We know the plot of our salvation story: we are made by God, and we return to Him. And how do we return? Through the Cross. The cross of Christ Crucified is the Way, our way back to God. Being made by God and lost through sin, we cannot return to God without God. So, He sent into history – human events, the human story – the means for our return to Him: Christ on the Cross, crucified as one of us, fully human and fully divine—a bridge from here to there. Jesus explains to Nicodemus: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.” And Paul explains further: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God. . .emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . .he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Then we hear the familiar refrain of our salvation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” And so we are saved from becoming nothing once more; we are made perfect as our Father is perfect; “being merciful, [He] forgave [our] sin and destroyed [us] not.” His mercy does not destroy us.
If we accept the gift of God's mercy, we say: Praise Him, give Him thanks! And then what do we do? Carry on as before? Do we as please? Live in constant regret that our sins killed Christ? Do we try to make a sacrifice worthy of the gift of Christ's life? The poet, Christian Wiman, asks the same question this way: “What words or harder gift/does the light require of me/carving from the dark/this difficult tree?” What words or gifts does the Cross require of us? Paul writes that the coming of the Christ and his obedient death on the Cross, moves God to exalt His Son and to “bestow on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend. . .and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” No other words will do. So, our tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. And since there is no harder gift to give than the gift of Christ given on the Cross, we bend our knees at his name. And then what? What do we do next? With the Gift of the Cross in hand, we might worship it, take it around in procession, put it to work for our health and wealth; we might be embarrassed by its necessity or feel imposed upon and react with faint gratitude. Was there a better way to save us? Something less bloody, not quite so gruesome? Ever been angry with Pilate, the Jewish leadership, the mob that shouted, “Crucify him!”? Perhaps praying before a crucifix, you decide that you want nothing more to do with the cruelty of a god who needs blood to love? Or perhaps you felt a dark fear that once the gift of mercy is settled in your heart, you would never be the same again?
If we are afraid of the Cross, afraid of following Christ, maybe what we fear most is the inevitably of joining him on the Cross. Remember that Peter, in a fit of fear and false love, denied the inevitability of Christ’s defeat and, in this denial, denied the necessity of his own crucifixion. Jesus, knowing the certainty of his Father’s plan for our salvation, rebukes Peter's fear, “Get behind me, Satan!” Even then, Christ is emptied, obedient to death, and ready to die on the Cross. Perhaps we show our deepest gratitude to Christ by emptying ourselves, being obedient to death, and preparing ourselves to die in his name. Perhaps. But what does this mean for tomorrow? For today? Sitting in a room, cases packed, shoes neatly tied, waiting for martyrdom? Nothing so passive as all that! Paul says that we should bend our knees and confess Jesus as Lord. Walking this path of worshipful praise cannot be good exercise if we fail to do what Christ himself did: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick. Add to this: preach the Good News of God’s mercy and teach what Christ himself taught, and we have just the beginning of our gratitude, just the barest start to what must be our lives completely given over to the path of righteousness. There's much to fear in so much surrender. Especially when you know that the one you used to be will not be found again.
Look at Moses and God’s people in the desert. “With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses…” Not only are we made and made to return to our Maker, but we are rescued from death by the death of Christ on the Cross and expected then to prepare ourselves for following him to the Cross, obedient to death, bending the knee, confessing his name, and waiting, waiting, waiting for his return to us so we can return to Him. Is your patience exhausted by the wait? Do we complain against God and His Church? Our desert is not getting smaller or cooler or less arid. Our days are no shorter. Our nights no brighter. Moses wanders and we follow. And our patience, already silk-thin already, rubs even thinner, waiting on the fulfillment of the promise the Cross made in God’s name.
While waiting, what do we do? Some of us persevere, walking the Way. Some of us withdraw to wait. Others walk off alone. Still others erect idols to new gods and find hope in different, alien promises. Some let the serpents bite and thrill in the poisonous moment before death. Perhaps most who were with us at first perish from hearts stiffened by apathy, what love they had exhausted by the tiresome demands of an obedience they never fully accepted. Not all the seeds will fall on smooth, fertile earth. If those who walked away or surrendered or succumbed to attacks on the heart, if they are out there and not here with us, what hope do we have of going forward, of continuing on to our own crosses in the city’s trash heap?
We exalt the Cross. And they are not lost. Unless they choose not to be found. We exalt the Cross. Lifted high enough and waved around vigorously enough, even the lost will find it. Even those who, for now, do not want to be found, may see it and be healed, if they will. But they will not see what they must to be healed if those of us who claim to walk the Way do so timidly, quietly. The Way of Christ to the Cross is not a rice paper path that we must tip-toe across in fear of tearing it. Or a shaky jungle bridge over a ravine that we must not sway for fear of falling. Or a bed of burning coals that we must hop across quickly so as to avoid blistering our feet. The Way of Christ to the Cross has been made smooth, straight, and downhill all the way but nonetheless dangerous for its ease. There’s still the jeering mob, the scourge, the spit and the garbage, and there’s still the three nails waiting at the end. But this is what we signed up for, right? It’s what we promised to do, to be.
Our help is in the name of the Lord. Bend the knee. Confess his name. Do so loudly, proudly and do so while doing what Christ himself did. Otherwise, who will find us among the jeering crowd, the spitting mob; who will see the Cross if we fail to lift it high?
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