Lectionary: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
For most people today, a cross is either an abstract religious symbol or an interesting piece of jewelry that our culture finds ways to print, post, mould, tattoo, hang and wear.
The source of this popularity is Jesus’ crucifixion on a cross although it would have looked very different from what is depicted in popular art or movies.
What we too easily forget is that the cross was originally a brutal instrument of torture that the Roman empire borrowed and perfected as the ultimate deterrent to those seeking to challenge its power and authority. It was literally a symbol of the lowest type of crime and was designed to dehumanize its victims and warn its opponents.
First, the ‘scourging’ was a separate punishment for criminals that, in itself often killed the victim. This whip was designed to tear flesh open and cause blood loss and infection. In Jesus’ case he was scourged in addition to his crucifixion.
Crucifixion didn’t take place on distant hills but rather beside a main roadway just outside the city to provide greater public exposure and rather than the tall crosses often depicted, they would have been at near eye-level to allow the public a closer taste of death or opportunity to humiliate the criminal.
The victim would be stripped naked (literally), then iron spikes were driven through their hands/wrists on the horizontal timber and through the ankles/heels onto either side of the vertical piece (often an actual tree) using wooden washers to ensure they remained in place. The weight of their body would cause suffocation when hanging and dreadful pain when they raised themselves to relieve the suffocation. What followed was hours of agonizing pain and disturbingly graphic sights and sounds.
Yet in today’s reading we see that the writer is saddened when people are enemies of the cross. Shouldn’t that please him? Shouldn’t everybody be an enemy of a tool of death, especially the one that disgraced and killed Jesus?
But Paul notes that it is our attempts at pleasure and glory that make us the enemies of the cross.
“Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” (NIV; emphasis mine)
The above reading isn’t about crucifixion in one sense; it is a random part of Paul’s letter to the Philippian Christians. Yet it forms the basis for something transitional and extraordinary that had been happening in the lives of the first believers. The cross had been transformed from a symbol of embarrassment and death to a symbol of pride and life! It could be said that it went from a footnoted piece of history to an object of celebration – the small ‘c’ cross became a capital ‘C’ Cross.
There is a lot of transformation written in to Paul’s verses. He saw the beauty that takes shape when the Easter story is played out: Jesus’ humility and love embarrasses the evil powers and empties their ultimate weapon of death.
Saint Paul had met the living, resurrected Jesus and had undergone a radical transformation himself. No longer was a cross an embarrassment but rather it was a source of joy; no longer represented death but life. No longer did he see personal glory or piety as important but now his highest accomplishment was to know the one who had hung on that Cross.
Let me say that again another way: accomplishment and religion didn’t matter any more to Paul – all that mattered was Jesus.
That is the journey that the Lenten season represents: the transformation from death to a new and eternal life. That transformation is the core of Christianity. Jesus walked it first and prepared the way for you and me.
Notice that Paul’s belief is that our bodies will be some day transformed to be like Jesus’ ‘glorious body’. It is a profound acknowledgement that we will eventually come to be more than just spirits or souls floating around in heaven; we will be re-created perfectly as we were meant to be in the first place.
So as we continue through the season of Lent we have opportunity to reconsider our priorities. What deserves our attention and allegiance more than the One who gave us life?