A sermon for the Feast of Holy Cross, by Nathan Nettleton
This sermon was preached at the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Geelong, and is not based on the texts set in the Revised Common Lectionary. The Community have their own lectionary, and the texts I worked from were, in order of prominence: Luke 9:18-45, 51; Genesis 2:7-9; Colossians 1:2-23a; Revelation 2:1-7; 1 John 3:1-3 & Hosea 14:2-9.
I feel honoured to be invited to preach here. I have long thought it would be an honour to be asked to preach here, and so I have secretly coveted an invitation, but now that it has come, I discover that the prospect of preaching to you is not just an honour, but that it is extraordinarily intimidating. I know you don’t mean to be intimidating, and in fact my observation has always been that you are very generous in your attention and your affirmation of preachers, but having received so many generous gifts of wisdom and grace from you, I feel as though I couldn’t possibly have anything to offer that you don’t already have in abundance. I know that that is a false message, and that I am not here to offer my own gifts anyway but to faithfully witness to the gospel which is not mine but belongs to the whole Church, but even so, I can’t remember the last time I felt so anxious and vulnerable in the lead up to preaching. And to add to my trepidation, I have never before even celebrated the feast of Holy Cross, let alone preached on it, and now, a few days ago, I find out that it is also your foundation day. So that which is very dear to you, and which I know nothing about, is that which I am now to proclaim to you! So my opening prayer is very simple: God help me! Amen.
As I wrestled with the scriptures set in your lectionary for this feast, I realised that my trepidation was actually an illustration of something that was emerging from the readings. The gospel reading in particular is full of trepidation. At this stage in the story of Jesus, everything is pointing towards a bloody showdown, and when one unarmed man-of-peace goes into a bloody showdown with the vested interests and murderous might of the religious and political establishment of Jerusalem and the Roman Empire, the bookmakers will not find anyone willing to put their money on the man of peace. Jesus can see it coming. The shadow of the cross is looming ever larger. He can cut his losses, pull his head in, and head back to the safety and comfort of obscurity, or he can steel his jaw, hold his line, follow through on everything he has been preaching, and face the consequences which are becoming ever more apparent. And so our gospel reading described him as gathering up his courage, steeling himself, and setting out for Jerusalem. Although the disciples are seemingly oblivious to it all, the passage is fair dripping with trepidation.
Jesus steels himself and sets out for Jerusalem, knowing full well what he’s up against and where it is going to get him. Before long he will be on his knees in the dark of night pleading with God to find another way. “If it is possible, get me out of this without me having to drink this cup.” But there is no other way that doesn’t require a sell out. To use the contemporary idiom, Jesus has made his bed, and now he has to lie in it. To use the ancient idiom, Jesus has squeezed the grapes, and now he must drink the wine. Now he must taste the fruits that his reckless preaching has borne, and the first fruits are to be the bitter fruits of violence, cruelty, and naked hostility.
Here in the face of the cross, as Jesus reaches out his hand and takes the fruit of death, one of the foundational stories of our faith is turned on it head. When the Lord planted a garden in Eden, all kinds of trees grew; trees beautiful to look at and wonderful to eat. And among the trees was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and God told the humans he had made that they were not to taste the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for if they did, they would be dead. But Eve and Adam found those fruits irresistibly alluring and when they reached out their hands to take those fruits, it was an act of gross disobedience, a failure to follow through on the path to which God had called them. But now we see that story being turned back on itself, as if to undo it, when Jesus reaches out his hands to take those fruits — fruits which now look stomach-churningly hideous. Now for Jesus, tasting the loathsome fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is an act of extreme obedience; the ultimate following through on the path to which God has called him.
