Listen to a version of this here:
According to the American novelist, Joyce Carol Oates: “Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.” Following last year’s Maundy Thursday worship, I received a very rude reminder of our all too human habit of investing passion and authority in invented symbols. Our efforts to remember the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth are bolstered year after year, decade after decade, century after century by the symbols we followers of the Way have invented and invested with passion and authority. So, after our regular Maundy Thursday ritual of removing invented symbols from the sanctuary, I went looking for our own sacred Good Friday symbol. Each Maundy Thursday, we followers of the Way get together to remember Jesus by focusing upon the symbols which represent to us the events of the night before Jesus died, when he gathered his followers together to eat the Passover meal. At that supper Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it and the rest as they say is history. Our Maundy Thursday Eucharist is packed with symbols, from the hand-basins in which we ritually wash one another to remember Jesus washing of his followers feet, bread and wine which we ritually consume as Christ given and poured out for us, to the ritual stripping of the sanctuary of all of the symbols in which we have invested passion and authority, in our efforts to re-member Jesus.
The rituals of Maundy Thursday prepare us for the rituals of Good Friday and so after our worship, I went downstairs to venture into the cupboard under the stairs to retrieve the stark symbols of this congregation’s Good Friday rituals. It is the same every year, a rough-hewn cross, fashioned out of the trunk of a Christmas tree that once adorned this sanctuary. A Christmas tree – evergreen, a symbol in which we invest our passion for everlasting life, stripped of it’s branches so that only the trunk remains and then cut so that the top section can be lashed with twin to the main section to fashion a cross of sorts. A rough-hewn cross in which we invest our passion for what we have come to call the passion of Christ. Each year, once the sanctuary is stripped of all the symbols which we have invented to facilitate our ritual remembering, I journey down beneath the stairs to retrieve our rough-hewn cross to facilitate our Good Friday remembering. This year, I had designed our remembering ritual, so that we could pay particular attention to our rough-hewn cross. This sermon was built around an exercise of re-membering which I hoped would help us to participate in the very act for which symbols are invented. Symbols are created to point beyond themselves, to direct our focus to that which lies beyond the symbol. This year, my Lenten sermons had focused on a definition of Divinity which describes God as beyond the beyond and beyond that also. So, this Good Friday sermon was written to use our rough-hewn cross to examine the work of the cross in the lives of the followers of Jesus, so that we might see beyond the symbol to the One who is beyond the beyond and beyond that also. I planned to place the rough-hewn cross here on the floor of the sanctuary, right in the middle of our circle so that as the Gospel according to John’s symbolic narrative, which has become known as the Passion Narrative, was read you could gaze upon our rough hewn cross and as my sermon began I would literally and figuratively take apart our invented symbol so that we might peer beyond it. I planned to sit here in the midst of you and unlash the vine that held our rough-hewn cross together and as I untied the vine, I would do my level best to untie the bonds that our religious tradition have placed upon the symbol of the cross and perhaps encourage you to question the passion and authority which is all too often invested in this invent symbol of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Then with dramatic flare, I planned to put it back together again. As I used the old Christmas tree trunk to pull together our history and tradition, and the withered vine to lash our troubled attempts to remember back into the form of the cross in the hope that we might see the cross from the perspective of the 21st century followers of the way which on this day of days we struggle to be.
It was a very clever symbolic re-telling of the passion, our passion for our own religious history and tradition, together with our love of the ever-expanding knowledge of the cosmos that is invigorating our quest for the Source of our reality. Unfortunately, when I managed to squeeze myself into the depths of the cupboard under the stairs, our rough-hewn cross was nowhere to be found. Imagine my horror at 9:00 on Maundy Thursday and our precious Good Friday cross together with the crown of thorns which is always stored right over the top of the cross, dangling at the intersection of the trunk pieces; an horrific symbol of an horrific execution, designed with its roughness and simplicity to help you to focus upon the passion with which this day of days positively oozes with. This would be a problem on any Maundy Thursday, but this year when I was busy congratulating myself on coming up with a new way to preach the Good Friday sermon, at 9:00 in the evening to discover that our rough-hewn cross, the symbol that was to be not only our ritual focus but also the center-piece of my sermon, well some of you don’t have to imagine my shrieks because you were here.
