The Cross of Life

February 19th, 2012

Hebrews 10:16-25

For a couple of years my wife and I have attended Good Friday services at St. John the Evangelist Monastery (an Episcopal monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts). The quiet, contemplative service centers on an adoration of the cross. At the appropriate time, following the monks’ lead, participants are invited to approach the cross solemnly kneeling and bowing to the ground three times as they move closer to the cross. The third station of adoration is at the very foot of the cross where participants either kiss or touch the cross in some manner.

There is something deeply moving about this strange and ancient service. Good Friday invites us to come to the cross. It beckons us to stand or kneel in awe before the reality of this night. The words of John Bowring’s great hymn portray the essence: “In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time” (“In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” The United Methodist Hymnal [Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989], 295).

The truth we know well. The cross was a cruel form of the death penalty used by the Roman Empire as deterrent. Today’s equivalent is the electric chair or the syringe for a lethal injection. Yet for many, the cross is simply a nice piece of jewelry; a dangling bauble to hang on a chain. This night invites us back to the strange world of the first Holy Week and thrusts us forward into our bruised and bleeding modern world. On this night the Roman sign of cruel death is transformed into a cross of life for today.

Consider well how the teaching from Hebrews invites us to participate in the transformation from a crucifixion of cruelty to a cross of life. It begins with a quotation of Jeremiah 31:33. God acts to indelibly write the law on our hearts. Such action by God is stunning movement beyond pitiful human attempts to sacrifice, cleanse, or fix the problem of our brokenness. God’s law is not a rule to keep from a dusty book but a living relational covenant of love. The additional quotation of Jeremiah 33:34 makes explicit the mercy we receive. “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Metaphorically we approach the cross out of God’s gracious action of undeserved mercy or not at all.

Many a modern reader cringes at images of blood sacrifice. We like our world cleaned up and sanitized. Yet incontestably the employment of the Old Testament image of Jesus as a “blood sacrifice” is anchored in the cross. To a world that knows bombs and IEDs, violence and heartache, a sanitized Jesus will not do. By the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), we come to a cross of life. Jesus’ physical death on the cross is a metaphorical tearing in two of the temple curtain (see Matthew 27:51). Previously the curtain kept the common believer separated from God. Now, on this day, we dare to call good because of our great priest Jesus, the sacrifice has been made that opens our way to God. We are reconciled to God through the cross of life. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased interpretation catches the essence: “So, friend, we can now—without hesitation—walk right up to God, into ‘the Holy Place.’ Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God” (Hebrews 10:19-20, THE MESSAGE).

From this towering conviction we claim a cross of life amidst death’s rubble. From here the rest of the passage unfolds as a call to faithfulness and perseverance. The faithful need to take care not to move the attention from the cross. Because we have a cross of life and not a sign of death we are ushered to (1) a reception of mercy, (2) a confession of hope, and (3) a plan of action.

The reception of mercy is explicit in the verses that follow. We can approach God not through vain cover-up but with “full assurance.” Many, both outside and inside the community of faith, are convinced that mercy applies to everyone but them. Faithful proclamation invites us to remember our most unfaithful moment since last Good Friday and lay it on the altar of God with assurance of God’s great mercy. The punishment we deserve is laid aside by God in and through Christ.

We think of confession as a confession of sin. The amazing truth of this night is that we are invited to confess our hope. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” (v. 23). Biblical hope transcends fleeting optimism. It is anchored not in our faithfulness but God’s. The Divine invites the congregation to reflect on their deepest, most heartfelt hopes, and place than in the hands of God.

The plan of action comes last. It is important in our culture with the stress on human striving and accomplishment to emphasize this. The sacrifice (atonement) is Christ. The mercy is the Lord’s. The hope is anchored in God. Our action comes as a natural outgrowth of the sacrifice, mercy, and hope. It is simple and straightforward. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (v. 24).

Such love arises from the worship of God and the encouragement of meeting together. Thus the plan of action properly closes with a common sense bit of advice that we are to not neglect in meeting together “but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (v. 25).

The text folds out neatly for us on this night of nights. It bids us first come and behold the true wonder of the cross. All the rest flows from that position of adoration, grace, and mercy. It comes from God’s action in Christ alone. Faithful proclamation shines the spotlight on the cross. Through Christ’s sacrificial, atoning love, death is transformed into life. The three acts of (1) a reception of mercy, (2) a confession of hope, and (3) a plan of action might best be used as a time of silent reflection and prayer in the body of the sermon itself. We are called to the cross of life on this night.

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