But it is not just Jesus who is now called to taste the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We are called to follow him on that same road that leads to the cross, to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and to steel ourselves for the taste of its fruits. For truly it is when we stand at the foot of the cross that we are faced with the starkest illustration of good and evil. Truly it is as we stand there at the foot of the cross that we gain the knowledge, that we are able to comprehend what good and evil mean and what they lead to. Here at the foot of the cross we see what goodness, truth and integrity ultimately cost and what they will endure. Here we see Jesus, who could easily have cut and run and explained to himself that he had already achieved all that could be expected of him; here we see him enduring the most gruesome tortured death rather than sell out on us. Jesus had any number of opportunities to avoid this chilling end. The religious and political movers and shakers would have been only too happy to accept him into their ranks if he had been willing to just bend his message a little. They wouldn’t have thought they were asking the impossible of him. Just a little adaptation of the message for the sake of preserving order and decency. Just a little tweak here and there to avoid causing trouble for the long established status quo. But to Jesus, that means selling out the very people for whom the status quo held no promise of life. And to him that was the point. God planted the tree of life that all, without distinction, might enjoy its fruits, not so that a privileged few might take out a patent on its genetic coding and monopolise control of the price its fruits. And so Jesus would not sell us out. And so at the cross, we see the fierce and tender integrity that holds firm in the face of extreme terror and drinks the cup of rage and horror. If we can bear to look, it is at the foot of this tree that we gain the knowledge of good.
But precisely because we see the true nature of unfailing goodness at this tree, it is also the place where we stare into the face of evil and know its black heart. Just as we see that God’s love and goodness will stop at nothing, so too we see the lengths to which evil will go to destroy any who would expose it, challenge it and resist it. Here we see that no demand of justice, no demand of common decency, no demand of righteousness mean anything to the naked selfishness of evil. Here we see the truth of that old saying that hell hath no fury like a vested interest masquerading as a moral principle. The holy cross of Jesus Christ, where unquenchable love and unremitting hatred meet, is indeed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And yet that is not the end of the story is it? Good and evil do not just clash at this tree and bounce off each other unchanged. Not at all. At the foot of this tree we see something new, something without precedent, something that only God could pull off. Here we see the goodness of God crucified at the hands of evil, and in that very crucifixion, we see God’s goodness absorb the full force of evil, the full force of all the world’s bitterness and rage. And in absorbing it we see the most astonishing and unimaginable victory. In that very moment when evil seems to have won the day, in that very moment when evil would mount the podium and receive the spoils of victory, the podium comes crashing down. The power of evil has been so totally absorbed that evil now lies powerless, its bitterness undiminished, but its hopes of ultimate triumph eradicated for ever. Glory be to God!
But, although we are those who have met Christ, risen from the dead, and witnessed the fatal wounding of evil itself, we are not yet by any means immune to the violence of its furious death throes. In a fortnight when the date September 11 has again forced itself uncomfortably into our consciousness and we have been confronted with new atrocities in Beslan and Jakarta, we are only too painfully aware that the victory of our God has yet to bear anything like its full fruits in our world. And yet perhaps that is precisely why our call sounds so like the call to which Christ responded. As the Apostle said to the Colossians, in Christ all things hold together, and here as the horror of the cross continues to be played out, Christ continues to hold together in himself the fire of God’s love and the ice of human hatred, so that even the hate-filled might be redeemed and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil might become, even for them, the tree of life.
For isn’t it precisely when we are faced with the depths of both good and evil at the cross that we find ourselves faced with the need to commit ourselves to one or the other? Isn’t that where we are called to choose life, or to settle for death? Jesus says that if we would follow him we must take up our cross and go the same way. Peterson’s paraphrase which we heard read drops the image of taking up your own cross. I can understand him doing that — I dropped it too in the Laughing Bird paraphrase — because it has become one of those overused and therefore meaningless cliches. You’ve all heard it: “I’ve got a bit of an ingrown toenail at the moment, but everyone’s got their cross to bear, don’t they.” I once titled a sermon on this passage, “That’s not a Cross!” A cross is not just any suffering; it is the suffering that comes in consequence of your decision to turn against evil and commit yourself to the unpopular path of living the truth, no matter what it costs. In the Laughing Bird paraphrase, I rendered that line:
“Anyone who intends to come with me has to hand over the keys, sign their own death warrant, and then do as I do. If you try to hold on to control of your life you’ll end up losing the lot. But if you let go, even if you pay the ultimate price for your commitment to me and to our message, you’ll gain real life. What’s the point of getting control of the whole world if getting it kills you. There’s no trade-in on a burned out soul.”
