some respects, difficult to understand. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and elevate it on a pole-seemingly a direct violation of the First Commandment (or the Second, depending on how one numbers them): “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…” Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8. The serpent, though greatly feared, was nevertheless a common symbol of healing and fertility. One wonders why Moses would be instructed to create such a symbol as an instrument of healing where it could so easily lead to idolatrous worship. Indeed, according to II Kings this very consequence occurred necessitating King Hezekiah’s destruction of the very same bronze serpent centuries later. II Kings 18:4.

Of course, the Abrahamic religions have always had ambivalent feelings about images. Islam forbids absolutely any image of God (Allah) and discourages (in varying degrees) images of any creature. Similarly, Christianity has vacillated between the extremes of icon worship and iconoclasm. The danger of images is nowhere better illustrated than in our consistent depictions of God as male. Though one would be hard pressed to make from the scriptures the case for a gendered God, Christian art could hardly lead you to any different conclusion. Our images invariably turn out to be limited by our own cultural, sociological and ideological biases and therefore limiting in their portrayal of the God we claim to worship.

That said, it seems we cannot do without images. When we are physically forbidden to make them, our imagination continues to manufacture images. Moreover, the doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14) and even that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 1:15. Our liturgy urges us to adore the Word made visible in Jesus that we might learn to love the God we cannot see. We are imaginative creatures who comprehend our universe by means of images.

Some years ago, I was very taken with a painting of the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The painting was by a Mexican artist whose depiction of the temple’s architecture along with the dress of Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna was with imagery drawn from his own cultural environment. I clipped a copy of this painting out of the magazine in which I found it. Some weeks later, I found the same biblical scene portrayed in an early Byzantine wall mural in National Geographic. I clipped this one also and put it into the same shoebox with the other print. I now have about half a dozen such portrayals of the Presentation. Singly, they are time bound, parochial and culturally circumscribed. In their plurality, they reflect from multiple dimensions a miracle too beautiful and magnificent for any single imagination to contain. They represent the impact of a marvelous narrative as it rolls through the ages gathering meaning as a snowball gathers mass. The difference between an icon and an idol is simply this: the idol points only to itself limiting the God it would represent to the confines of a single image, whereas the icon points beyond itself to that which is finally beyond imagination.

Psalm 98:1–4

Like Psalm 96 and Psalm 97 before it, this psalm calls upon all peoples and nations to join with the rest of the created world in giving praise to the God of Israel. The command to “sing a new song” echoes Isaiah 42:10 where the prophet joyfully proclaims a way of return from exile in Babylon requiring fresh songs of praise. “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” Isaiah 42:9. Newness is a recurring theme in the New Testament as well: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” II Corinthians 5:17; “Behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21:5.

Notice the refrain of “victory” throughout the psalm. Vss. 1-3. The Hebrew word translated as “victory” is actually from the root “Yeshua” or “salvation,” the root also of Joshua and, of course, Jesus. God’s victory or salvation is for the ends of the earth, not only for Israel. Vs. 3. Augustine says of this opening verse to the psalm: “When the whole earth is enjoined to sing a new song, it is meant, that peace singeth a new song.” Augustine, Expositions on the Book of Psalms, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol.3 (reprinted 1979, edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., pub. by WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 480. Still, Israel is instrumental in proclaiming and making known that victory. Her song is an overture to the symphony of the new creation.

The victory or salvation of God is, according to the New Testament witness, accomplished through the cross of Jesus Christ. Victory is therefore demilitarized and shown to be, not retributive justice over the enemy, but suffering love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7. It is through the “folly” of love which endures even the cross in order to embrace the world that the world is finally saved.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 98 in its entirety.

Romans 14:1–12

Last week Paul made the point that disciples of Jesus ought to have no debt beyond that of love toward one another. In this Sunday’s lesson he puts shoe leather on that concept. Friendships, marriages and intentional religious communities so frequently fail because they assume that, deep down under, we are really all the same. That is a lie. The deeper you go into the heart of a person, the more you discover how complex, unique and different s/he is from you. The more you get to know another person, the more obvious it becomes that there are some things about him/her that are beyond your understanding and that you will probably never comprehend. You cannot genuinely love another person as long as you insist on viewing him/her as just a variation of yourself. Love accepts the fact that there is a vast gulf between each of us. Love can do that because, as St. Paul reminds us, “love never ends.” I Corinthians 13:8. Because we have all eternity to grow in our knowledge and understanding of one another, there is no rush. We can afford to be patient.

