September 14, 2003
(Philippians 2: 6-11; John 3:
Today's feast, the Exultation of the Holy Cross, goes back 1700 years
to when the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision of the cross and issued
an edict granting tolerance to Christianity. Afterwards, many people
became Christians, including the emperor, but it was a mixed blessing,
because then he wanted all the Christians to become soldiers and he reorganized
the church by creating bishops who began to justify their participation
in warfare, leading to the just war theory. But it's an important feast
because we don't talk about the cross enough and in those days, they
talked about it all the time. We need to ask ourselves, "Why was Jesus
killed? What did the cross mean to Jesus? What does it mean to the early
Christians? What does it mean for us?"
If you ask, "Why was Jesus killed?" everyone answers, "To save us from
our sins." Does that mean the Roman soldiers and Pilate said to themselves, "O
good, if we crush and kill this innocent person, he'll save us?" No,
they killed him because he was a troublemaker, a revolutionary, telling
people not to pay taxes, and not to worship the emperor. Does that mean
that Jesus wanted to be killed? I don't think so. He prayed in the Garden
the night before his death that the cup would be taken away from him.
I think Jesus wanted everyone to welcome the reign of God, to do what
he said. He didn't want to be tortured and killed. But no one would accept
his message. So he turned toward Jerusalem, walked into the Temple, disrupted
the whole corrupt business of buying and selling doves and changing money
in the name of God, and the religious authorities were furious and had
him arrested, condemned by the empire, tortured and killed. The cross
was the form of capital punishment they used then. It is the death penalty.
So when he tells his disciples, "If you want to follow me, you have to
deny yourself and take up your cross," he's saying you have to oppose
the empire and be willing to be executed, martyred and they are totally
shocked because they know he is serious.
As my friend Daniel Berrigan says, "If you want to follow Jesus, you
better look good on wood."
If we are people of the cross, then I think we have to take up the cross,
stand with the crucified and risk being crucified. Instead, most Catholics
in the U.S., for example, support the death penalty; and stand with the
executioners, the crucifiers, not the executed, the crucified. Most U.S.
Catholics support war and the occupation of Iraq, and stand with the
imperial killers, the crucifiers, not the killed, the crucified. Most
Catholics support nuclear weapons, and stand with the imperial crucifiers,
not the crucified peoples.
What does the cross mean? I don't think, as one theologian said, the
cross means having a bad day or a bad relationship or a flat tire. I
think the cross of Jesus means confronting systemic injustice, like he
did, in a spirit of active nonviolent love, insisting on the truth, calling
for conversion, and announcing God's reign. It means speaking out against
the empire's institutionalized evil, and willingly suffering for your
stand. It means giving your life away for others as he did.
This is why I speak out against nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, and the
unjust, horrific U.S. bombing and military occupation of Iraq, and the
immoral lack of healthcare, jobs, education and housing, not because
I like it or want attention, but because I'm supposed to be a follower
of Jesus which means I have to carry the cross, too. All of us have to
carry the cross with Jesus. This is the hallmark of our Christian discipleship.
I don't like all these New Age books and their spirituality because,
while a lot of it is good, and makes you feel good, it is missing the
cross. The cross makes Christianity so serious, authentic and real. The
cross is very painful. It's not fun; it's not supposed to make us feel
good. It disrupts our lives and demands great faith and love. That's
why we're all trying to avoid it.
But the amazing thing about the cross is that, in the end, Jesus is
right. The cross is the best way, the only way, to transform ourselves
and the world. Jesus is betrayed and rejected, but he doesn't yell or
scream or hit anyone or kill anyone; he is perfectly loving and nonviolent.
He trusts in God, forgives everyone, and still insists that the world
has to change and welcome God's reign, and as he suffers and dies with
perfect nonviolent love and forgiveness on the cross, scales fall from
our eyes, we realize the wrong we have done to this innocent person,
we turn back to him, we start to make his reign of peace and nonviolence
a reality in the world, and he wins us all over.
That's why he says in John's Gospel that eventually he will draw all
people to himself. The cross works. Sacrificial love and martyrdom are
the only way to change hearts and the world. And he wants us to participate
in his redemptive work, to get on with the work of welcoming God's reign.
Now the early Christians understood the cross much better than we do
because they faced martyrdom every day, so they wrote this beautiful
hymn which Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians, explaining how
Jesus deliberately did not cling to power or being God, how he consciously
emptied himself, became a slave, died on a cross, won everyone over,
and is the most exalted human being who ever lived.
There's an important Greek word which is used here, the only time in
the whole New Testament--"kenosis," which means, "to empty." Jesus "emptied
himself," they said, and as his followers, we too have to "empty ourselves," which
I think means we have to let go of everything, give ourselves away, give
our lives away for one another and the whole human race. We are not going
to put anyone on the cross but ourselves. We are not going to support
the crucifixion of anyone, but we are willingly to be crucified as Jesus
was. That was their understanding of the cross.
So what does the cross mean for us? I invite you to think about this
question. How are you accompanying Jesus as he carries his cross today
in the world? How are you taking up the cross against injustice and violence?
How do you use the power of suffering love, the dynamic and logic of
the cross, to overcome problems in your life or at work or to resist
violence in the world and welcome God's reign?
In the end, the cross of Jesus offers ultimate meaning and power and
even joy. If we side with the crucified one and the crucified peoples;
if we refuse to side with the crucifiers or put people on the cross;
if we vow never to hurt another human being again; if we take up the
way of the cross and give our lives away for others like Jesus; if we
speak out against injustice and try to stop the killings in the world,
try to stop the crucifixion of the poor; if we even dare to suffer with
love for truth, for others; if we try to live well and die well like
Jesus--not only will our lives bear good fruit and we will leave the
world a better place, we will be exalted with him, and share in his eternal
life of resurrection peace.
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