Sermon: Living A Cross Shaped Life (part two)
Scripture: I Peter 2: 21-24; I Corinthians 1: 18-25
Date: August 23, 2015
On February 6, 1974 a letter arrived in Washington, D C. addressed simply to the United States Government. It was written on loose leaf paper in a shaky hand. There was no return address and signed “an ex-gi”, and wrapped inside was a $10 bill. The letter simply read, “I am sending ten dollars for blankets I stole while in World War II. My mind could not rest. Sorry I’m late. P. S. I want to be ready to meet God.” Apparently, This is one of thousands of letters that have been sent to the United States Government, confessing wrong doing and seeking to make amends. In fact, in 1811, the government established the “Conscience Fund” and since that time, millions of dollars have been received from repentant sinners. One man sent $50 from Brazil to cover the cost of two pair of boots, two pair of pants, one case of KC rations and 30 pounds of frozen meat he had stolen from the army. One woman in Colorado sent in two stamps because she had used the same stamp twice. And a man from Salem, Ohio wrote: When a boy, I put a few pennies on the railroad track and the train flattened them. I also used a dime or a quarter in a silver-coating experiment in high school. I understand there is a law against defacing our money. I have not seen it but I desire to be a law-abiding citizen. And he enclosed a dollar bill to cover his sin. Sometimes there is a great urgency to our need to clear our conscience. I’m reminded of the story about the preacher who was preaching about heaven and he said to the congregation, “Everyone who wants to go to heaven, stand up.” Well everybody stood up, except one man sitting in the back row. And the preacher looked back at him and said, “Sir, don’t you want to go to heaven when you die?” And the man said, “Sure I do, when I die – but I thought you were getting up some folks to go right now.” You know, I was thinking about this conscience fund in relationship to the church debt. (You can probably guess where I’m going with this.) But I think we ought to have a conscience fund in the church and every time our conscience gets to bothering us, we could put something in the fund. I’ll bet we could have that debt paid off in a year or two. For instance, every time we exceed the speed limit and not get caught, we could pay the equivalent amount of the fine into the conscience fund. Or every time we “accidentally” kick the golf ball out of the rough onto the fairway, we could put a little in the conscience fund. Or every time someone cuts us off in traffic and a bad thought crosses our mind, we could put something in the conscience fund. I think there is great potential here for some real spiritual lessons. But then, in a sense, the church was established on just such a concept. Jesus went to the cross in order to make our payment into the conscience fund. We are continuing this week with our consideration of the Cross-Shaped Life. Last week we talked about the vertical beam of the cross and how it represented Jesus’ willingness to die in order to save the world. I think that’s the easy part of what Jesus did on the cross for us to understand. In recent years we have become very familiar with this concept of martyrdom. Those that flew planes into the Trade Center and Pentagon, killing thousands of people, were lauded as martyrs in some circles. The Palestinians that strap explosives to their bodies and walk into shopping malls and restaurants in Israel are proclaimed as martyrs. They are willing to die for a cause, for their people. Jesus was willing to die to save the world. The difference, of course, is that these modern examples of martyrdom are really just terrorists because not only are they willing to give their own lives, but they are intent on killing many innocent people also. Jesus went to the Cross alone. He died a single death not to take life, but to give it.
This morning I want us to think about the horizontal beam of the cross. Because it is the horizontal beam of the Cross that I think makes the cross personal. That from a theology of life and shapes it into a way of life. And so as the people made their way to Jerusalem and saw the crosses and the empty vertical beams that lined the roadways, they lamented over the horror of the cross. How terrible it is to see a man crucified. Death from a distance is hard to grasp, but it is nothing compared to the pain of watching a loved one slipping away or confronting the reality of your own death.
Crucifixion from a distance was a crime against humanity. But what if that cross piece is placed on your shoulders and you are led out to die. The horizontal beam of the cross was the yoke that the Romans put on a person that demanded conformity. You see, the vertical beam of the Cross speaks of a savior who died for the world. But the horizontal beam proclaims a savior who died for me and for you. The vertical beam is the symbol of a faithless generation that needed to be redeemed. The horizontal beam is there because of my faithless heart that continues to need to be redeemed.
