When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday many who looked to him to overthrow the Roman oppressor. His entry not on a charger but on a donkey was a living parable that here was a different kind of power. And those who shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday were quick to shout “Crucify him!” on Good Friday when he didn’t show the kind of power that the world understands all too well.
Christ’s cross confronts us still as the place where divine power and human sin collide. He took our sin to that cross, and it died there along with him. It is no accident that the cross is the symbol of our faith. Paul tells the Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11. NRSV)
Let us be very clear what is claimed here: that it is the fact of Jesus’s death as a slave that makes him Lord, his death as a nobody that makes him exalted at the right hand of God. And if God, the Father Almighty, who created the heavens and the earth, and Jesus, the man of Nazareth, share a divine identity, what does the cross tell us of the identity of God?
It tells us first of all that what the world values is not what God values. The Roman Empire that crucified Jesus was constructed on power, violence, and might, all delivered with ruthless efficiency, and the cross was the supreme instrument of Roman values. The cross was a slave’s death, designed to dispose of the nobodies of the world, and put fear into the hearts of other nobodies so they wouldn’t challenge Rome’s power.
But the crucifixion puts God squarely on the side of the nobodies. The cross condemns the brutal social arrangements then and now that trample the poor, that put the concerns of the powerful ahead of the nobodies of the world. The cross condemns every injustice that treats people as expendable; every cynical deal that seeks gain at the expense of others.
The cross says God has different values, seeks a different way, a way of servanthood and humility, a way that seeks the good of others, a way that rejects violence and injustice, a way in which everybody is somebody. In God’s values there aren’t any nobodies, for God’s own son was once regarded as a nobody and died a nobody’s death, forgiving those who killed him even as he cried out in utter forsakenness.
This is the Christian God, the crucified God, who turns the world’s values upside down. If you want to know about this God take a good look at Jesus. Notice how he befriends the poor, touches lepers, eats with sinners. There weren’t any nobodies in Jesus’s book. Only sinners to be saved, broken people to be made whole, dying people to be given new life, sorrowful people to be made glad, remorseful people to be forgiven.
Look to Jesus: that is where the Christian finds identity and purpose, from Jesus Christ and him crucified. And not just for our personal spiritual life, but for the whole world. For his cross redeems our sins, but also our politics, our marriages and families, our business practices, our churches and everything else about our world. George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, once wrote,
I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek . . .at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about.
People have asked me why my theology is so centered on the cross of Jesus. Why should somebody as generally cheerful as I am want to focus on such a gloomy subject? The story of my coming to the cross is a story of coming to know God in a whole new way. Although I was raised in the church as a child, I decided to be a Christian as an adult, because the cross of Christ rang true for me, as an answer equal to the world’s harsh truths. My mother died when I was eighteen, and my sunny childhood faith was tested and found wanting. We live in a world where people we love can get sick and die, where injustice is often done, where bad things happen to good people as well as bad, but in my young life I had never known this and I had a lot of trouble accepting it. At this vulnerable time in my life, the time when I was leaving home, my world was turned upside down, and I found myself in a darkness I had never known.
Some of you, probably most of you, have known such darkness, because the world brings it to us in time. There is, in such times, no light, no hope, no word of comfort. Nicholas Wolterstorff, who teaches theology at Yale, writes about such a time, when his son died suddenly at the age of twenty-five. Wolterstorff write this about his time of darkness:
I am at an impasse, and you, O God, have brought me here. From my earliest days I heard of you. From my earliest days I believed in you. I shared in the life of your people: in their prayers, in their work, in their songs, in their listening for your speech and in their watching for your presence. For me your yoke was easy. On me your presence smiled.
Noon has darkened. As fast as she could say, “He’s dead,” the light dimmed. And where are you in the darkness? I learned to spy you in the light. Here in this darkness I cannot find you. If I had never looked for you, or looked but never found, I would not feel this pain of your absence. Or is it not your absence but your elusive troubling presence?
Will my eyes adjust to this darkness? Will I find you in the dark—not in the streaks of light which remain, but in the darkness? Has anyone ever found you there? Did they love what they saw? Did they see love? And are there songs for singing when the light has gone dim? The songs I learned were all of praise and thanksgiving and repentance. Or in the dark, is it best to wait in silence?” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, Eerdmans, 1987)
Wolterstorff asks whether anyone has anyone ever found God in the darkness? I did. It took time, and not a little waiting in silence. But as I look back at it I would say that it wasn’t me that found God so much as God who found me. Found me in the darkness! And the God who found me was not a stranger to darkness. Here was a God who knew what I knew, who experienced what I had experienced. Who knew sorrow and was acquainted with grief.
