Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Power of the Cross of Christ

Proper 19 + A        14, September, 2014       The Reverend Robert R.M. Bagwell+
Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross           St Bartholomew, Burroughs
Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21                                                                                  Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12                                                                                                   Matthew 18:21-35

After the Emperor Constantine, legalized the Christian religion and made it the religion of the Empire,, he sent his mother "Helena" (for whom I believe that the Episcopal Parish in Beaufort, South Carolina is named) , to find and protect the Holy Sites in Judaea. On the hill of Calvary,, originally outside the city of Jerusalem, He ordered the erection of several buildings to "set forth as an object of attraction and veneration, the blessed place of our Saviors death and resurrection."  It is on this hill, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands today.  During the excavations for the building's foundation, a relic believed to be that of the true Cross upon Jesus died was discovered.   Constantine's church, which consisted of two buildings, one of which was circular in construction, was known as "The Resurrection".  It was built on the site of what was believed the place of Jesus' tomb.  That building was used for the Holy Communion and the singing of the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.  It was completed on the 14th of September AD 335, I the seventh month of the Roman Calendar, a date which also suggested the completion of Salomon's Temple in the seventh month of the Jewish Kalendar, hundreds of years previously. That is the event celebrated on the Western Church Kalendar today.

The cross: the cross is a strange object to venerate, yet venerate it we do.  In the liturgy for Good Friday,  in the Tradition of the Western Church, at a point after which we have prostrated ourselves, and prayed, we bring a cross into the church. At my last parish we brought in a large almost life-sized cross into the church, to emphasize what the stark and ugly reality of what crucifixion was really about, to emphasize what it might be like to be hanging from such a cruel instrument of horror.  Perhaps it is too vivid for our imaginations to see such a cruel and horrid death.  Yet still every Good Friday, as the procession stops three times from the back of the church we sing: "behold the wood of the cross on which has hung the world's salvation,:" and the congregation responds,  "O come let us adore!":  We put crosses on our buildings, we put crosses on our altars, we hang crosses around our necks, we even cross ourselves before prayer!  When we baptize a child we make a small cross on the child's head and say: "you are sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever."  Don't we realize that the cross is a mark of death? Don't we realize that the cross is a mark of shame? a sign of rejection? something to be embarrassed about?  

But it is more: according to the Scriptures and the oldest liturgies of the church, it is the tree of life.  Much like the first tree of life in the book of Genesis, those who eat of it's fruit will live forever!  How can both of these polar opposites, death and life be true?  Why do accord the cross such honor? when that One who was from the beginning, the best of all that humanity could ever conceive of being, from the beginning of creation was placed on a device so cruel that eventually the Romans themselves ceased to use it?  Why do we persist in remembering it?  Don't we want to forget the cross?

Well it would seem that the writers of the Newer Testament with one resounding voice say "NO".  What is the message of the Cross? so central to our understanding of Jesus and Jesus' mission to this world?  Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: "the message of the cross is foolishness to them who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God."   What is the message of the Cross?  It is a message of radical forgiveness, radical forgiveness and redemption.  Does anyone know the meaning of the word "radical" is from its original language?  It means "from the root,"  down to our very core we experience forgiveness.

In today's gospel, Peter comes to Jesus and Peter says: "If another person sins against me, how often should I forgive? As often as seven times"  Jesus responds to him: "not seven times, but seventy-seven times… seventy-seven times."  From the rabbinic teaching, Peter knows that forgiving is a good thing to do, but one must do it wisely.  It would be considered generous to forgive the same person twice. It would be considered exemplary to forgive the same person three times. To forgive again?  That would be extreme, but Peter knew Jesus was prone to be excessive in his teaching, so Peter chooses a bigger number, a very special number in Jewish numerology, the number seven. It represents completion, wholeness, perfection.  After all the world was created in seven days in the book of Genesis.  When Jesus said this he was not suggesting that Peter go around with a note pad and say "well that was seventy, you've got sixty nine to go!  Jesus is saying "we are not to limit our forgiveness."  We are called to be ready and eager to forgive people who have sinned against us.  That is where the pinch comes: the difficult walk for you and me as Christians.