But how can that be? How can it be that a man could have died 2000 years ago to redeem me? How could it be that when He spoke of forgiveness from that cross that He could have my sins in mind? That He could know of my faithlessness? It is the stuff of fantasy.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “Back To The Future” trilogy of movies of several years ago. Many of you remember that they starred Michael J. Fox, as a ne’er do well teenager who traveled through time in a souped up DeLorean car. (SHOW CAR) In the first movie, he accidentally went to the past to avoid a tragedy in the present. But before he could return to the present, he had to repair the damage that he had done by traveling to the past, or else everything in his present reality would be different. Then in the second movie he had to travel into the future to repair something that he had inadvertently changed when he had gone into the past in the first movie. And the year he traveled to from the 1980’s was the year 2015. So there has been a lot of conversation about how different the vision of 2015 in the movie is from present reality. (Are you following this because there will be a quiz?) And then in the third movie, he had to go back even farther in the past to rescue his professor friend who had gotten stuck back there and since it was the past, the professor had not invented the means to allow him to come back to the present. Well, by the third movie it
had become quite confusing, but the point that the writers were trying to make I think is that our lives do not exist in a time vacuum. That who we are is the product of our past, present and future, and that they are all intertwined and dependent upon one another. Now I don’t think the writers of those movies were trying to make a theological point but so it is with the Cross. Jesus’ death on the Cross is a reality which transcends all time. 2000 years ago, He willingly took the cross piece on His shoulders and went to Calvary so that He could seek the forgiveness and redemption of those who gathered at the foot of that cross that day. But in a sense, He has repeated that every day since then. Because each one of us stands in constant need of forgiveness, Jesus continues to go to the cross daily for me and for you. Jesus redeems our past, our present, and our future. There was a tradition in the early church that the wood that was used for the Cross of Christ, came from the very tree that was in the Center of the Garden of Eden that held that forbidden fruit because it was at the moment that Eve picked that piece of fruit, that our individual sins were born. And though I doubt the factual basis of the tradition, I don’t doubt the faithful underpinnings of it and that is the we can not live a cross shaped life until we truly except that it was our sin that Jesus carried to that Cross, and that He continues to take our cross piece on His shoulders, so that we will not have to carry it for ourselves. Surely that’s what He had in mind when He said, “My yoke is easy.” By taking the yoke, the horizontal beam of the cross on His shoulders, Jesus has already done the hard work of our salvation. The horizontal beam of the cross challenges us to experience personal salvation, to believe that Jesus went to the cross for you and for me. And to those who believe that, it calls on us then to live a life that reflects the cross and is modeled after the life of Jesus Himself. A cross shaped life. A pastor by the name of William O’Malley put it this way:
Christianity is a crucifix: a man utterly used up for others. The true Christian looks at it and says, “Yes. That (the cross) is the most perfectly fulfilled human being who ever lived, caught at the moment of his greatest triumph. I want to be like Him.” To live a cross shaped life. The horizontal beam of the cross moves us beyond simple knowledge of a historical event to a personal experience of the love of God that makes all the difference in the way we live. It says to us that Jesus died on the cross to show us the way to truly live, to live life the way that God always intended for us to live. And so what does that cross shaped life look like.
First, the cross shaped life shares in the suffering of Jesus. The cross tells us that when Jesus was his weakest, most helpless, most vulnerable, hanging naked, bleeding dying on the cross, seemingly defeated by the world, it was then that he was his strongest. There is a great deal of vulnerability required in living as a follower of Christ. In his book, Tuesdays With Morrie, writer Mitch Albom records his conversations with his college mentor who is dying. It was made into a T V. movie because the way that Morrie faced his death is really a celebration of life. In an interview that Mitch Albom did with Time magazine after Morrie’s death, Albom made this observation, “When Morrie was his weakest, and his most helpless, that’s when he had the most to offer.” So it is with a cross shaped life. Often times it is in the way we face the pains and suffering of this life, that we most truly reflect the love of God. And so the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians that the cross is “a scandal, an outrage – utter foolishness to those in the world who are perishing. But to those who are called to life through the cross he says that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
The famous preacher William Slone Coffin, in commenting on sharing in the suffering of Christ once said:
The tragedy in life is not that we suffer. All of us suffer. The tragedy is suffering that never gets redeemed, suffering that never gets healed, suffering that never leads to greater strength, suffering that never leads to new life. Jesus died on the Cross to meet us in our weakness, so that by his suffering our suffering might be redeemed.
Living a cross shaped life means sharing in the suffering of Christ so that we can also share in His redemption. Do you believe that Jesus redeemed your life and called you to new life? That’s exactly what He did when He took that cross piece on His shoulders and carried it to Calvary.
And sharing in the suffering of Christ also means that we share in the suffering of others. Paul said to the Corinthians, “I am now rejoicing in my suffering for your sake.” In his book, Dying To Live. James Harnisch writes:
I am discovering that the closer I get to Jesus, the closer I get to the suffering of others. The more intentionally I attempt to live my life on the basis of His life, the more I find myself being drawn into the lives of others, to share their hurt, to know their pain, and to join them in
their suffering. The amazing irony is that I am also discovering that the more fully I connect with the suffering of others, the more fully I understand the suffering of Jesus.
In the 20th Century a little Catholic Nun by the name of Theresa was called to minister to the poor of the city of Calcutta. During the time that Mother Theresa served there, Calcutta was one of the poorest cities of the world. The suffering was immense. There was a period of time when an average of 10,000 people died every night in the streets of Calcutta from disease and starvation. And a reporter once asked Mother Theresa how she continued to serve in the face of so many who were in such great need, where there is suffering on such a massive scale, and thousands die around her every day? . And she replied, I do it the same way that Jesus my Savior did. I minister to one soul at a time. The Cross shaped life shares in the suffering of Jesus.
