Crosses come in all sizes and shapes. They may have religious symbolism or they might just be a piece of jewelry. Pope Francis decided to keep his rather simple cross instead of getting a newer and more ornate cross when he became Pope. My aunt who is a Jehovah’s Witness once asked me if I would wear an electric chair pendant if that was the way Jesus was executed. I was only sixteen and didn’t have a good answer. It is interesting that we’ve made the symbol of a brutal form of execution a piece of decorative art. Perhaps that’s as it should be, since God has a tendency to turn things upside down!
I know that Palm Sunday is a week away, but according to the lectionary Jesus is already in Jerusalem. The world is behind him, and the cross lies before him. In that moment, Jesus declares: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Yes, according to John, this is the hour for which Jesus came into the world. It’s not that Jesus is excited about what lies before him. He confesses that his soul is troubled. He would like for this hour to pass him by, but he’s already crossed the threshold. There is only one way to go and that is forward toward the cross of glory.
It is interesting that in Christianity, a symbol of death has become a symbol of new life. Jesus declares that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.”
I find it intriguing that Jesus’ conversation about death and life is triggered by the visit of a group of Greeks, who go to Philip to see if he could set up a meeting with Jesus. You know how it is. When you want to meet someone, important you may want to first go to those closest to that person. Maybe these “Greeks” are from the same town as Philip and they think that since they have that in common Philip will help set up the meeting. Philip apparently needs some support himself, so he goes to Andrew, the brother of Peter, and together they go to Jesus and introduce these Greeks or Gentiles to Jesus. Whoever these folks are, they’ve heard about Jesus and they want to know more about him. Like the magi in Matthew 2, they have come to seek out the one who holds out hope for the world.
Even as our reading from John begins with a request for a meeting by Gentiles, it ends with Jesus declaring: “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.” John says that these words are meant to signify how Jesus would die, but that’s not the only message present in these words. Apparently the cross is the means by which Jesus draws all of humanity into the grace of God, and as he does this he drives out the “ruler of this World.”
We may live in the world, but we’re not of the world. That is, we may be living on this planet that God created, but we don’t live according to “The System.” According to John, Jesus came into the world to confront and dismantle the System that seeks to enslave us, and he does this by way of the Cross of Glory.
In recent days we’ve heard stories of bombings of mosques in Yemen and murder in Tunisia. War goes on unabated in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine. Poverty and despair are present in cities and rural communities. Illicit drugs are used to mask the despair but ultimately destroy the lives of users. Human bodies are trafficked in the sex trade and in sweat shops in this country. These are all expressions of the System, but Jesus has come to put it out of business. He doesn’t choose to do this with violence, but through nonviolence. He would confront the violence of his day not with the sword but by way of the cross. In doing this, Jesus turned the tables on the plans of the Ruler of this World.
Fifty years ago this month people gathered from across the country in Selma, Alabama to participate in a march from Selma to Montgomery. They came to Selma to expose the System that continued to enforce segregation and prevented African American citizens from exercising their constitutionally protected right to vote. When the marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a bridge named for a former senator and Grand Dragon of the Klan, they were met by state troopers and a deputized mob wielding clubs. They were acting under orders of the governor. When these peaceful and unarmed marchers began to cross the bridge, these representatives of the System began to beat them to near death. They may have turned back that day, but when pictures of these acts of violence were sent out across the nation, things began to change. The marchers were joined by Martin Luther King a few days later, and once again they were turned back. By the time that they tried to cross the bridge a third time, President Johnson had sent in Federal Troops to escort them across the bridge. In the end, their commitment to nonviolent action paved the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Yes, fifty years ago “The System” that belongs to the “Ruler of this World” was brought down. The System used violence and intimidation to keep power, but it was brought down through nonviolence, following the way of the cross. When Jesus says to Pilate, that his kingdom is not of this World, he’s not talking about some heavenly kingdom that has no earthly impact. He’s saying to Pilate, my kingdom doesn’t derive from the System.
When her pregnant sister and brother-in-law were brutally murdered, Jeanne Bishop could have pursued vengeance. She could have devoted her life to making sure that the killer of her beloved sister paid the ultimate price, but instead she became public defender and spoke about forgiveness. This led her to join with others in seeking to end the practice of capital punishment in our country and ultimately to advocate for restorative justice. It took awhile but she eventually pursued reconciliation with the killer of her sister. It took more than twenty years to get there, but strengthened by her faith she took that pathway. Taking seriously Jesus’ words from the cross – “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” – she asks us to consider the question of whether any life, even that of a murderer is beyond redemption.
In remembrance of the anniversary of the Selma March, we have the opportunity to join others from across the region for a special observance on Thursday evening. This gathering invites us to “Recapture the Selma Spirit.” The evening is being sponsored by the Detroit Clergy Gathering, which is the urban partner to the Metro Coalition of Congregations. As we gather for this event we likely will be confronted with unsettling questions that have kept people apart from each other. We’ll be confronted with our fears and our prejudices, and then we’ll be invited to join together in being agents of reconciliation and justice. It will be a call to take up the cross and follow Jesus, who has been lifted up and has drawn people to himself. This is the cross of Glory. The world is behind us, the lies cross before us, and there is no turning back.
John Lewis, now a Congressman from Georgia, but then a young Civil Rights organizer who was beaten to near death on Bloody Sunday, recently spoke at the commemoration of Bloody Sunday. He said to those gathered: “Some of us were left bloody . . . but we never became bitter . . . Our country will never, ever be the same after what happened on this bridge."
Jesus turned and faced the cross, knowing that this was the hour for which he had come into this world. As for us, is it not time to cross the bridge? Won’t you join me Thursday Evening at this important gathering of the community and not only “Recapture the Selma Spirit” but share in the life-giving Cross of Glory?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lent 5 B
March 22, 2015