Finding the Cross


If you grew up Lutheran, you probably didn't grow up celebrating this day. Although Holy Cross Day was on the Church Year calendar used during the Reformation, it isn't in the old Lutheran hymnal. It is, however, in the new. This day dates to the early 300s when Emperor Constantine's mother supposedly found the cross of Christ. For Lutherans is this day really about finding the cross? Yes & no.

In one sense, the cross doesn't need to be found. Say the actual cross of Christ did turn up. What good would it do? We would have an old piece of wood. Ah but it would be stained with the blood of Christ. So what; we have cups full of His blood in Communion. But the wood would have microscopic pieces of His body. So what; we have all of His body in Communion.

The actual cross would be like water from the Jordan River. People think this water is better, special, more holy because Jesus was baptized in it. But God never attached even one promise to the waters of the Jordan; He has, however, attached the promises of forgiveness, deliverance from the devil, and salvation to baptismal waters. It's the same with the cross. You don't get forgiveness, life, or salvation by touching, holding or even eating the cross of Christ. You do get these things by faithfully eating and drinking Communion.

We Lutherans aren't that interested in finding the cross because it wouldn't do any good if we found it. Besides the cross is present everywhere in our society. Look at musicians and movie stars. You'll find them adorned with crosses. Look at movies. The majority of movies I watch have crosses prominently displayed in some scene. This is no accident. Nothing is shown on a TV or movie screen that is not purposely placed there. Finally, look along the roadsides of America. Makeshift crosses marking traffic fatalities are everywhere. Florida has so many that the State has stopped people from erecting their own crosses. Now the State puts up official markers; they too use crosses.

Lutherans, in a sense, aren't interested in finding the cross. It wouldn't do any good and there are plenty of crosses already. But in another sense we are interested in finding the cross. Not the actual one Christ was crucified on. That is hopeless. Over the centuries it has shown up in so many different places and pieces that it would have had to have been the size of a redwood tree. But we are interested in finding the real meaning of the cross.

This has been all but lost today. People wear crosses in our day as fashion statements. It's very "in" to wear them. It's not a mark of foolishness or weakness like Paul speaks of to put a cross on. If it were how many movie stars or musicians would be wearing them? Do such people normally wear things they think make them look foolish or weak? No, far from it; they wear what they think makes them appear to be a wise dresser and a powerful person.

What about the crosses that show up on the big or little screen? What do they mean? Although frequently they are in scenes that cast an unfavorable light on Christianity, even then they aren't regarded as marks of foolishness and weakness. They're merely the official logo of Christianity. The cross, particularly the crucifix, has become the equivalent of the familiar SBC logo. It's a company symbol. It doesn't say anything about the company; it only identifies the company.

And how about the road side markers? They're just that. They MARK where a death has occurred. The cross, particularly an empty cross, in our society is a symbol for death, not the death of Christ but any death. For example, regardless of what your faith is, Florida erects a cross to mark where you died. Graves are just suppose to be marked that way. Even the graves of animals are marked with a cross. The cross has come to mean death not the foolishness and weakness of God that Paul speaks of.

So where can Lutherans go to find the true meaning of the cross? We have to go back hundreds of centuries. We must return to the Old Testament where the cross first raises it's ugly head. Deuteronomy 21:23 says, "He who is hanged on a tree is cursed by God." Impaling on a piece of wood from a tree was not how Israel normally executed people. They stoned them, but if they wished to show someone was cursed by God, they impaled him on a piece of wood. The cross was associated with being cursed by God. It was sign, a symbol for God's curse. Deuteronomy makes this point even stronger in literal translation: "He who is hanged on a tree is the curse of God." How do you know where God's curse is to be found? Look for the cross, and there it is.

This is why the disciples were so shocked when Jesus made it clear He was going to the cross; this is why they all ran and hid when He was actually crucified; this is why the church officials were so upset when the disciples proclaimed this crucified Jesus was the Christ, was Jehovah, was their Lord and Savior. For crying out loud, He was "the curse of God!" How could He be God in flesh and blood? He was cursed by God! How could He be the Christ?

Do you see what an offense the cross was? Do you see how it made the first Christians look foolish and weak? This continued right into the time of the early church. Justin Martyr in 135 AD in dialoging with a the Jews was told, "We know that he [the Christ] should suffer and be led as a sheep. But prove to us whether He must be crucified an die so disgracefully and so dishonorably by the death cursed in the Law. For we cannot bring ourselves even to think this..." Also a work of graffiti from the 200s illustrates how embarrassing the cross first was. In the imperial page's quarters in Rome, there's a drawing of a human body with the head of a jackass nailed to a cross. The inscription reads, "Alexamenos worships his God."

