Cross of Christ
What makes a sanctuary a sanctuary? What turns it from four walls into a reverent place? Are four walls even necessary? If not, what is necessary? To me it is all about one thing and one thing only. Some have one that is made of rough timber, carved and rustic. Others have a twisted wrought iron one. Some stand twenty feet tall on the back wall and others are brought in during the processional and taken out again during the recessional. Many have one that is polished brass with IHS in the middle of it, just like the one that sits on our altar.
For me the focal point, which moves a place from being a regular room or location into a sanctuary, is the cross. The cross draws our eyes to the reason we are here and why we worship the God we worship. The cross is the symbol that defines who we are and what God did for us. It encompasses everything our faith is about. It serves as a reminder, as a guide, and as a calling. Georgia Harkness said it this way, “The cross [is] God’s way of uniting suffering with love.”
Just think about what this means for a moment and you can tell why it is our central focus. The cross represents death. It was a means of capital punishment. It would be like us having a giant electric chair or needle on our altar. For the Romans the cross was a sign of death, of suffering, and of punishment. Those who were nailed to it were criminals, murderers, traitors, and deserved the pain they were going through. For us it reminds us of pain, glory, suffering, hope, death, and love. The images it renders in our head speak to the profound nature.
The church I grew up in built a new sanctuary that was finished in 2002. Alycia and I were actually the first couple to be married in this huge place. Behind the pulpit sat the choir, behind the choir is a huge archway and in the archway is nothing. There was a huge debate on what to put back there. Some wanted a fresco, others wanted a huge cross, and others wanted nothing. Nothing won. That is because there was this trend at the turn of the millennium to make sanctuaries as plain as could be because they didn’t want to scare away people new to the faith. Not having a cross stare them down as the entered the sanctuary enabled people to feel welcomed and comfortable. This trend is changing though. Trendy worship services like those called contemporary or emergent are bring back the cross. It may not be shinny medal like ours but rustic beams are now placed on stage with the worship band. Images of the cross are shown up on the screens. People missed the cross because it is our central focus and if it is gone from our sight we are lost.
I actually cannot stand the Christian flag. Now hear me out before you get up and walk out. A flag usually denotes a nation. It is a symbol that is carried into war and sparks immense patriotism. In 1897 in Coney Island, NY, after a speaker did not show up, Charles Overton did an impromptu speech. He noticed the American Flag in the sanctuary and then asked the group what a Christian Flag would look like and what you see in our sanctuary is what came out of it. I wish it didn’t happen though. Because it makes us, it makes Christianity look like a nation, which we are not. We go beyond a nation and country. But beyond that we already have a symbol to rally around. We didn’t need something else to pull our attention towards, it already existed. We have the cross and that is all we need. It is the symbol we rally around and what we point to in order to explain our beliefs. It is our source of strength and hope. It is more powerful than any flag and more reverent than any icon. As Paul Tillich said, “The cross…points beyond itself but participates in the reality to which it points, namely, the saving love of God for humanity.”
There is a powerful scene in the movie The Mission, which is based on true life events. Jeremy Irons plays a Jesuit priest who heads into South American to start a mission. In the end of the movie the Spanish and Portuguese armies attack this peaceful village. Irons leads his people out of the village as the army attacks. He does so in full vestments and while holding the cross they use for worship. In the midst of the gun and cannon fire stands a priest holding a cross and people following. It is a powerful image but one that speaks to the true nature of the symbol that is our focus.
For us the cross represents so much. It tells us what happened to our Savior. By the end of Lent we will retell the story. A story of suffering. A story of pain. A story of innocence and betrayal. A story of sacrifice and a story of unconditional love. Christ’s cross is the place where our savior died for our sins. He took all the sins of the world, the ones people committed before him and ours and everyone else that will live on this earth. He took all that upon himself in order to be the sacrifice that was needed to be with God again. He did this because he loved you.
This is what Jesus was attempting to tell the disciples in the scripture today. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” But we have a tendency to be like Peter here and have another idea. Peter takes Jesus aside and reminds him that this may not be the best public relations strategy. Peter had other ideas. “Jesus if you want to pull in the people you need to look at it differently. We need to think about advertisement spots, maybe a Super Bowl commercial, or a viral video that is catchy like the Mentos and Diet Coke thing. We need to think celebrity sponsorship like Gatorade or Nike. If you really want to bring people in we need to attract them with people they care about, people they want to immolate, people they want to be.”
With that Jesus looks at Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but on human things.” The one who turns out to be the foundation of the church, the one who starts it all, Peter the Rock, attempts to tell Jesus what to do and is scolded and called Satan. Our human ideas tell us that God’s way of doing things is all wrong. Our vision is drastically different than God’s. We tend to get in the way of God more than enabling his will to be done.
There is one thing that we do constantly that does exactly what Peter does to Jesus. We take this symbol on our altar and we leave it there. We say to ourselves that is the place for Jesus and Jesus only. That is where Jesus did his thing and yeah God! But that is not the case. “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The cross is not just for Christ but it is what we are called to carry as well. Jesus uses a legal term here. The Greek word that we translate as deny means to renounce a relationship with someone or a claim on property. If someone wanted to legally divorce themselves from a person or property they would use this word we translate deny. That is what Christ asks us to do. That is what we are to do before we hoist the cross on our shoulders and follow our Savior.
I use to teach swim lessons when I was in high school. I was a life guard at our community’s pool and part of the job was to offer swim lessons to young kids. To swim you have to get into the water, all the way in. You have to release your fear of the water, jump in and learn to swim. Some of that hardest aspects of teaching a 4 year old to swim is to get them in the water, without any life saving devises. No floaties. No life jacket. Just jumping in and trusting me, the swim teacher, they won’t drown. Parents usually would decide at that moment to head up to the counter where they couldn’t watch because their child would cry and cry. But after a while they would calm down. I would reassure them that it would be alright and that they were safe. Soon, after a couple weeks of lessons and getting use to being all in the water, they would be swimming.
We are asked to get all in if we are serious about following Christ. We cannot sit on the side of the pool and kick our legs and think we are swimming. A true follower is all the way in. Jesus tells us that we have a cross to carry it is not just something he does, it is something we are all called to do. That cross is not a burden, it is not a bad relative or situation, it is not something we should dread. The cross we carry looks just like Christ’s. We are to carry a symbol of sacrifice and be willing to sacrifice. We are to carry a symbol of pain and suffering, and be willing to suffer for our Lord. We are to carry a symbol of hope and love, and be willing to give that hope and love to all we come in contact with. We are to carry this symbol of death and be willing to die for the one who died for us. If you are not ready to do that…then you are not all in.
We would like it to be different. We might say to God today, I’m willing to carry your cross but here are the ground rules. It needs to be comfortable, not too imposing on my current lifestyle, easy to carry, and fashionable. When people see me carrying this cross I want to be seen as important and put up on a pedestal. I want to be admired for my sacrifice and seen as a saint. I want the easy way out, the one that doesn’t require much from me, the one that makes life easier.
To that Christ says “Get behind me Satan. Get all in because if you want to become my follower, take up your cross and follow me.”
And all God’s people said…Amen.