Radical forgiveness is something we struggle with, in our human condition.  We tend to think in terms of others forgiving us rather than how we are to forgive others.  We expect, we hope, we depend upon, we count on others forging us, but asking for forgiveness is much more difficult I our human condition much less in our Christian walk.  How many here have ever had to ask for forgiveness?  All of this becomes central to the message we receive from the Newer Testament.  Paul speaks of having a realistic perspective of ourselves.  That's what Jesus' parable is about in today's gospel. We speak of "not being able to see the forest for the trees?"  But when we experience hurt, anyone ever been hurt?   When we have been hurt, when someone has done us wrong, when someone offends us how do we follow the words of Jesus?  He speaks rather ominous words.  At the end of the gospel he says: " So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

We may say: "ok Lord, I get the point, how do I get there?"  Any of you ever struggle to forgive, ever?  I want to refer to a quote from Desmond Tutu, who you may know has experienced a bit of suffering in his life time.  The Archbishop writes:  "in forgiving, people are not being asked to forget, on the contrary, it is important to remember so that we should not let such atrocities occur again.  Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done.  It means taking what happened seriously and drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens our entire existence."

That is a man who speaks from experience.  I think that most of us here want to do as Jesus admonishes us this morning: to forgive from the heart, but at times some misconceptions about forgiveness keep us bound up, chained if you will to those painful memories.  Forgiveness does not require the offender to realize what they have done to the offended.  Jesus forgave from the cross.  Now I ask you:  were  Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the High Priest or Herod the King, sorry for what they had done to Jesus?  If so the New Testament leaves that detail out.  Yet Jesus said from the cross:  "Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing."  "Forgiveness" from the Greek word means: "to set free, to let go", and that's the trick isn't it? to let the hurt go.  Forgiveness from the Newer Testament is unconditional and not dependent upon the tact that they hurt us or not. 

Second:  some of us think, "I'm a Christian, it should be easy for me to forgive."  I would suggest that this is not necessarily so.  For some it is easier to forgive than for others.  One witer spoke of a spirit of 'denial'.  "Oh it was nothing".  Have you ever said that?  "I appreciate you drawing it to my attention, but it was nothing."  Some think you can gloss over the pain. Have you ever done that?  That pain which in a heated moment will come through the softened gloss and suddenly everything comes out. "They did this, and then this, and later this! and now they've done THIS?"  It is not a glossing over that we need.  It is an intermittent process, of pain and emotion but with a determined decision of our wills to continue to forgive.   It is a process over time to forgive. 

Thirdly: forgiving seventy times seven does not mean being a door mat. It doesn't means staying in an abusive relationship forever.  Rather it means "wising up to a healthy sense of self care.  Some times that act of "wising up" will cause the offender to see how they have hurt another person. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal writer wrote: "when you allow your enemy to stop being your enemy, all the rules change.  No one knows how to act anymore because forgiveness is an act of transformation."  What will they do if we don't hold it over their heads anymore?  If they don't feel your hate or hurt anymore?  Forgiveness is the bedrock of the Christian faith and the Christian Life.  The cross of Jesus Christ is only the tree of Life if we receive Jesus' forgiveness for ourselves and we then forgive others as we have been forgiven. That becomes our life agenda.  Not a joke, not good advice: but our marching orders from the One we are trusting to save our souls. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a Nazi prison wrote: "When  Christ calls a person he call them to come and die."  What is it about the cross that has transformed our reality and indeed has transformed the world? It is forgiveness.  Dr Robert Sculler, has a rather wonderful way of re-framing the cross illustrating what it accomplishes in us. He says:  "the cross turns a minus, into a plus."  Are we minuses? or pluses? Jesus turns negatives into positives.  Many today,  are clinging to that every promise, that sacred hope while our sister and brother Christians are being slaughtered, hunted down like animals by the rabid and driven godless, in places where people cling to life against all hope with no food or medical care or water, where disease ravages their homeland, will we not as they do, cling to the one who has brought us such great salvation? All Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ.  Is that not why we begin our services with that symbolic procession in to remind of that it is all about following Him? The choice is ours, Jesus has already chosen.

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