Trading Up

Read Sunday's Sacred Story from Mark 8:31-38

I’ve had quite a few hobbies collecting things in my life. I’ve collected stamps, foreign money, beanie babies, and beer steins. But my most recent collecting craze has involved accumulating symbols of my faith. I have a collection of crosses that come from different cultures and theological perspectives. I don’t know what it is about the cross visually that interests me—but I am intrigued about how my understanding of the cross and its place in my spirituality has evolved over the last decade. For me the cross is not just a religious artifact that I like to collect, but has become one of the most important symbols of my faith. It wasn’t until I looked into the cross’s own journey as a symbol throughout the last 2000 years did I come to understand it could have a deeper meaning for me than a symbol for crucifixion.

I’d have to start by saying that I’ve always been intrigued by ancient symbols. During the season of Lent and Easter our Christian symbols play a vital role in connecting us to Jesus’ own journey to the cross and his crucifixion. We use a lot of symbols to identify Jesus as our center of worship. Does anyone know what these letter stand for? It is the most common abbreviation used in churches, and they are on our altar, and on our banners. When I have asked folks this in the past, many suggest it stands for “In His Service” which is a nice sentiment actually. However, IHS actually stands for the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek—Iota Eta Sigma. The name Jesus was actually pronounced as Y-AY-SUS. Since there is no letter “J” in the Greek language, Jesus name begins with a “Ya” sound—as in “yoke.” The second letter of the Greek name of Jesus is the Eta. This Greek letter looks like an English “H” but sounds like a long “A” sound—as in “hay.” And of course the Greek “sigma” is our English “S”. Thus IHS is actually pronounced Y-AY-S. Kind of gives new meaning to the slang “YASSS!”

Disciples of Jesus have also been symbolized from ancient times by the fish symbol. The word for fish in Greek is “ICHTHUS.” Which is transliterated into English like this. Some have even drawn the parallel that ICHTHUS is also an acronym for Jesus Christ, God, Son and Savior. During the early centuries following the death of Christ when it was illegal to be a follower of Jesus, the sign of the fish was used as a secret indicator of being a Christian. It was a symbol of brave faith and of deep conviction.

It is however during the season of Lent that we focus on a symbol that is probably the most well-known through the Christian tradition. It is of course, the cross. However, you may have noticed that there are many different images of the cross. Perhaps we are most familiar with the Latin cross shown here. Our own crosses in the sanctuary are modeled after this cross. The Latin cross is a very plain image. Its simplicity and clean figure appeal to the time of Lent when we seek clarity and simple expression in our worship.

My favorite representation of the cross is the Celtic cross. I have several images of that version in which a circle is added to the classic Latin design signifying eternity. The Celts believed that the work of redemption accomplished on the cross was planned in eternity—and that work continues permanently. This cross suggests the timeless dimension of God’s salvific work.

cross overlooking AUSCHWITZ dormatories

But the cross has a dark history as well. Did you know that a cross hung over the concentration camp at Auschwitz? The cross greeted the thousands of Jews, homosexuals and others who were murdered by the 3rd Reich. In the face of such tragedy and brutality delivered in the name of Yaysus Christos, we have to ask ourselves; how did this symbol of faith evolve from the execution of Jesus to a symbol representing the extermination of millions of people who don’t follow him?

Perhaps Jesus himself can tell us a little about that. Our gospel text this morning comes at the middle of Mark's story of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus has begun his public ministry and people have started to follow him. But Mark wants this struggling and grassroots band of believers to know what's involved in following Jesus. In particular, he wants them to know that being a disciple is not some simple theological belief; but that it's about being willing to pay the price. Just prior to our sacred story for today, Jesus asks his disciples outright, “Who do people say that I am?” The other disciples, of course, play the role of the clueless and ignorant. "How about Elijah?" one of them says. "Guess again." "John the Baptist?" another chimes in. "Wrong again." “Just another prophet?” still another suggests. Finally, good, old, impetuous Peter comes through for us. "I know who you are – You are the Messiah!" Ding, Ding, Ding! Peter hits the jackpot, he gives the winning answer. Peter has figured it out. Hooray for Peter! Hooray for all of us who know who Jesus really is.

