Rev. Mike Gemignani Sermon – Fall Assembly, 2016
Opening service – Fall Assembly 2016
The motto of the Order is “magnanimiter crucem sustine,” which can be interpreted as carry the cross boldly. The hymn of the Order is Lift High the Cross. Today, in keeping with the theme of this assembly we are using the propers for Holy Cross Day. Each Daughter is, or should be, wearing her Daughter’s cross. I wear the cross of the Rivendell Community of which I am a professed member. We see crosses all around us both inside and outside of church. But the cross is one of the strangest, perhaps most mysterious, symbols of any religious faith in any place and time in the history of the world.
The cross was, of course, the instrument used in the most painful and cruel means of execution that Roman ingenuity could devise. Romans considered crucifixion so obscene that they would not even speak of it in polite conversation. Even the Jews considered someone who died on a cross to be accursed. And, yet, we proudly wear our crosses and display them prominently in our homes and churches. As Nicky Gumbel points out in one of his talks in the Alpha Course, we would never think of wearing a replica of a gallows or a miniature electric chair around our necks. So why do we rightly have such reverence for the cross?
The answer that comes immediately to mind is that the cross is the instrument of our salvation. It was Christ’s sacrifice on the cross that paid the debt owed for our sins, or paid the ransom to free us from the power of sin. The cross is thus transformed from a savage instrument of capital punishment into a sign of hope.
But with profound respect and devotion to Our Lord, I question whether Christ’s death was a payment owed to God because humanity had incurred a debt, or, even more problematically, that it was a ransom paid to free us from the power of sin and evil.
There have been several books written recently that try to make sense of why Christ chose to die on a cross. Indeed, this was a question of intense interest in the early Church. Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. All but one of his disciples and some faithful women were with him when he died. The rest had fled, afraid that they too would be arrested. That should have been the end of Christianity then and there. But a strange thing happened. Jesus did not stay dead. He rose on the third day and that changed everything both for his frightened and dispirited followers then as well as for we who follow him today. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, we would never have heard of him.
Jesus’s Resurrection revived what was to become Christianity. The disciples received the Holy Spirit and the Church was off and running. But we should not suppose that even the apostles understood who Jesus was nor did they understand his mission. People were transformed by the power of the Resurrection and set ablaze in the fire of the Holy Spirit, but they wondered what to make of it all. And while Jesus was worshiped as divine even shortly after the Resurrection, it took centuries for the Church to embody its most basic beliefs in an authoritative creed.
Many Christians think that the idea of the substitutionary atonement, the idea that Jesus died to pay a debt owed to God for our sins, a debt that we could not pay ourselves, was a belief held by early Christians, but, in fact, this belief became widespread only after the Reformation. Indeed, today many people are so put off by the idea that an angry God demanded the death of his son that they reject Christianity as a savage religion. They rightly ask, if God requires us to generously forgive those who have sinned against us, why then could not God be equally generous in forgiving us without the bloodshed of Calvary?
As I mentioned earlier, there is much theological discussion today about why the cross is so central to our faith, as indeed it is. Two books I personally have read in this area are THE CRUCIFIXION: UNDERSTANDING THE DEATH OF JESUS CHRIST by Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal priest, and TRANSFORMED LIVES: MAKING SENSE OF ATONEMENT TODAY by Cynthia Crysdale, a professor of Christian Ethics and Theology at the University of the South. And there are a number of others as well.
Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, the second Person of the Trinity made flesh, is central to our faith. His life, death, and resurrection are pivotal points in the history of humanity and we do well to meditate upon them with care, prayer, and devoted love. We are faced with great mysteries, truths that surpass the finite understanding of our intellects, but meditate on them we must, just as the early Christians meditated on them as they tried to understand this strange and wondrous man who died the death of a common criminal and then rose glorious from the grave.
The idea that Jesus died to satisfy an angry God has little appeal today to potential Christians. And I do want people to come to know Christ, to love him, to find the joy and comfort that is possible in and through him, for it is in and through our participation in Christ that we participate in the Life of God. What greater gift could we receive? And we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we can grow in the life we share in Christ and come to know God, know God not as a punitive judge but someone who loves us more than we can ask for or imagine.
