Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sermon: Feast of the Holy Cross

14 September 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: 1 Cor 1:18-25

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

In the year 312 A.D., a remarkable thing happened.

The Roman Empire, which officially put Jesus and thousands of His followers to death, turned on its heels. According to some ancient historians, the Emperor Constantine had a vision just before battle in which he saw a cross and the Greek words “Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα”, which means: “In this sign you will conquer.” Now, whether or not this part of the story is true, the next part certainly is: Constantine won the battle, legalized Christianity, and himself became a Christian.

Soon, the cross was seen everywhere – even in former pagan temples that were being converted into Christian churches. Christians practiced their faith in the open, and the Gospel was spread legally using the magnificent roads and the universal language of the Romans who once persecuted them for their faith – often by crucifying them.

Around this time, a dispute rose over the nature of the divinity of Jesus, and the Christians began to trace the sign of the cross the way we do today, over the head and chest, instead of the small sign on the forehead that was done in the days of Roman persecution.

The Christian faith symbolized by this cross triumphed over the mighty Roman Empire without firing a single shot. No-one could have predicted such an unlikely route to such an unlikely victory, a victory over the enemies of the cross, over the oppressors of those who followed in the footsteps of the crucified One, of those whom the Lord said would be bearers of their own crosses.

“In this sign, you will conquer.”

And that is indeed the story of the cross. In this sign our Lord conquered the devil. In this sign, we Christians conquer sin, death, and the grave. And it is in this sign, given at Baptism, that the forces of evil are exorcised and life is victorious over death.

The way of the cross is indeed an unlikely route to victory. For to the eyes, the cross is a symbol of death, defeat, submission, and disgrace. It is a shameful instrument of torture and capital punishment reserved for slaves and traitors. It is painful, gory, and horrific. The statesman Cicero said that the cross is not a topic civilized people should bring up in polite company.

If someone wanted to start a religion, the cross would be the last symbol anyone would want to represent it.

The fact that Christians wear crosses around their necks would seem strange to ancient Romans, as if we were to wear little electric chairs or hangman’s nooses as jewelry today. And that is exactly St. Paul’s point that we can only grasp by faith: “it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”

The world doesn’t get us because the world doesn’t get the cross.

The world mocks Christianity as foolishness, and Christians as fools. We are either derided as unscientific backward morons or as self-righteous bigots and hypocrites. “For the message of the cross” says St. Paul, “is foolishness for those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

It pleases God to bring the haughty down and to exalt the humble. And as St. Paul asks the mocker of the cross and of the Christ: “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” The world sees a condemned criminal dying and asks: “How can this truly be God?” The world sees bread and wine and asks “How can this be the true body and blood of Christ?” The world sees a redeemed sinner and asks: “How can this truly be a saint?”

And here is how it is, dear Christians, from the mouth of the Holy Spirit Himself, proclaimed by St. Paul, and confessed by the Church for two millennia: “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

The holy cross is an instrument of torture that frees us from the torture of hell. The holy cross is the bringer of death that brings us out of death to life. The holy cross is the law’s punishment for sin that liberates us from sin and the law’s punishment. The holy cross was a failed attempt by Satan to decapitate the people of God, that became the means through which the Head of the Church crushed the head of the serpent.

“In this sign, you will conquer.” For we are more than conquerors because of the sacrifice of the crucified One, and through the preaching of the foolishness of the cross.

Indeed all those who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, all the redeemed and reborn who eat the body and drink the blood of Christ crucified, all those who pray for deliverance and for help by the Lord’s cross and passion will certainly conquer in, with, and under that sign of the glorious battle of which we sing:

Faithful cross, true sign of triumph,
Be for all the noblest tree;

None in foliage, none in blossom,

None in fruit thine equal be;

Symbol of the world’s redemption,

For the weight that hung on thee.


In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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