Holy Cross Day
Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalm 98:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
If you’re a sports fan and you’re watching a game on TV you might have noticed over the past forty years as the camera pans the crowd there’s a sign that appears year after year, game after game. In the middle of thousands of people someone is holding a sign that says, simply, “John 3:16.” This is one of the best-known, if not the best-known, verse in the Bible. Even people who have nothing to do with the church have at least heard of John 3:16.
Everyone seems to know John 3:16. But what about John 3:17?
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Not as well known, right? And yet, John 3:16 without verse 17 can be a problem. Without verse 17 Christian faith can become “all about me.” John 3:16 by itself can lead me to believe that Christian faith is about “believing the right things in order to save my skin in the life to come.” …so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.
But Christian faith is not an insurance policy for the afterlife. Lutherans believe that salvation is not the goal of faith; it’s the starting point! Confident in God’s grace, we are free to live–in response to God’s goodness–grateful lives of service.
No doubt about it, John 3:16 holds the key to faith: God so loved the world… But it’s verse 17 that drives the point home. God’s love is not for Christians only, or those who “believe” the “right” things. No, the original Greek word for “world” in this passage is cosmos. As Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have reminded us, the cosmos is a pretty big place! And that word “cosmos” appears four times in two verses.
God’s love is for earth, and sky and sea, for planets, stars, and galaxies. And, yes, God’s love is for living things: plants, and animals, and human beings. Why did God come to earth with salvation in mind? Maybe because we’re the creatures most likely to self-destruct!
Jesus came to earth to save the world. Because we are followers of Jesus this is our job. Let me remind you—because I need reminding!—that saving the world is our full-time job. Spend time in prayer, spend time in worship, spend time in conversation, in meditation and over time you will find that nearly every moment of our lives is an opportunity for salvation—either saving someone else, saving the earth, or, allowing ourselves to be saved…from ourselves.
Today is Holy Cross Day, a very old commemoration in the church, dating to 1700 years ago. On this day we remember and are grateful for the cross as a powerful symbol of salvation.
In his letter to the church in Corinth St. Paul writes, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Foolishness is right! For many in our day the cross is a piece of jewelry, a sentimental testimony to personal belief. But the cross on which Jesus suffered and died was not a piece of jewelry. It was an instrument of torture, a symbol of suffering and death. Can you imagine wearing in public a noose, or a gun, or an electric chair as the symbol for your religious faith? And, yet, as Paul reminds us, in the “upside-down” world of Christian faith, God takes what is offensive and life-threatening, and turns it into a powerful symbol of hope and new life.
Many among us are familiar with the power found in the shape of the cross. It is the vertical connection between God reaching out to us, and the horizontal connection of human beings reaching out to one another. God so loved the world (vertical) and God so loved the world (horizontal).
The shape of the cross can also remind us of the points of the compass. In the words of one of our hymns last Sunday, “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North.” (+) Maybe a better way to say it is that the shape of the cross draws all of these together. Who can say that one direction is better than another? No, in the cross all the points of the compass are brought together, for God so loved the world.
Likewise, in the shape of the cross we find that all the peoples of the world are brought together. Many of us learned the children’s song, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Hidden in the song is the shape of the cross: (+)…red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world. For God so loved the world—and that includes children of all ages! For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The cross is an instrument of torture, a symbol of death. Unfortunately, this is what the cross symbolizes when it is used as an excuse to divide and destroy. When we claim that God is on our side, the cross remains a symbol of death and we forget that the foolishness of God is determined to unite and to heal—for “God so loved the world,” and “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
In the shape of the cross what is different and far apart is brought close and in unity. In the shape of the cross we find our life’s work. Turn to the image on your bulletin and notice that where differences come together—where vertical and horizontal come together—is the place where Jesus’ head rests. Where differences come together, in other words, we find the mind of Christ.
Where God’s people of many paths and experiences and beliefs come together at worship, there is the mind of Christ. There is salvation. Where God’s people recognize the connection between humans, plants, animals and the earth, and treat all of creation with respect and care, there is the mind of Christ. Where tribes and nations lay down weapons and fear and work for peace, there is the mind of Christ. Where the haves dedicate their energy to the have-nots, and where the poor are empowered to live with hope and dignity, there is the mind of Christ. Where the healthy bring healing to the sick, where the living bring hope to the dying, where young minister to the old, and the old minister to the young, there is the mind of Christ. There is salvation.
Because, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the cosmos—you and me and all of creation–might be saved through him!