Jesus pulls no punches about this. There is no sitting on the fence. When we see good and evil clash at the cross, all of us commit ourselves one way or the other. When we hear the voice of God on the mountain of transfiguration, what does it say? “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him.” And what is it that Jesus has been just been saying to them, and the thing he says again to them next? “The road I am on leads to betrayal and death, death on a cross at the hands of an evil generation. And if you would follow me, you must take up your cross and go where I go.” Listen to him. At the foot of the cross we can’t avoid this choice, and it is the same choice Jesus faced. Will we hold firm and shine the light of love straight into the face of evil, or will we cop out, pull our heads in, and timidly retreat into the shadows leaving evil to have its way? Standing firm for love and goodness means signing our own death warrant, taking up our own cross. Many of you here are wearing wounds inflicted on you by the bitterness and hostility that were aroused in some of those who were previously closest to you when you decided to turn your backs on the ways of greed and delusion that are the world’s status quo. Many of you have been on the receiving end of the snarling bark of “Get a life!”, and you have had days when it would seem easier to bow to the pressure and turn your backs on this community of Christ and just blend unobtrusively into the ways of the world in order to have a life – and easier an more popular life. But at the cross we are faced with a choice, to relinquish our life for Christ, or to try to get a life for ourselves, and at the cross, in the unlikely and inconceivable victory of Christ, the consequences of those decisions are reversed. Those who are strung up for following Christ receive life without limit, and those who shied away from suffering and graspingly sought to get a life for themselves, find that they have killed themselves in the process and that there is no trade-in on their burned out souls.
We are gathered here as those who have faced that choice and handed over our lives to Christ. In our baptism we have stood at the foot of the holy cross and said, “I’m with him, no matter what it costs. I’m following him, and I’m not going back, even though I now see where it leads.” In baptism we have taken the plunge and been immersed in the deep suffering love of our God. This is the exodus that Jesus was speaking about with Moses and Elijah on the mountain. Moses and Elijah, the two before him who had parted the waters. And so we enter the waters with Christ, the deep waters of a crucified death, and with him we find the waters parting again so that we might rise anew into the promised land of resurrection life, a life of goodness, mercy and love. We rise in a new land, for as the Apostle said to the Colossians, he has rescued us from the dark land of slavery and death and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. We have a new name, a new citizenship, a new identity. We will see Christ as he really is, and perhaps we will know deep in our guts as for the first time, that the crucified Christ hanging naked and humiliated on that tree is the same Christ who rises in victory and leads the captives to freedom in the wide open spaces of God’s love. We will see him as the risen one who with wounded hands embraces us in our brokenness and gathers us, in our brokenness, into his wholeness.
We are gathered here as those who have followed Christ into the waters of baptism, and risen with him to new life, but we also gather as those who must for a while yet live amidst the terror and callousness of the world that has rejected him and would crucify him still. And so we face that same decision again, on an almost daily basis. Are we willing again and again to pay the price of sticking resolutely to the path of justice, mercy and suffering love? And so we come to the Table of our Lord, to receive again the gifts of his own brokenness and be strengthened to go on. The traditional inscription on the bread of the Eucharist says, in Greek, “Jesus Conquers”, but it sets those words into the cross, to ensure that we remember that it is only through the suffering love of his holy cross that Jesus conquers. At it is only through the suffering love of his holy cross that we will rise to victory with him. So come, sisters and brothers, let us embrace the cross and make Eucharist together, for in the holy cross of our saviour and true God, Jesus Christ, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has indeed become the tree of life, and our God invites us to feast with Christ forever on the fruits of the tree of life. Amen? Amen!