Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sermon for Holy Cross Day

Holy Cross Day (September 14, 2008)
1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In the Name of our Crucified and Risen Savior. Amen.

Our text this morning is the inspired words from the pen of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

The Legend of the Finding of the True Cross

Helena was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first emperor to convert to Christianity. According to an old story, she once made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her son sent her there to gather relics related to his new-found Christian faith. When Helena arrived at the place where Jesus was buried, not far from Calvary where Jesus was crucified, she saw a pagan temple built on the spot. She ordered that the temple be torn down and excavations begin. Amazingly, three crosses were discovered. Could these three crosses be the ones upon which Jesus was crucified between the two thieves? And if so, which one was the True Cross, the one upon which Jesus was nailed? A woman who was ill and near death was brought to the place. She touched one of the crosses, was healed, and the cross which she touched was declared to be the True Cross of Christ.

Helena ordered a church to be built on the site where the True Cross was discovered. It came to be known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and housed the Cross of Christ. When the church was dedicated, the Cross was brought outside so that the people could pray before the True Cross and come forward and show respect to it. The day on which that occurred was September 14, so now you know why today is Holy Cross Day.

So what happened to the Cross? No one is quite sure. In the Middle Ages, many churches claimed to have fragments of the Cross of Christ. As with other sacred artifacts, you gained merit in the eyes of God if you performed an act of worship before these fragments of the Cross. Churches and monasteries often paid large sums to add to their collections of ancient relics. The Reformed theologian John Calvin once said, “There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen [of the True Cross]. In some places there are large fragments, as at the Holy Chapel in Paris ... and at Rome, where a good-sized crucifix is said to have been made of it. In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.” (from Calvin’s Treatise on Relics)

I suppose we’ll never know how true the story is about Helena finding the True Cross. My initial reaction is that the story sounds a little romanticized. After all, 300 years after the crucifixion, the Cross of Jesus was more than likely long gone. Perhaps it was used for other crucifixions after Jesus. Later, it may have been burned in a fireplace to warm the barracks of Roman soldiers quartered in Jerusalem.

So why still have a day set aside as “Holy Cross Day”? After all, we Lutherans have never been all that big on relics. In fact, we’ve been quite opposed to them. And we base our beliefs on what Scripture says, not some interesting legend about an emperor’s mother finding a cross and discovering it had some healing powers.

But look around you. We don’t have any pieces of the True Cross here. We do, however, have images of crosses all around us. Holy Cross Day gives us an opportunity to reflect on the Cross of Christ being at the center of the Christian faith. If we don’t have the True Cross, that’s not a problem. It’s not the Cross itself that is important, but what happened at the Cross.

Looking for Signs, Seeking Wisdom

“We preach Christ crucified,” St. Paul writes. That should be the center of all Christian preaching. And later on, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul tells us a little more about the content of his preaching: “Now I would remind you brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, and in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” If this is what St. Paul was delivering, then it better be what Christian preachers today are delivering from their pulpit.

But there is a demand for something other than simple preaching about the Cross. We are not much different than the Jews and Greeks of whom Paul says, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.” The Jews were always pressing Jesus to show them some kind of miraculous sign to prove that he was the Christ. Jesus gave them all sorts of signs, including the sign of Jonah – the Resurrection – yet they still refused to believe in him. The Greeks were known for debating the latest philosophies of the day and grappling with big ideas. But their gods were imperfect, with all kinds of sinful shortcomings. They had human characteristics, but they were spirits. To believe in a God becoming Man, and being a sinless sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world ... well, that was just too much. Someone who was crucified on a cross was the lowest of all criminals. Certainly, a god would never let that happen to him. What kind of a Savior is a crucified Savior?

Much of what passes off as Christianity today demands signs from God. The people in the pew are told by preachers that they should expect healing. Just come forward, get a little Holy Ghost power, whether by getting blown on or by getting smacked in the head or on whatever body part is ailing you. Numerous popular teachers today also tell you that your words have power, and if you just speak your words in faith, then God will give you what you speak, whether it be money, a job, a restored marriage, or whatever your problem is. Most of you probably haven’t fallen prey to these false teachers. But I would venture to guess that we have fallen prey to the idea that if we just pray hard enough, then the “power of prayer” will solve our problems. Instead, we ought to view prayer as something God invites us to do, not as a solution to our every problem, but as a response and exercise of faith in God ... and trusting that he will mercifully answer our prayers in the ways that are best for us. Our problems may not get taken away. Our illnesses may not get healed. But that does not mean that God does not love us nor is deaf to our prayers.

And like the Greeks, there is a relentless search for wisdom in today’s churches ... or what passes as wisdom. Rather than the Cross of Christ being central, you are given principles to live by. “Biblical wisdom,” it’s sometimes called. “Here’s a set of principles and guidelines to help you improve your life, to retrain your mind to think good thoughts, to live better, to be more holy, to be more like Jesus.” But that’s not Gospel preaching. That’s Law preaching. If you are given principles to live by, you’re only going to find that you’ve failed. You’ve not lived according to those biblical principles. Preaching like this may have a lot of God-talk. There’s lip service given to the Gospel. But it’s not the Gospel. It’s not Good News. It’s bad news.

The Cross is even removed in some churches today. It’s offensive. Well, yeah, St. Paul says that much in our text. It’s “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” But that doesn’t mean we should move it into the background. The finished work of Jesus at the Cross should always be the heart and center of what we proclaim. Or I’ve heard it said, “The Cross is a good starting place, but we need to move on to other things, deeper things.” And I say, “What is deeper than considering how the Son of God became a Man in order to live a perfect life in our place and die in our place with our sins piled upon him so that all who are baptized in his name and trust in him are forgiven for eternity? What is deeper than that? Who in their entire lifetime could plumb the depths of the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection?”

Preaching the Cross

To the rest of the world, that’s just plain weird. We often criticize other belief systems and say, “Boy, that’s really bizarre.” But why is our belief system any different in that sense? It’s foolishness. It’s impossible to believe it unless the Holy Spirit enlightens you.

And that’s where preaching comes in ... another foolish thing. God has forgiven our sins through the death of his Son at the Cross. But we can’t go back to the Cross. We can’t go back in time and look upon the Crucified Christ shedding his blood for the sins of the world. But God can deliver his forgiveness to you here and now, and he does so through the “word of the cross.” What foolishness that God would choose to apply Christ’s work on the Cross personally to each one of us as we hear it from the lips of overweight, hairy, bespectatcled, sinful men like myself. But that’s the way our Lord has chosen to do it. Through “the word of the cross.” The message of the cross. The preaching of the cross. It’s “folly to those who are perishing” ... those who stubbornly, willfully resist the message of the Cross. “But to us who are being saved” it is “the power of God” ... or as St. Paul says of the Gospel in Romans 1:16, it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It’s the means by which the Holy Spirit comes to us and calls us to faith and enables us to believe “the word of the cross.” And to us who are called, Christ Jesus is both “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

St. Paul wrote, “the world did not know God through wisdom.” You don’t know God through wisdom, through philosophy, through science. You know God through Christ Jesus. You know God through the foolishness of the Cross. In the word of the Cross, the heart of God is opened wide for all to see. In the word of the Cross, you see God’s mercy and unconditional love in the suffering and death of Jesus, no strings attached. In the word of the Cross, you hear that your sins are forgiven.

And not only do you hear about forgiveness. You actually receive forgiveness. And you also will receive it today in Holy Communion, where you eat and drink of the fruit of the Holy Cross, the New Testament Tree of Life.

I know this all sounds foolish. But “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”


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