After this building was thoroughly searched, and I managed to get you to leave me with my dilemma, I began to see beyond the immediate problem of not having to re-write this sermon. You see in those stragglers who were aware of the cross’ disappearance there was a very clear divide. Some were outraged. Who would dare to throw away such a sacred symbol? Why wouldn’t they have the common decency to ask first? Maybe the progressives have finally gone too far? And more than one or two of the stragglers were smiling inside because the symbol of the cross harkening to all those images of suffering and sacrifice, well it’s all just too much really. I mean we call ourselves progressive Christians and yet we cling to the name Holy Cross and we have a great big cross on the building and now it’s Good Friday and we’re going to have to listen to all that stuff about Jesus suffering and dying and all our memories of theologies that ask us to believe that Jesus died for our sins because God, that great big, far away Sky-god insisted that someone had to pay and so HE, and I do mean HE here folks, HE, sent Jesus to die in our place, so Jesus willingly sacrificed himself in order to placate that old bearded Sky-God whose wrath had been stirred up by our sinfulness, sinfulness in which we are in bondage to and cannot free ourselves. So, look upon the cross everyone and see that up there our beloved Jesus was executed. Up there they drove in the nails, and he bleed, suffered, and died all because of you and you wicked sinfulness, Jesus was sent by the Father to save you from the fiery pits of hell, because God’s justice demands that you be damned for your sins, damned to eternal suffering. Born in original sin, that’s you, and you just keep on sinning, and so the Father sent the son to be punished in your place, you wicked miserable sinners. So, gaze upon the cross and weep, weep as you remember how very much Jesus suffered as he died. Good riddance, the cross is missing, maybe now we can really make some progress and leave behind those old theologies that expect us to worship such a cruel and vengeful god. Maybe now we can finally begin to leave the cross behind us. “Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.”
Before I left the church, I begged Andrew to fashion us a new cross for this morning. As I drove home in a panic, worried about coming up with something to preach, I considered the crossroads (pun intended) at which we are as a congregation. There are the crossroads of history and traditions, the crossroads of theology and science, the crossroads of emotion and pragmatism, the crossroads of yesterday and today, the crossroads of wisdom and knowledge, symbols and reality, Jesus and the Christ…my mind was so full of crosses I could not for the life of me crawl down from the cross upon which I had hoisted up my own life, drawn out on the cross of faith and experience; compelled to both love and hate the cross itself, convinced that Jesus’ death on the cross matters—but not because he paid for our sins. Wanting to use the symbol to point beyond the theologies, which have nailed us on some long-forgotten tree, squirming as we try to reconcile our world with the dying world once known as Christendom. How did I ever imagine that I’d be able to put our rough-hewn cross back together? And then I remembered, it is only a symbol, but a symbol nonetheless. Like all symbols the cross was invented but, and here’s the rub, like all symbols it is we who have invested passion and authority in the symbol of the cross. Jesus of Nazareth died a very long time ago.We have these accounts of his death that were written long after the deed was done, by writers whose names we have long-since forgotten and replaced with the symbolic names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These four gospel-storytellers had all sorts of reasons for writing about the life and death of Jesus in the ways that they did. Each gospel storyteller had their own particular agenda, which they imbedded in there gospels according to. Each intricately wove together their version of the events of the execution of Jesus in ways that would have pointed their first listeners beyond their gospels according to, to the One who is beyond the story itself, who lies at the very heart of the story, the god beyond the beyond and beyond that also. Each gospel-storyteller proclaimed what they had learned from the experience of those who had gone before them about the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and they used what they had learned to point beyond Jesus to the One in whom this Jesus claimed to be at One with.