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” Vs. 1. According to one commentator, the “weak in faith” are those with “an inadequate grasp of the great principle of salvation by faith in Christ; the consequence of which will be an anxious desire to make this salvation more certain by the scrupulous fulfilment of formal rules.” Sandy, William and Headlam, Arthur C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary, c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark, Ltd.) p. 384. I believe this to be an oversimplification. Paul seems principally to be addressing the “strong” here who likely characterize their scrupulous opponents as “weak.” It is unlikely that these scrupulous folks would so characterize themselves! For the sake of argument, Paul utilizes these patronizing terms, but only to stand them on their heads. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 834. There is a degree of sarcasm here as Paul admonishes the seemingly “strong” to exercise control over their urge to disabuse the “weak” of their misconceptions and so find genuine inner strength to love the “weak” without having to make them over into their own likeness. So also Paul assures us that the “weak” one will stand strong in the day of judgment because “the master is able to make him stand.” Vs. 4. In short, Paul is undermining the phony distinction between those who fancy themselves “strong” and the ones they contemptuously view as “weak.” No one is strong enough stand on his/her own strength and no one is too weak to be upheld by the strength of the Lord.

It is difficult to ascertain precisely what calendar of holy days or dietary restrictions are involved here. While it is tempting to assume that this dispute is between gentile believers not steeped in Jewish tradition and Jewish believers still deeply attached to their religious practices, the assumption might well be misguided. Anders Nygren points out that the weak were probably not Jewish believers because there is no blanket commandment in the Torah against eating meat or drinking wine. Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans (c. 1949 by Fortress Press) p. 442. Vs. 2. Again, however, Paul might well be employing hyperbole in order to make his point. Just as there probably exists no person or group that “believes he may eat anything,” so also it would be unusual for a 1st Century resident of Rome to eat “only vegetables.” Vs. 2. “The rhetorical effect of placing these parameters so far beyond the likely, actual behavior of groups in Rome is to enable each group to smile and feel included in the subsequent argument.” Jewett, supra at 838. At the end of the day, Paul’s stance toward both groups, the so called “strong” and the so called “weak,” is unmistakably evenhanded. Both weak and strong are present in the Body of Christ by Jesus’ gracious invitation. In that sense, all are “weak.” Both weak and strong are enabled to stand before God on the day of judgment in the strength of their faith in Jesus. In that sense, all are “strong.”

We need not dwell overly much on framing the issues Paul is addressing in this lesson. They are almost certainly moot by now. Nonetheless, Paul’s instructions to the church are insightful and instructive. Without even recognizing it, churches frequently seek people “who fit in,” who “share our sense of mission,” who “are like us.” The departure of large numbers in my own Lutheran Church over their inability to live in community with gay, lesbian and transgendered persons testifies to the ongoing relevance of Paul’s argument here. As one who has remained in the church precisely because I support its inclusive posture, it is tempting to posture myself as one of the “strong” and excoriate those who left as the “weak.” But I believe that in so doing I would be falling into the same flawed outlook held by the disputing groups in the Roman church. This schism must be seen as our church’s failure to accept one another, be patient with one another and allow the Spirit to complete in her own good time the mind of Christ in all of us.

John 3:13–17

For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, see my post from Sunday, March 16th. Suffice to say that Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who has come to him by night. Nicodemus, having been told that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being “born from above” mistakenly believes that Jesus means he must be born all over again-a seeming impossibility. When Jesus explains that entering the Kingdom is not so much a re-birth as it is a new birthing by God’s adoption of us through the Spirit, Nicodemus is still mystified. Jesus then says to Nicodemus what we have in our lesson for Sunday: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Vss. 13-15.

The reference to Moses is our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. Israelites bitten by the fiery serpents in the wilderness found healing through looking toward the bronze snake fashioned by Moses and set up on a pole. In the same way, the Son of Man lifted up on the cross will be the One to whom all look for salvation from sin and for the gift of eternal life. The cross, it should be remembered, was the most shameful and humiliating form of execution practiced in the Roman Empire (to say nothing of painful!). That crucifixion could be equated with exaltation must have seemed no less incredible to Nicodemus than rebirth. Yet that is the theme of John’s gospel which speaks repeatedly about Jesus’ crucifixion as his glorification. The cross of Christ is the Glory of Christ precisely because it demonstrates concretely what the well-known John 3:16 means by telling us that God to gave “his only begotten Son.” God’s love for the world costs God dearly.

I also want to put in a good word for the lesser known John 3:17: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Too much religion, much of it going under the Christian label, does indeed give the impression, if it does not say outright, that God is in the business of condemnation. I wish I could say that such notions were limited to fringe groups which, thankfully, are a small minority if also a noisy one. Too often this year I have had members of my own church ask me whether, through the extreme weather we have seen this year, “God is trying to tell us something.” Where do they get such ideas? Not from me I hope! The cross is the final hermeneutic for discerning God’s will. Do you really think that the God who refused to take revenge for the murder of his own Son would send a hurricane and take the lives of hundreds of people because of the way some of them have sex? Would the God who would not send in the heavenly Marines to save his own Son from an unjust death lose his temper and smite a nation for broadcasting four letter words? If God were going to inflict a catastrophic judgment of retribution on the world for sin, he surely would have done it on Good Friday. But God did not retaliate then. God won’t retaliate at all. That is not God’s way.

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