And in this solidarity of suffering I recognized something I had never expected to know in the dark. I knew I was loved, loved by the crucified God, the God who,by some mystery, fully and passionately entered into human life to redeem and transfigure it. And not human life at its best, but human life at its very worst, at a state execution, where a man was beaten half to death and nailed to a tree to die a slow humiliating and painful death. “It was now about noon,” Luke writes of the crucifixion, “and darkness came over the land.”
In my time of darkness I finally realized that I didn’t have the resources to fix the world, much less my own life. I couldn’t even heal the deep grief and loss I felt. But I knew, believed, trusted, the presence of God in all my troubles and trials. Knew and believed in God’s power to transform renew, heal and restore the broken suffering world.
And forty years later I still believe it. And when I look at the world today, in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, or even on North Street in Pittsfield, I see a world that cannot save itself and needs the redemptive power of God which is demonstrated in the cross.
And I try never to forget what I know, that the Risen Christ of Easter is the crucified Jesus of Good Friday. The Risen Christ of Easter still bears the marks of the nails that killed him. Because when I am happy and healthy and well fed, I want a God without a cross, a God who will prop up my life and maintain the things I want, and not cause me too much a trouble, a nice God who dwells in sunlight and doesn’t trouble my conscience or demand too much of me. No elusive troubling presence, thank you, just God in his place.
And God’s place, it is sad to say, is often the church, for even the church tries to domesticate God. Even the church tries to sell God like so much snake oil as a nostrum for being healthy and happy, but, if the truth be told, faith should come with a warning label. Maybe that is what the cross is, a warning label! Because those who look to Jesus Christ and his cross for their identity will find that they will invariably share his passion for this world, and his vocation to be the love of God for a fallen world, and like him go out to embody God whatever the cost. “Take up your cross,” he says, “and follow me!”
That doesn’t make life easy, but it makes it interesting, and in the end deeply satisfying in a way that others can not know. For by some strange Gospel equation only the empty know what it is like to be filled, only the humble know what it is to be exalted, only those who have wept can know what real joy is, and only those who in some very real way have lost their lives will find the true life that comes from God. The Christian may start out as a consumer of religion, but will soon be called to be a servant, “just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give up his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus gave up the form of God to take the form of a slave, even unto a slave’s death on a cross. But now the slave is master, whom we call Lord! Now the humbled one is the exalted One who sits at the right hand of God the Father! Now by his cross we, nobodies in the eyes of the world and, too often in our own eyes as well, are raised up to new life in him and with him.
And someday, in the fullness of time, in God’s good hour, the whole world will see and know Jesus as he is, no longer in darkness but in unspeakable light! They’ll no longer view him as an executed slave, a loser and a nobody, dead on a cross, but as the Lord of time and eternity; the Lord before whom every knee should bend, and every tongue confess that he is Lord. And when they do they’ll see that the risen Christ is still the crucified Christ, that the glorified Lord still bears the visible wounds on his hands and feet and side. Because the only way to really know Jesus, is to know him in his cross!
He died upon the lonely tree
forsaken by his God.
and yet his death means all to me
and saves me by his blood.
The world will never know his worth
the wise will never see,
But those forsaken, broken, bowed,
will recognize that tree.
And know that there God’s love does reign
and conquers sin and death;
Thwarts hate and evil, comforts pain,
gives hope while there is breath.
The nations grasp at wealth and power
while wars like tempests toss,
But finally in God’s good hour,
they’ll know him in his cross
Then wars will cease and weapons fall,
and fear will melt away.
For Christ will be their all in all,
from day to endless day.
© 2001 Richard L. Floyd
( I preached this sermon at The First Church of Christ in Pittsfield. It was included in the Festscrift for my teacher and friend Gabriel Fackre, Story Lines. Edited by Skye Fackre Gibson. Eerdmans, 2002. The concluding poem is a hymn text I wrote in 2001. The picture is John The Baptist pointing to the Crucified Jesus from the Isenheim altarpeice by Matthias Gruenwald.)