Note: I preached a version of this sermon on November 13, 2016 (Proper 28C) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
If you were with us two weeks ago for Reformation Sunday you heard me talk about the seven “holy possessions” of the church as Martin Luther defined them: the Word of God, Holy Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, confession and forgiveness, ordaining ministers, public worship. And today I want to focus on the last and most difficult of those seven possessions, what Luther called “the sacred possession of the holy cross.”
We are familiar with the cross as an image and a symbol. We encounter it as a piece of sculpture or jewelry. We hear that the cross is where Jesus paid a price, suffered a sort of penalty, on our behalf.
But in Luther’s thinking, and in the life of the church, the cross is much more than that. The cross is the way we know God. The cross is the way God chooses to be revealed in the world. We do not know God by our own wisdom, by our own good deeds, or by our perception of God’s mysterious power and glory. All of those things become idols. When we chase them, when we look for God in greatness or power or glory, we only run into a magnified version of ourselves.
And because we find ourselves when we look for God, God chose to hide his glory where we would never think to put ourselves: in suffering.
Beautiful and holy as the Temple was, with its stones and jewels, it would not stand forever. It housed the presence of God, but did not show us God. We know God through Christ crucified. You want to see the power of God? Look to the tortured body of a man asphyxiating on a cross. That, for us, is God. And all we know about God we must know through the cross: Christ pouring out his love for the world, Christ forgiving all our sins, Christ grasping us and holding us close, Christ plunging to hell and rising to eternal life with us and for us.
So for us Christ can never be separated from his cross. Wherever Christ is, there is his cross. From that cross he rules, judges, forgives, and blesses the whole world.
And since we are the Body of Christ, we cannot be separated from his cross either. Wherever Christians are, there the cross must be also. If there is no cross, we have left Christ behind us somewhere.
Now I want to be clear—to carry the cross of Christ is not to simply be patient in whatever suffering the world sends your way. Sometimes sickness is called a cross to bear. Or people, especially women, are told that domestic violence is a cross for them to bear. That is not what the cross is about.
The cross of Christ was a special kind of punishment. The Roman empire reserved it for non-citizens and slaves. It was not just a way to kill someone. It was a way to display them to the world as non-persons. It was a way to terrorize their friends. It was a way to humiliate them before the greatness of the empire.
So when Martin Luther wrote about the holy possession of the cross, he talked about Christians being hated and punished and even killed by the state and the church, because they wish to bear the name of Christ and to have Christ as their head. Just as Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.” But, Jesus adds, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” You will be betrayed, Jesus says, even by the people closest to you, and you’ll be hated and maybe even killed because of my name, but not even a hair of your head will be lost to those who bear my name. And by your endurance you will gain your souls.
The world will give you an opportunity—a costly opportunity—to embrace that crucified Christ all over again, to remind the world that God’s judgment and God’s grace comes at the hands of a man on a cross.
We have just come to the end of an election campaign that many, perhaps most of us, have found traumatizing. Many of my colleagues in ministry have felt free, or even obligated, to make a case for one of the candidates to their faithful people. Most of them who did so made a case for Donald Trump, but more than a few did so for Secretary Clinton. I did not do this. Not because I am indifferent or above the fray—I most certainly am not. But I did not speak for either candidate because I believe there were sound Christian arguments against both of them. And more importantly I did not do this because I do not see it as the role of this office, any more than I should tell jurors how to decide a case or teachers how to teach. I believe myself to be obligated to respect your freedom as Christians. I believe myself to be obligated to honor your conscience and your experience. And if it ever seems to you that I do not, I ask you to tell me so.
The only power I have as your pastor is the power of the Word of God and whatever trust and charity you have chosen to extend to me. In fact that is the only power we as the church have in the world—the power of the Word of God. And in hearing and treasuring and acting on that Word, you and I together are obligated to be faithful. To do that—to be faithful to God and his Word, Christ and his cross—we need to be honest about how that Word speaks differently than the world around us speaks.
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that elections in our society say a lot about what we consider good and acceptable. And despite what anyone may have meant by their vote, the results have indicated that some things we may have thought were not good and not acceptable in the eyes of our society are, in fact, perfectly acceptable. Some people, I hope not many, are celebrating this. Other people, too many, are terrified by it. They are, in fact, feeling betrayed by their friends and neighbors. I have friends bracing for the violence and the verbal insults that are already cropping up against Muslims, Jews, Latinos, African Americans, people with disabilities and those who care for them. If we don’t know people who share this fear, we owe it to them and to ourselves to seek them out and hear their stories.
So regardless of whether you are relieved or frightened, regardless of how you voted or why, it is necessary to say to everyone: what the world accepts is not necessarily accepted by God. What the world approves must still be judged by Christ on his cross. What the world says is fair game may not be accepted among us.
Whatever the results of an election say, God will never accept tearing families apart. No one may be deported from the Body of Christ because our citizenship is in heaven.
Our society has given the impression that insulting and even assaulting women is not ultimately a big deal. But here, among us, God will never accept it.
Our country may accept the ridiculing of people with disabilities, but God most certainly does not accept it, because God did not make our disabled sisters and brothers to be mocked but to be seen in God’s full stature.
Our nation has decided to turn away the desperate and dying stranger from our gates, but our God, who rescued Israel from Egypt and protects the widow and orphan, never does any such thing.
Christ from his cross forgives our sins and saves our souls and makes us children with him of God the Father. Christ from his cross grants us immense freedom to love, to risk, to believe all things and hope all things. But one thing we are not free to do is to fasten anyone else to any cross ever again. The Body of Christ will expel us if we do.
These are hard truths. And the task for us as Christians, for all our different views and experiences, however we voted and for whatever reasons, is to avoid defending our own innocence or insisting on our own righteousness. The task for us as Christians is to look for the cross. And where our world seeks to impose a cross on someone—to humiliate or dehumanize or destroy someone—Christ places himself, and us his body, in their way. Christ was doing this a week ago, when many of us—including me—were too complacent about the crosses our society imposes. And Christ is doing this now, when complacency is a risk for others. It will be our task in a year and a decade and until Christ comes again in power and reclaims all the suffering world for himself. This will give you an opportunity to testify. And by your endurance you will gain your souls.
That is what we can do. Christians can’t and shouldn’t settle all the world’s disputes. We will have a lot of disputes in the years ahead, as we always have. Some might be more intense and frightening than we are accustomed to. Here, in the body of Christ, we have no choice but to embrace that truth, and no choice but to embrace each other despite our differences. And we have no choice but to continue to testify to the God who bore a cross for the world. We have no choice but to listen to and look for the God who towers above all time and all history but who rules the world in our suffering, frightened neighbor.
Today Jesus tells his friends that even the Temple, that most sacred place on earth, built by Solomon and destroyed and rebuilt and made great by King Herod—even that sacred building decorated with gifts and jewels, will one day be cast down. Those words are spoken to us as well. Every great and beautiful and noble thing we create is just to prepare us for a greater glory than we can imagine. They will come and go too. And when everything else is gone, the Christ on his cross will still endure, opening the gates to the Kingdom of God where there is no more need of crying, no more death, no more oppression; where hope has been made real and faith has been made into sight. And everyone who will have that cross—everyone who will take shelter in it, and who will bear it for others—will endure with him.