Lutherans celebrating the dedication of a holy relic of questionable provenance? Not really, no. (Pro tip: The last few sentences refer in outline form to Luther’s meditation on the passion of Christ. Order a modern translation in Pamphlet form HERE, or read it online for free HERE.) (Sermon after the jump)
Some Greeks come to Philip. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Jesus answer is to talk about his death. That is, if you wish to see Jesus – then you must see him in the cross. For that is the only way. That is where he goes, what he does, why he came.
Today is Holy Cross Day. The origins are a little bit strange – allegedly, it goes back to the early days of the church – right after the emperor declared that Christianity was no longer illegal. Before that, being a Christian meant risking your life. Now, it was legal. Emperor Constantine himself was a Christian. And his mother, Helena, allegedly went to Israel to find holy places. At one point the Romans tried to erase all Christian holy sites by building pagan temples. This only marked their location. So after Christianity was legal, they tore down the pagan temples and built churches. They dedicated a church that was built where tradition says Jesus was crucified. It’s called holy cross day because, allegedly Helena found the cross itself underneath that pagan shrine, and on September 14 the piece of the cross was placed back inside the church, where people could see it and pray over it.
Now, it’s a strange thing indeed for Lutherans to celebrate finding a relic. Luther said that there were enough splinters from the cross in Germany alone to build a house. That is, when relics become tourist attractions and bring in money, the temptation to fraud is high. And, since Lutherans believe that we receive forgiveness of sins freely for Christ’s sake, there is no need to venerate a holy relic to get time off of purgatory or to impress God with our devotion and faithfulness.
But, a day like holy cross day? We preach Christ Crucified. Here we are on the other side of the church year from Good Friday and Easter, so sure, an excuse to focus on the cross for a day – That’s the sort of day we can forget about the strange origins and focus on the object – the Cross itself.
The reading doesn’t have the cross. It has Greeks wanting to see Jesus, and Jesus answering that his glory is in “being lifted up from the earth.” Normally lifted up is a good thing. Lifted out of the ashes. Lifted up your heads ye mighty gates. Lift up your hearts we lift them up unto the Lord. It is a good, glorious sort of term.
And Jesus uses it for the exact moment when he appeared the least glorious. When his body was beaten and battered and hung up to die. This is my glory, says Jesus, because this is the hour that I came for.
Jesus talks about dying and bearing much fruit. We use that as a reading for committal services. We place the body in the ground as a seed, knowing it will be raised to a more glorious body in the resurrection. How do we know – we’ve seen it before. Jesus was raised. Jesus ties in his resurrection to the crucifixion. What does the resurrection mean? Look to the cross. What does the cross mean? Look to the empty grave. Both together tell the story. Redemption, forgiveness of sins, and eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
That’s why we have crosses with Jesus on them. Because the resurrection only works if we look to Jesus on the cross. And Jesus on the cross is different than all other victims. They were all taken down – Jesus and the two thieves. None of them are on the cross anymore. But the thieves – all the victims of all the crosses have their bodies in graves. Jesus body isn’t in the grave anymore. But the wounds are still visible. And so Jesus on the cross proclaims to the world, “Yes he was crucified. But we are bold to show the manner of his death because he is no longer dead.” We preach Christ crucified because of all the victims of crucifixion, only one overcame death and the grave. And those who follow in his train, those who go the way Jesus went, go into death with the hope and confidence that it is not the end. The grave is merely a resting place. Death is still the enemy, but death has been abolished. It’s power is done.
And now, like those Greeks, we say, We would see Jesus. And Jesus shows himself. And we don’t need to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to see bits of wood and stone. We don’t need to walk the same dusty roads and wear the same shoes and try and track down that upper room so someone can wash our feet, too.
We go where Jesus has promised to be. This is my body. This is my blood. That’s good enough. It’s sufficient. All you need is found where Jesus said he would be.
It begins with Baptism – Jesus is there, too. His name is placed on you in Baptism. The name of his father, placed on you. It’s God’s. Given by him, done in his name and at his command, and with his promise. And so, it’s not our activity, it’s his> saving people and giving them Jesus. So that, after they are baptized they can be brought to the altar, where they are given Jesus again.
Look here. Here is Jesus. His word spoken, in his church, to give the gifts he promised. Yup, that’s Jesus. We don’t need to go looking here or there for splinters to bow down to. We have his promise of salvation on this day in this place. The true benefits of that cross he was nailed to, are given here. It’s enough. There is no more to find, no more to receive.
And so when we ponder the Holy Cross, we do it, not according to human wisdom but according to the pattern which Christ gives:
Not moaning about sins of others Judas, etc.
Considering our own sins.
Knowing they put him there.
Knowing the sin is swallowed there.
Moving to resurrection – the new life given.
Being strengthened for our own struggles.
Receive the gifts he promises in his church this day. Receive Jesus.
As he has promised.