A discussion of the necessity for the cross is too rich to fit within one, or even many, sermons. But I do want to share some ideas with you now about why the cross is indeed central to our faith, and having stated that Christ’s death on the cross was neither to pay a debt nor to ransom us from evil, I certainly owe it to you to offer a more compelling, more wonderful, and entirely orthodox explanation as an alternative.
Two central events in the history of the Church are the Incarnation and Pentecost. Through the Incarnation, God and humanity were combined in the person of Jesus Christ. We are able to share in life of Christ by becoming members of his Body. We are thus enabled to share in the life of God. At Pentecost, we received the Holy Spirit. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit sanctifies, transforms, and enables us to grow in the Life we have received through Christ. The Spirit draws us ever deeper into that Life which is nothing less than God. We do not become God, but we become more closely united to, conformed to, God, and we come to know God as God is, just as God knows us, a knowledge that will consummated more fully in heaven.
But between the Incarnation and Pentecost lie the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. There is a temptation to consider each of these events separately. If we stress one, rather than hold them both equally necessary for the coming of the Kingdom of God, then we risk misunderstanding God’s plan. For example, if we stress the death of Christ on the cross, we risk thinking the primary reason why the Word became flesh was so that that Jesus could die. We then concentrate on the sinfulness that brought about such a catastrophic and unjust result and may not remember that Christ told us to pick up our own crosses and follow in his footsteps. We risk thinking that our ticket to paradise has been bought and paid for and all we need to do is claim that ticket and hand it over to Peter at the Pearly Gates. But we may then fail to remember that our incorporation into the Body of Christ is but the beginning of a journey that begins in this life and continues through eternity, a journey to come to know God ever more fully in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Between birth and resurrection, there is death. Resurrection, new life, makes no sense unless the old passes away. Our growing into the Life that is God involves radical transformation, a death of the old self so that the new can born. Unless we are crucified with Christ, we cannot be fully transformed.
There is a deep and sublimely terrible mystery in the Cross. At his crucifixion Jesus had been abandoned by all but a one of his chosen apostles and a handful of courageously faithful women. Jesus had been stripped naked, shorn of his clothing and his dignity. He had even seemingly been abandoned by God. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” is one of the most poignant cries in all of Scripture. And when he died, his body was placed in a borrowed tomb.
I can see why Christians want to believe that Jesus’s death was the payment of debt because once a debt is paid, there is no more debt. If there is no more debt, we can rest easy knowing that our ticket to heaven has been paid for in full. But what if Jesus’s crucifixion was his showing us the gate through which we ourselves must pass to come more fully into the Life of God? What if the crucifixion represents not a debt to be paid but a lesson to be learned? Jesus, did not merely say, “Follow me.” He said, “Pick up your cross daily and follow me.” I believe Jesus meant that where he led the way, we must also go. We cannot reach the empty tomb if we do not first traverse the hill of Calvary.
To possess God fully, to be possessed by God fully, to be united to God as fully as a creature can be united to God, to know God as fully as God knows us, all that we have must belong to God alone. All that we are must be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit so that it becomes completely God’s, or it must be burned away in the Spirit’s purifying flame. And in this process we die to live. We lose our selves that we might become all that God intends us to become and thus find our truest selves in God. We are crucified, losing all as Christ lost all on the Cross, to gain all that truly matters.
There is so much more that I could say on this magnificent story of God’s Love for us, a Love that surpasses all that we can imagine. But I return to a statement I made earlier. The Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and Pentecost. These cannot be separated for they are all of a piece in our journey toward the fullness of Life in God.
We are born into membership in Christ’s Body. We die with him on the Cross as all we are is given over to God that we might belong to God alone. And in our dying on our Cross, we find true Life, empowered and transformed by the Holy Spirit.
How I wish I had more time, even days to rhapsodize on this most wondrous of love stories, but it is time to continue our celebration together. And in this celebration we immerse ourselves into the Mystery of Love of which the Cross is but a symbol, and we receive under the form of bread and wine the one who enables us to share in the life of God. And as the elements are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to become the Body and Blood of Christ, may we also be transformed by the same Spirit to become other Christs as well. As Christ gives himself to us fully in Communion, may we in that sacred act give ourselves fully to him as well. Amen.