Can you imagine marking your body then with the sign of the cross? Can you imagine marking your grave with a cross? How about wearing it around you neck? How about using it as the logo by which your group would be popularly known? Originally it wasn't at all popular. It was foolish; it was weak. So how come we find Paul saying, "May it never be that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ?" How did it come to be that Paul would tell the Corinthians, "I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified?"

Why is it still this way among Christians? Why have Christians historically placed crosses on the inside and the outside of their buildings? Why have we adorned our altars with crucifixes? Why have we made crucifixes that are particularly gruesome showing our Jesus, our Savior, our God in all of His grotesque, contorted agony? Why do we sing songs like "Abide with Me" where we pray for Christ to "Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes?" And "Lift High the Cross?" Because the cross preaches to us a different meaning than it does to the world.

The cross preaches to us that God became a curse in our place. That He died the death of a cursed, outcast sinner because He took our sins as His own. When we see a cross we're seeing the only answer to our sinfulness: Not our suffering but Christ's, not our dying but His, not the many crosses that we may carry in our life but the one cross Christ carried from the womb to tomb. When we see the cross we see that God loved sinners more than He did His own Son, and His own Son loved sinners more than He did His own self.

But you know all that. This is the stuff of Lent and Good Friday. It's good stuff; it's great stuff, but there's more. There's stuff that applies to your everyday life not just to your sins; to your earthly life not just to your heavenly salvation. The cross preaches to us that God works in foolish ways. Obviously the Church of Jesus' day and even His own disciples did not expect Jesus to defeat sin, Satan, and the grave by allowing Himself to be crucified on a cross in place of all sinners. This was foolishness to them. What could be gained by going meekly to be crucified like a helpless sheep goes to shearers? How foolish!

Look at the cross and remember the foolishness of God. The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men although it forever and always looks foolish. God works through what is foolish to the wisdom of men. Rather than send a powerful angel to preach you the word, he sends a weak pastor. Rather than send forgiveness in impressive miracles, He sends it in water. Rather than giving you His Body and Blood by awesome miracles, He gives them by Bread and Wine.

There is not only foolishness in the cross but comfort too. Look and remember that the disciples could have spared themselves a lot of heartache if they had believed that God works through foolishness. They didn't need to run from the cross; they could have embraced it on Good Friday as they did later. The cross means that you too can embrace the foolish ways of God: Such as praying for patience and getting an intolerable child. Praying to be forgiving and getting a sinful spouse to forgive constantly. Praying for strength at night only to get days that try the soul. Praying to go one way and being led in the opposite direction. The cross means that you have a God who works through what it foolish. You have a God who can't be judged by men's wisdom. You have a God who can only be followed in faith not by sight.

Hold the cross not only before your dying eyes but before your living eyes. Look at it and see it means God works in not only foolish ways but in utterly powerless ways. Jesus did nothing on the cross but suffer and die. These are passive not active things. The soldiers crucified Him; the church leaders tormented Him; Satan pressed the sin and guilt of the world firmly down on Him. Jesus did nothing. He hung their meekly, weakly, so much so that it infuriated people. "Come down from there. Save Yourself. You saved others; surely you can save yourself." But Jesus did nothing.

Look at the cross; it means that God works through what is powerless. He who triumphed by dying weakly on a cross; still triumphs over your sins by washing them away with plain water in Baptism. It's not even holy water; it's just water connected to His Word. And He gives you strength to persevere in the true faith not by pumping you up with good or strong feelings but by giving you His Body and Blood in plain looking Bread and Wine.

Look at the cross; it means that God is working even though you may feel totally powerless. He doesn't seem to be doing anything about your troubled marriage, but He is. He doesn't seem to be helping out with your kids, but He is. He doesn't seem to be working in your situation, but He is. How difficult it is to see Him at work, but certainly it's no more difficult than standing at the foot of the cross and saying, "Here God is at work defeating sin, death and the devil for me!" The disciples looking at the cross could of said that, and you looking through the cross at your life can say that too!

Wherever you find the cross today in the movies, on movie stars or even along the highway may you see your Savior hanging their foolishly and weakly, yet victoriously. And as you do ponder these mysterious lines that we sing, "Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure./ By the cross are sanctified;" The cross sanctifies not just strength but weakness, not just good but evil. For this reason Lutherans find the cross and lift it high. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Holy Cross Day (9-14-03); I Corinthians 1:18-24