SERMON: 3rd Sunday of Lent 2024

SERMON: 3rd Sunday of Lent 2024

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 3rd March 2024

The sign or image of the Cross is perhaps the most recognizeable of Christian symbols.  It is to be found in most Christian churches, it has inspired great art. Many people, believers and unbelievers, wear it, and all sorts of people make the sign on themselves in a great variety of circumstances – from footballers on the pitch to people leaving flowers in memory of victims of accident or violence.  We may well feel this widespread use trivialises the sign and is an action driven by superstition rather than by theology.  But think also of how many times believing Christians make the sign of the cross.  Many of us were marked with the cross on Ash Wednesday.  At the Eucharist many of us use the sign at the beginning of the service, at the absolution, before the gospel is read, at the creed and blessing and before we receive Communion.

But of course when we think about the sign historically it is bizarre and uncomfortable.  The cross was a means of execution in the Roman empire reserved for the lowliest of offenders.  It was a sign of ruthless imperial power, a means of terror.  By contrast we do not wear or remind ourselves of axes, hangmen’s nooses, or the guillotine.  But from very early days in the Christian church, preachers and teachers were reminding their congregations to use this sign as a powerful protection against evil.  Listen to St. John Chrysostom, late 4th C. Archbishop of Constantinople:

“Never leave your house without making the sign of the cross. It will be to you a staff, a weapon, an impregnable fortress. Neither man nor demon will dare to attack you, seeing you covered with such powerful armour. Let this sign teach you that you are a soldier, ready to combat against the demons, and ready to fight for the crown of justice. Are you ignorant of what the cross has done? It has vanquished death, destroyed sin, emptied hell, dethroned Satan, and restored the Universe.

This is in many ways an expansion of Paul’s teaching.  If we turn to our epistle today we hear him writing to the Christian church he had founded in Corinth.  Now we know from his two surviving letters to the Corinthians that he had a lot of trouble with them, though they were very dear to his heart.  The church had become full of divisions.  Some Christians were still uncomfortably like their counterparts in this worldly and cosmopolitan city.  Some looked down on their lowlier brethren, and there seems to have been unseemly conflict and behaviour, even at the Lord’s Supper.  Some boasted about their so-called spiritual gifts, including speaking with tongues. Others seemed to have engaged in another kind of spiritual one-upmanship by claiming to follow other and superior Christian teachers.

Paul brings them back in today’s passage to the heart of the faith.  The message of the cross is foolishness to those who do not believe: to those who are being saved it is the power of God.  He elaborates that the message of the cross is foolishness to Greeks who look for wisdom, and to Jews it is a terrible stumbling block.  His witness is the more powerful when you remember that Paul was a devout and learned Jew before his encounter with the risen Jesus.  He had been schooled in the Law and the Prophets, and brought up to believe that the Law particularly was central to God’s covenant with his holy people.  Now he preaches that the cross is the sign of a new covenant and the making of a new holy people.  We are reminded of this at the Eucharist when the priest says over the chalice, “This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many ….”

I suppose more words by theologians and others have been spent on the Cross than on any other aspect of Christian faith.  Why was it necessary, what it do and still do? What does it tell us about God and about Evil?  Paul, writing as pastor to his wayward children, has none of this theorizing or intellectual explanation.  He tells them bluntly just this:  the Cross shows the way God deals with people – through self-emptying love.  This is the very nature of God and it overturns all human standards of achievement and success and superiority.  “.. we proclaim Christ crucified …. Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  Christ’s death on the Cross and resurrection were the place where the nature of God confronted man’s so-called wisdom, and his profound rebellion against God, and the triumph lay in God’s weakness and foolishness.  Hear again St. John Chrysostom: “Are you ignorant of what the cross has done? It has vanquished death, destroyed sin, emptied hell, dethroned Satan, and restored the Universe.

Paul makes another important point – subtly in the tense of the Greek verb ‘to save’ which he uses – to us who are being saved [the Cross] is the power of God.  Salvation is not seen as some sort of one-off rescue operation or transformative experience, despite his own encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus.  Salvation is a long term process of being made holy, of human nature and will being transformed into the likeness of God instead of being conformed to the standards of the world – to use words from another of Paul’s letters, to the Christians in Rome.

So the sign of the Cross reminds us what God is like, what Christ’s death did and still does, and what is the hope of our calling. In theological speak it is often called a “sacramental”.   Like ashes on Ash Wednesday, or blessed palms on Palm Sunday, and blessed wedding rings, it symbolises God’s blessing on our lives in all their different aspects, and His work of sanctification.  So may we use it with greater understanding and deeper reverence.