Saturday, June 21, 2008

6 Pentecost

June 22, 2008
Shepherd of the Prairie Moravian Church

Matthew 10.24-39

Sometimes, we as Christians, can fall into complacency. We sometimes get caught in ruts as Christians—we hear the same old words, speak the same old statements, profess the same old creeds and go through the same old motions of being a Christian. But sometimes we don’t pay much attention to the symbols that surround us Christians.

Namely, I am speaking of the most common symbol—the one that defines all of us as Christians. I am speaking, of course, about the Cross. Take a moment of think about the Cross. Look at how deceptively simple it is. It’s simply two pieces, bound together. For someone who knows nothing about Christianity, for someone who knows nothing about the story, it’s a symbol they might not think much about.

And yet the Cross is more than just another symbol in our lives. The Cross is what truly defines as Christians. Without it, we would be utterly lost. Without it, our faith as Christians would be essentially powerless. Our hope, our longing, for eternal life, for the destruction of death by Jesus, would never have been accomplished. Without it, we would still be digging in heels in fear over death.

So, yes, the Cross is essential to us as Christians. It is what gives our faith its very essence.

Most of have never even given a second though to how the Cross came to be. We no doubt think that it just simply was there when the Romans gave it to Jesus as he began his journey to Calvary. But there is a wonderful story about it, that I’d like to share with you.

This story can be found in a wonderful sermon by one of my all-time favorite early Christian thinkers, Anthony of Padua. Anthony was a priest of the Franciscan Order, the order founded Francis of Assisi. In his sermon, he spoke on how the Cross was present in scripture from the very beginning of Creation. Anthony of Padua based his sermon on some little known legends in Christian tradition.

According to this legend, the Cross originated not with Jesus’ death, but it can actually be traced much earlier—to, of all people, Adam, the first human. The story goes that when Adam became ill with his final sickness, his son Seth went looking our for medicine to heal him. As he approached the Garden of Eden, the place from which Adam and his wife Eve were earlier cats out, Seth saw the Angel who guarded the Gate to Eden. Seth begged the Angel to help him find medicine for his father. The Angel broke off a branch from the Tree of Life, from which Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit. As the Angel handed the branch to Seth, he said, “Your father will be healed when this branch bears fruit.” Seth returned only to find that Adam had died and was buried. Seth then buried the branch in Adam’s grave. The branch grew into a giant tree.

Later, Anthony tells, this same tree was seen by the Queen of Sheba in Solomon’s house of wood, which we find in I Kings 7.2. The Queen had a vision of the origin of the tree and of how it was one day on it a great man was going to die. She was unable to tell the King of her vision and instead wrote him a letter when she returned to her home, telling Solomon that she had seen in her vision a man hanging on the tree who would bring the downfall of Israel. Solomon, in fear, buried the tree in what would become the Bethesda Pool.

The tree grew so that, by the time of Jesus, the tree grew up over the water. It was this pool, that we find in John chapter 5. In John we find the pool called Bethesda surrounded by five colonnades. One of these colonnades was believed to be the Tree. In John we find that interesting story about the Angel who would come down to disturb the water of the Bethesda Pool. The first person to enter the water after the disturbance would be healed.

It was here, on the day that Jesus was going to be crucified, that the Romans looked for a tree on which to crucify him. And it was there that they found this tree. They cut it down and made it into the Cross, which Jesus carried to Golgotha. And Golgotha, as some people know, was believed to be the place where Adam and Eve were buried.

In some representations of the Crucifixion, you will often see a skull at the base of the Cross. That skull has always traditionally been believed to be the skull of Adam. So, the Cross had made a full circular journey back to where it began. The tree that grew out of the grave of Adam, again was set into place on the grave of Adam and, finally, then and there, it bore its fruit. It bore Jesus. And the prophecy of the Angel of Eden was fulfilled. Finally the tree bore fruit. And when it did, Adam was restored. When that tree bore fruit, we found our new Adam—Jesus. Now, the story is good for us if for no other reason in that it helps us to look at the Cross as a very major part of our salvation.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, “anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” These are words we do not want to hear from Jesus. Taking up our Cross is frightening after all. The Cross, as much as it defines, as much as it is symbol of our faith, it is also an instrument of torture and death. To take up a cross means to take up a burden that we must bear, even though we don’t really want it. To take it up is torturous. It hurts. When we think of that last journey Jesus took to the place of Adam’s skull, carrying that heavy tree on which he is going to be murdered, it must’ve been more horrible than we can even begin to imagine. And, without the resurrection, it would have been.

But the fact is, what Jesus is saying to us is: carry your cross now. Carry it with dignity and inner strength. Because if you carry cross, then you are truly following Me. By carrying our cross, we are following Jesus to the place he leads. That place, is of course, the joy of Resurrection and Life. But the road leads first through the place of the skull.

To face this reality, we find ourselves facing fear. We sometimes allow ourselves to slip deeply into fear and despair in our lives. As we all know, fear can be crippling. It can devastate us and drive us to despair. But if we listen to what Jesus is saying to us in this morning’s Gospel, we find our way through the fear.

Twice in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus commands us, “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid of what the world can throw at you. Do not be afraid of what can be done to the body and the flesh. Taking our cross and bearing it bravely is a sure and certain way of not fearing. If we take the crosses we’ve been given to bear and embrace them, rather than running away from them, we find that fear has no control over us. The Cross destroys fear. The Cross shatters fear into a million pieces. And when we do fear, we know we have a place to go to for shelter. When fear encroaches on our lives—when fear comes riding roughshod through our lives—all we have to do is go to the Cross and embrace it. And there, we will find our fears destroyed. As Anthony of Padua said: "Extending his arms on the cross like wings, Christ embraces all who come to him sheltering then in his wounds.”

Because of the Cross, we are taken care of. Because of the Cross, all will be well. The Cross Jesus asks us to bear is not a frightening and terrible thing. It was, at one time.
It was a symbol of defeat and death and pain and torture.It was, for the people of Jesus’s day, what the electric chair or the hangman’s noose or even the lethal injection table is to us this day. It was, for the people of Jesus’s day, a symbol of ultimate defeat. On it, hung criminals. On it, hung those who, by society’s standards, deserved to hang there. On it hung the blasphemer, the heretic, the agitator.

But now, for us, it is a symbol of strength and joy and unending eternal life. Through it, we know, we must pass to find true and unending life. Through the Cross, we must pass to find ourselves, once and for all time, face-to-face with God.

So, I invite you: take notice of the crosses around you. As you drive along, notice the crosses on the churches you pass. Notice the crosses that surround you. When you see the Cross, remember what it means to you. Look to it for what it is: a symbol of terror and death, but also a symbol of the power of God to overcome terror and death. Look at the Cross and, when you see it, see it for what it truly is: a triumph over every single fear in our lives.

When you see the crosses in your life, look at it and realize it is destroying the fear in your own life. And more importantly, bear those crosses of your life patiently and without fear. If you do, you too will be following the way of Jesus and that Way doesn’t end at the Cross. Rather the Way of Jesus—that Way of Life unending, Life Everlasting,--really and truly begins at the Cross.

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