Historically, I have no problem with accepting the reality that Jesus lived his life in such a way as to be a thorn in the side of Empire. The ways of the world created a system that oppressed the vast majority of people and Jesus pointed beyond Empire to a way of being in the world where everyone had enough. Empires don’t like thorns in their side. So, the Romans did what oppressors do, and they put the trouble maker Jesus on trial because of the way in which he lived, loving people and calling for justice, working to resist violence, proclaiming that the ways of Empire were not the ways of God. The Romans judged Jesus to be guilty of treason, and the penalty for treason was execution; and the mode of execution was crucifixion. The history books tell us that the Romans executed tens of thousands of people because they stood in the way of their empire. The notion that Jesus’ death was some sort of payment for sin, never even occurred to the gospel-storytellers. It didn’t occur to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John because the notion that Jesus died for our sins does not appear as a central theology until almost a thousand years after they told their stories. The idea that Jesus died for our sins is not even a minor metaphor in the New Testament, in fact many scholars insist that this idea is not even in the New Testament.
The history of Christianity tells us that this idea is not part of ancient Christianity. The idea was first fully articulated in 1098, buy Anselm of Canterbury, who was a lawyer who wanted to demonstrate on ration grounds the necessity of Jesus incarnation and death. Writing in his own context, Anselm used medieval notions of justice, explaining the story of Jesus life and death in terms of the relationship between a feudal lord and his subjects. When a serf, or a slave, violated the lord and masters law, the lord could not simply forgive the serf even if he wanted to, lest the other serfs also misbehave. Let one serf get away with something and there would be anarchy and the system, the empire would suffer. Disobedience required payment, satisfaction, compensation must be made. The honour of the lord and the order of his law must be preserved. Anslem applied this model to the relationship between God and humans. If God were to forgive sins without payment for disobedience, it would suggest that sin doesn’t matter very much to God. Payment must be made.
Hence the necessity of Jesus death. But Anslem’s idea was in it’s day a progressive innovation. It was not central to Christianity for the first thousand years, in fact the very idea that Jesus died for our sins does not exist in Eastern orthodox Christianity to this day.
The idea that Jesus died for our sins began to be solidified in modern Christianity with the rise of fundamentalism in the late 19th and early 20th century. In response to the advancements of human knowledge about the cosmos and about our basic humanity, various fundamentals were proposed as a kind of litmus test for the faith. Believing that Jesus died to pay for our sins became more important than following Jesus. The realities of Jesus life as a trouble-maker who challenged the ways of empire, didn’t sit well with civic minded church goers who like others before them, had tried to use Christianity to groom good citizens for the empire, who were willing to obey for the sake of building a better empire, or to kill in order to preserve the empire. Following the ways of Jesus threatens the powers that be, believing that Jesus died for our sins, well that’s harmless enough to the empire, which likes nothing better than those who are willing to trust and obey as if there is no other way. So believing that Jesus died for our sins distracted Jesus followers from the ways of Jesus with notions about the consequences of not believing that Jesus died for our sins and finding ourselves condemned to pay the price for our sinfulness and we all know what that price was, eternal damnation. Christianity became obsessed with the after-life and for the most part the proponents of empire could have their way in this life.
While Christianity argued abound how to avoid hell and get into heaven, empires were built; empires that were free to wage war, oppress and persecute the poor, and accumulate wealth at the expense of love. Jesus was executed by the empire because he lived and proclaimed a different way of being in the world; a way of being that rejected the ways of empire and pointed to a reign of God which uplifted the poor and the outcasts, a kingdom where everyone has enough, and where peace is achieved not through violence but by way of justice. Jesus way of being in the world threatened the empire and so the empire executed Jesus. Jesus refused to take up arms against the empire. Jesus could have raised an army of rebels willing to die to overthrow the Romans. Jesus could have chosen violence, but he knew that those who live by the sword die by the sword, so he chose to embody his own teachings and Jesus died as he lived, loving even his enemies. The cross is not an instrument of salvation, but of transformation for how can we gaze upon the embodiment of a new way of being in the world, nailed to a cross, suffering and bleeding and not be transformed by the embodiment of love and justice that Jesus was, is and every more shall be.