But Mark doesn’t leave it there. Peter is immediately silenced by Jesus. “Yes, you are right. But I’m going to die for my cause. So keep quiet until it’s time.” Why would Jesus predict the end of his ministry this way? Why on earth would Jesus gain by scaring off his disciples prior to accomplishing his most important work? Jesus is telling his disciples that if they are to follow him they must confront the powers that be. Jesus will not enter Jerusalem as the triumphant military leader everyone expected the Messiah to be. Rather, he will be executed by the leaders of the nation; and if that weren’t enough; he would choose not to avoid it

And what is Peter's response?  “No Jesus! I refuse to accept this meaning of Messiah. There’s no way you are going to die. I won’t let it happen. Absolutely not! You’re not going to Jerusalem. I won’t let you. I won’t listen to this anymore!” This sharp exchange between the two escalates until finally Jesus silences Peter. "You are aligned with Satan!" he tells him. "Get out of my way!"

Wow! Talk about a conflict of interest. But, if you think about it, we really shouldn’t be too hard on Peter. After all, we have had much in common with him. Christians still have trouble following a Messiah who ends up on an execution stick. The point being - the cross was not a religious icon in first century Palestine. Nor was "taking up the cross" a metaphor for surviving personal anguish. Crucifixion had only one connotation: it was the vicious form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissidents.

 constantine around 312 CE "In this sign conquer"

constantine around 312 CE "In this sign conquer"

But it didn't stay that way for long. Around 312 C.E. the emperor Constantine was leading an army to battle against another Roman emperor, Maxentius, for control of the entire Roman Empire. Before a crucial battle Constantine had a vision of a cross with the inscription, "In this Sign Conquer". And the rest, as they say, is history. Christians started planting crosses all over the world, usually in the bodies of their victims. All in the name of Jesus under the sign of the cross.

The Crusades were followed by the Inquisition, in 1232 and lasted for more than 600 years down into the nineteenth century. Its high point was the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492. Women were singled out by the thousands and burned at the stake as witches. All under the sign of the cross. The cross at Auschwitz, in other words, did not get there by accident. It grew out of that particular mindset, ingrained into the Christian psyche, that we had a right, even a moral and spiritual obligation to rid the world of those who were not like us. The question is: how much is there left in this symbol of the humble Galilean and his vision of the kingdom of God—a realm where everyone is equal in God’s eyes? It’s not easy to hear what has happened to this symbol many of us have treasured all of our lives, is it? But we need to own what the church has done down through the centuries if we are ever to understand those who see us now as the infidels, the faithless ones. After all, our history speaks for itself!

So where is the good news today? How can we reclaim the image of the cross of Jesus as a symbol of salvation it was intended to be? I suppose the answer to that lies in how serious Christians are willing to suffer for Jesus' vision as much as he was; because that's what the cross was really about for him. The cross is a symbol of Jesus’ self-sacrificing life. And the cross in the daily life of a believer is not mere suffering, but is a symbol of our service to others—service which is often costly and burdensome. The authentic cross bearer is the one concerned about service instead of slaughter, kindness instead of killing, welfare rather than war, forgiveness more than fortune. That's what the cross really meant. The question is: are we prepared to live that way?

george burns and gracie allen, circa 1950

The UCC has added a new symbol of faith over the last decade or so. The national church started using the comma in a new brand marketing campaign. The comma was used to represent the idea that “God is still speaking.” The punch line of this marketing campaign is, “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.”  That’s a good line.  When I first started seeing it I wondered which famous theologian said this. And when I asked I was told, “Gracie Allen.”  Some of us remember Burns and Allen, a popular variety show in the 50s. Gracie Allen at her theological best said, “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” But essential truth of that symbol and saying is this: God continues to reveal new truths to us. God continues to build new communities for us. God continues to reach out to us so that no one is left out of the family of God. And so, when we consider that God continues to speak to us, in this century, in this time and place we should resist putting periods where God has put commas. Many of us in the LGBTQA+ communities understands clearly what this means. That we are no longer considered abominations, or heretics, or unworthy of God’s love. That was a period in our religious history that God has replaced with a comma. And we can be sure that God’s grace extends even further than just us. That’s what our symbols of faith represent.

I collect crosses. I am intrigued by its symbolism, its beauty, and its meaning in my life. I enjoy reflecting on it as a vision of my own journey to be an authentic child of God. And like many of you, I’ve experience persecution because of that vision. I pray that I might live out that vision as one who embraces the cross of Jesus. For it is Jesus that asks us; "If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me." What will you trade for this kingdom value? What will you trade to join Jesus on his journey to the cross?

In Sunday's bulletin was a Lenten exercise for this week. Take some to consider the symbol of the cross, and other symbols of our faith. How do they motivate you to choose a higher value…God’s values. What will you do to take seriously your spiritual journey? What will it take for you to take up the cross and follow Jesus?