Lift high the cross
the love of Christ proclaim
Till all the world adore
his sacred name.
Many of you may recognise the words of this hymn by Michael Newbolt. And no doubt many of you would want to sing along gustily agreeing with the sentiment.
Yet the question that I have is what kind of cross do we envisage being lifted.
The hymn goes on “Come Christians follow where our captain trod our King victorious Christ the Son of God. Led on their way by this triumphant sign the hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.”
For me the image that immediately comes to mind with these words is that of an army marching off on a crusade. It is militaristic and imperialistic depiction of the faith and of what lifting high the cross might mean.
I find this imagery deeply disturbing because for me it creates an image of the cross which is the antithesis of what we actually find in the scriptures.
In his book, “Crucified God”, Jurgen Moltmann asserts, “In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian.”
Yet the cross which Moltmann describes in his book is one far removed from such imperialism and militarism.
To understand then what it means to lift high the cross I think the reading from John 3 sets us off in a very different direction to understand what it means to contemplate the cross.
Of course the segment that we read today from John 3 is a part of a longer dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus and it is valuable to read the whole story. Rather than do that own I would leave that for your own time.
But the vital point is the connection Jesus makes “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
It is commonly accepted that what Jesus is referring to here is him being lifted up on the cross and what he is saying to Nicodemus is that to understand the meaning of the cross involves understanding what Moses did in lifting up the serpent.
So let us take a moment to look at that story.
It is helpful to fill in a little bit of background to the people’s whinging about the bread and wanting to return to Egypt. The bread they are complaining about was a miraculous gift, manna from heaven, when the people were hungry. Not only had God provided bread but God had also led Moses to split the rock at Meribah where the Israelites had quarrelled with God to provide water for them. And just prior to the incident that we read today God had given the Israelites a victory over the Canaanites, so great was this victory that the place was named Hormah which means destruction.
The Israelites had been cared for and provided for and protected by God and their response is ungratefulness – “sorry God the bread’s a bit bland, Egypt was better.”
Now God’s response may seem a little extreme as God sends fiery serpents among the people, biting them and even killing some of the people.
When the people go to Moses and plead that the snakes be taken away Moses approaches God. God’s response is not to take the snakes away but to provide a means of grace. It is a brass snake mounted on a pole, a symbol to be looked upon and a person would be healed.
What is interesting for us today is that it is the source of the problem, the serpent, which becomes the symbol of their healing.
Let’s bring this into comparison with the Son of Man being lifted up.
If looking at the serpent was looking at the source of the problems then looking at Jesus on the cross is at some level doing the same thing.
Jesus is the symbol, like the snake, of the source of our problems.
Now this may sound a little uncomfortable and it should be because this is the confrontation with our own humanity.
In Deuteronomy we read that the one who is hung on the tree is cursed by God. So in looking at the Son of man lifted up we see that the things which are not of God in this world, the world’s turning away from God, our turning away from God, are tied up with the our human existence.
We are the snake biting ourselves!
The temptation for us who are Christians is to forget just how confronting this image of the cross is and that it continues to apply to us.
When we lift high the cross we are confronted by the way in which as human beings destroy our very humanity and so therefore God’s will and way.
Let me explore on three levels.
As a person I know that there are times that I fail to honour others as I should and this most obvious in the intimate relationships that I have.
In an angry word or dismissive gesture I can cause hurt to my wife or children. I can disregard me parents or in-laws and by my apathy I can fail to show the love I should to my siblings. In each moment that I do these things I destroy something of their humanity and mine – I fail to live as God intended. We all do it and like it or not it is what sin is all about – being less than God created us to be, destroying the life given to us or others as a gift. It is an intensely personal and at the same time an entirely universal thing.
Personally I would argue sin is not on a sliding scale, sin is simply what it is sin, whether it is these simple personal interactions or something more dire: sin is sin! It is our turning away from God and so also, and maybe inevitably, each other.
What we do in our intimate relationships carries through into our communities; whether in the church or in the locality. Our Australian urban culture is typified by the building a bigger fences between or neighbours. We often don’t even know their names. As people we are becoming more isolated and independent from one another.
And yes even as the church we fail. The existence of the many denominations is a sign of our inability as followers of Jesus Christ to be faithful. It is not simply that we like different things and express ourselves differently, which we do, but that we do not know how to love one another.
Even internally, no congregation I have ever been with or had association with has been free of tensions and disagreements.
This is what the cross reveals about humanity that we are the source of our own problems – we are the serpent that bites itself and the consequences and implications are far reaching.
In a world full of inequality the lifestyle we live is propped up by countries in which people are working in what any of us would say are intolerable conditions. Much of our coffee and chocolate is picked by children, sometimes dealt with as slaves. Many of the clothes we wear come from the sweat shops in other countries. We out source our manufacturing of technology to the places we can find the cheapest labour. We pick up our next bargain and it does not cross our minds as to where it has come from. Ironically, we do all this whilst vocalising our concerns for the poor of the world.
We are a paradoxical people.
Lift high the cross – what we see is that we human beings are very much the source of our own misery.
So where is hope? Where is God in all this? The answer is to look to the cross. Returning to Jurgen Moltmann’s book the title gives it away “The Crucified God”. God in Christ takes this ‘god forsakeness’ into his death and transforms it.
The triumph of the cross is as Paul says foolishness – God identifies with us in our turning away and all of its consequences and says I am with you and I will lead you home.
As Paul writes to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Despite our ignorance, despite our deliberate waywardness, and despite our plain stupidity the cross says to us that God is with us and that God has not forsaken: even we who would nail God to the cross. This is grace.
As people we are drawn into this grace as we lift high the cross and as we are lifted into living again with hope. Living with hope that sees past our human predicament and the paradox of our rejection of God and seeks to live again led and empowered by the good news that has been revealed to us.
Renewed constantly in our relationships with one other we learn to forgive each other as we indeed have been forgiven and we live as forgiven sinners, not perfect, yet witnesses to a hope in God’s love.
As Paul says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
This is the good news the Son of Man has been lifted up just as the serpent was lifted on the pole in the desert and in the source of our affliction we also find our healing.