And the cross shaped life shares in the death of Christ. Did you know that in the Phillipines there is a Christian sect that takes the scripture literally when it says that we are to take up our own Cross and follow and so every Good Friday members of that sect have themselves nailed to a cross believing that by doing that they are somehow experiencing the death of Christ. But they don’t stay on the Cross very long, certainly not long enough to die. When Paul says that we should become like Jesus in His death, he is not calling us to imitate Crucifixion. Jesus went to the Cross for us, so that we would not have to. Instead Paul is calling on us to face life with the same obedience and trust in God with which Jesus went to the Cross. To live as ones who are prepared to die so that we die as those who are prepared to live forever. From the Cross he calls us to be ready to share in His death. And so the horizontal beam of the cross becomes not a witness to death, but a promise of eternity. I am always inspired by the story of Father Maximillian Kolbe, a polish priest who came to be known as the Saint of the Nazi Death camp at Auschwitz. In February of 1941, Father Kolbe was sent to Auschwitz. And in the midst of that horrible place, he lived a cross shaped life. He gave his food to others. He gave up his bunk and slept on the floor. He prayed for the prisoners. And he prayed for their captors. But his time there was relatively short lived. Because in August of 1941, one man managed to escape from Auschwitz. And to discourage others from trying, the Nazis would kill ten people for every one that escaped. And so all of the prisoners were gathered in the assembly grounds and ten names were called at random. Those ten people would be taken to a cell where they would receive no food or water until they died. The tenth name called that day was Franciszek Gajowniczek. And when his name was called he broke down. “Oh what will become of my wife and children,” he cried. Then from the ranks of the prisoners a voice spoke up. “Herr Kommandant, I wish to make a request please.” And stepping from the midst of the prisoners, Father Kolbe continued. “I want to die in the place of that prisoner. I have no wife or children. I am old and not good for the work details. He is in better condition then I.”
“Who are you?” the Kommandant asked.
“A Catholic priest.”
And the commandant granted his request.
Gajowniczek survived Auschwitz and every year he returned to pay tribute to Kolbe. He once said, I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else
willingly and voluntarily offer his life for me- a stranger.
In 1982, Father Kolbe was officially made a Saint by the Catholic Church and in doing so Pope John Paul II called Father Kolbe “the patron saint of our difficult century.” A cross shaped life shares in the death of Jesus.
And then, finally, the cross shaped life shares in the power of the resurrection. And that power is the love and grace of God. One preacher has said:
Christ is risen for us, to put love in our hearts, decent thoughts in our heads, and a little more iron up our spines. Christ is risen to convert us, not from life to something more than life, but from something less than life to the possibility of full life itself.
Christ took up the horizontal beam of the cross and with it he took all of those things which keep us from living life to its fullest, which weigh us down and hold us back, and paid the price for us. His love and His grace bought us eternal life. It is only His love and grace that empowers us to live a cross shaped life. Are you ready to receive that power in your life? The horizontal
beam of the Cross says to us that that power can be yours, this very day. His grace is without limit and transcends all time and space.
I may have shared this story before but it is one of my favorites and fits so well here, so indulge me please if you have heard it before but I once heard a preacher tell about the moment that he accepted that power for himself and truly understood what being called to live a cross shaped life was all about. It was the moment he understood the horizontal beam of the cross. He said:
I had been in the ministry for several years already when my father died. And being the executor of the estate, it became my responsibility to sort through his things. One evening I was cleaning out his old wooden desk and in the bottom drawer, I found bound together a large stack of old bills. It was obvious that they had been there in that drawer for many years. They were yellowed with age. And I wondered why my dad had kept them all these years. So I sat down to look through them and I saw that they were from the little corner grocery store that was near our house when I was growing up. Everyday after school, I would stop into that little store and I would fill my pockets with candy. Sometimes I would take my friends along, and we would have a big time. And the grocery store man never made me pay. He just stood and smiled and wrote down what we had gotten. I never knew what became of those slips of paper. Until that day I cleaned out my father’s desk. Because those grocery slips were not my father’s bills. They were mine. And as I looked through that stack of slips, there must have been hundreds of them, I saw that written across each one of them were the words, “Paid in full. No charge.” And I realized that all of those years My father had paid the debt for my indulgences. He never said a word. He just covered my debts. And it was then I realized that was what Jesus did for me when He went to the cross. He paid my debts, big and small and in doing so He wrote “Paid in Full” across my entire life.
I wonder what debts do you bring to the cross today? Only you know what they are. But the truth is that none of us can begin to pay the debt for our sins. For the times we’ve lied. For the times we’ve cheated. For the times we’ve been unfaithful. For the unclean way we’ve sometimes lived our lives. For the pain we’ve caused one another. I don’t know about you, but I’ve run up quite a debt that on my own I could never repay. And that’s why Jesus took up the horizontal beam of the cross and carried it. In truth He was carrying our debts, our sins, our entire lives on His back to one of those vertical beams that waited along the road at Calvary. To pay the full price for our debts. In essence, to write “paid in full” across your life and my life. And the pen he used was amazing grace. And the ink He used was unconditional love. And the words He wrote across our lives were the words of redemption. And He invites us to follow. To do the same for one another. To take up our cross, so that others may live. Are you ready to say yes? Yes to living a cross shaped life. Because now is the moment. Tomorrow might be too late. Bring your life as it is, no matter what shape it may be in, and let Jesus reshape it into a cross shaped life, make it new. You come as we sing.