The cross in not an instrument of salvation but of transformation, for in living and in dying Jesus embodied a way of being human that moves beyond primitive notions of empire and seeks to transform humanity into loving and just creatures who live in the realm of the divine a realm of peace where everyone is free to live fully, love extravagantly and be all that they can be. I had hoped to lash our broken symbol of salvation back together with bonds that have the power to transform our ways of being in the world; vines designed to symbolize love, compassion, diversity, justice and peace. I had hoped to restore our treasured symbol of the horrors of Good Friday by encouraging us to see in the cross not a symbol of salvation but of solidarity; solidarity with Jesus and all that he lived for, all that he was willing to die for and solidarity for the poor and the oppressed, the marginalized and the abused, the grieving and the lost ones, who like Jesus have been persecuted, abused, tortured or slaughtered by the ways of empire, empires that we have enjoyed the benefits of, empires that prevent us from living fully, loving extravagantly, and being all that we can be, because we are so preoccupied preserving the very empires that keep us living in ways that embody love, compassion, justice and peace. I had hoped to point to the symbol of our repaired, rough-hewn good Friday cross, and invited you to see beyond notions of salvation, so that together with Jesus we might stand in solidarity with all those who have been destroyed by empire. Today is a day for weeping for the victims of empire. But today is also a day for being transformed by the act of bearing witness to the tragedies perpetrated for the sake of imperial greed and hatred.
All the victims of oppression, abuse, avarice, neglect, violence, and war are embodied in Christ whose solidarity lies in the love which Jesus embodied in his life and in his death. What lies beyond the symbol of the cross is the transformation that is open to all those who seek to embody the love that lies at the very heart of who Jesus was, is, and every more shall be. Because Jesus himself is a symbol, a symbol who points beyond himself to the One who is beyond the beyond and beyond that also. Today, we are asked to see in the symbol of our own invention, the symbol of empire yes, but also the symbol transformed by love, love that is born of solidarity with the lest and the lost, with you and with me, with sisters and brothers, creatures and critters, with the earth herself; solidarity born of Love. Love that lies at the very heart of all that is, was, and ever shall be. Love that even death cannot destroy.
The death of Jesus matters. The end of Jesus’ life—his death on the cross—has been central to Christianity from the beginning. The gospel of Christ- crucified intrinsically signaled that the gospel challenged the way the authorities, the powers, put the world together. The gospel is an anti-imperial vision of what the world can become. Christianity was and is an anti-imperial movement. That’s why Jesus was crucified, and that is why the early followers of the way were persecuted. The cross is about Jesus’ passion for the reign of God, the transformation of this world and life in this world.
The cross is also about personal transformation. About dying and rising. Dying to an old way of being in the world and rising to a new way of being in the world. The cross like all symbols was designed to point beyond itself, beyond our very selves, to a way of being in the world in which everyone is set free to die and rise again and again.
So, last night was not the first time our rough-hewn, Good Friday cross has disappeared. It happened about ten years ago. I remember phoning our former chairperson, Gunter Meyer, in a panic and unfazed, Gunter went into his shop and created a new symbol for us. It worked that Good Friday but people criticized this new cross for being too small and for not being made from the trunk of a Christmas tree. It lacked the necessary symbolism. So the following Christmas we saved the trunk of the tree and Gunter fashioned a new and improved rough-hewn, Good Friday Cross. So, perhaps we have a new tradition, a new ritual, one in which this preacher is challenged to preach more authentically and our chairperson is challenged to create on a new symbol over-night. A new ritual of transformation, that points us beyond the religious trappings to the stuff of life, where things are lost, broken, and cast aside, only to be found, restored, and welcomed back into our midst.A new ritual where we are all challenged to see beyond the symbols to the ONE who lies at the very heart of all that is, the ONE who Jesus embodied, the ONE who chose solidarity with the least and the lost, and who refuses to take up the ways of empire, even if it is costly to choose love over hate, justice over oppression, and peace over violence. A new ritual with a new rough-hewn cross, a symbol pointing us beyond doctrine, beyond dogma, beyond religion, to the ONE who is was and ever more shall be LOVE. A new symbol designed to hold us in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, sisters, brothers, critters, and the earth herself, beyond the beyond and beyond that also, to the ONE who, was and every more shall be:
I am indebted to Marcus Borg for once again guiding me through Holy Week. Marcus’ words echo throughout this sermon. His last book (sadly his last book, what shall we do without him?) Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most provided me with a way of seeing beyond the cross for which I am grateful. I am also grateful to James Carroll whose book Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age, remains a constant source of inspiration.
Listen to the Good Friday sermon here