Milligan Chapel – September 13, 2001
Timothy W. Ross, Hopwood Christian Church, Johnson City, TN
(Today’s chapel is one of a series of Milligan Chapel services which explore the cross as it has been depicted through Christian History)
The Cross…an instrument of torture and death designed to inflict maximum physical suffering along with ultimate shame for the person nailed to it. Those sentenced by the Romans to death were stripped of their clothes and hoisted naked before the jeering crowds. There they dangled for hours, sometimes days, fighting for breath, suffering exposure, blood loss, shock, and trauma. There they hung until death finally, mercifully swallowed them.
Triumph…victory, conquest, the joy of winning a contest. The Cross…triumph. The people of Jesus’ day wouldn’t have much connection between these two images–the cross and triumph. But today we celebrate The Cross of Triumph. Christ has overcome the world. The cross was an instrument of execution; it became a symbol of redemption and hope. The Cross was supposed to put an end to the hopes of the those who looked for Jesus to bring in a new kingdom.
The cross should have brought only shame, fear, and hopelessness. Instead, this instrument of torture and death became a symbol of life and forgiveness for the followers of the resurrected Christ. It became a sign of Christ’s willingness, for the joy set before him, to sacrifice and suffer on behalf of his people. The worst that Jesus’ enemies could do could never overcome him. The cross and the tomb were transformed into markers of hope and life.
The Cross has always been depicted in various ways in Christian art. From the earliest days of the church, it has been scratched over doorways, etched onto tombstones, scrawled onto paper with pen and ink.
Today’s depiction of the cross is known as The Cross of Triumph. It is made up of a cross that stands over a globe, symbolizing Christ’s victory over all powers of heaven and earth. Through sacrifice and suffering, our Lord has drawn, and will draw all people to himself. The Cross of Triumph symbolizes the final triumph of Christ and his reign over the world. The worldwide church celebrates The Triumph of the Cross as a high holy day on September 14.
THE CROSS OF TRIUMPH
MILLIGAN COLLEGE CHAPEL SERMON
TIMOTHY W. ROSS, HOPWOOD CHRISTIAN CHURCH
SEPTEMBER 13, 2001
We are a people who love to win. Every encounter in life becomes competition for some of us. We pit ourselves against one another when we play. We keep score in our conversations. Our economic system is built on the whole game of getting ahead of the other guy. We love to win, and that means somebody else has to lose. History indicates that our idea of victory usually means domination of the strong over the weak.
The Church has had problems over the years when it sought victory over its opponents and world conquest for the faith. The Crusades set some pretty disturbing patterns for the church’s relations with the Muslim world, for instance. The Inquisition showed what the Church could become with enough political power to back up its moral teaching. The Church has a tendency to equate the triumph of the faith with extermination of the unfaithful. In 1572, 40,000 French Protestants died on St. Bartholomew’s Day at the hands of French Catholics. Others like William Tyndale were executed by the church for the crime of trying to get the Word of God into the hands of the common man. The Cross of triumph has too often been carried by conquistadors and colonialists who sought domination and profit.
That’s why it was difficult for me when I found out a month ago that my topic for this morning’s chapel service was Christ’s Cross of Victory. I believe in Christ’s victory over sin and death, don’t get me wrong. I believe that all things will be put under his feet. It’s just that I’m not so sure about our ability to know what godly victory really looks like. We don’t do victory well.
Then came Tuesday’s attacks on Washington, and on the World Trade Center. If victory has been a problem for the Church, how do we handle defeat? On Tuesday, a knife was put to the throat of the American people by assailants who hate our faith, our success, our domination of world affairs, our triumphant ways, our haughty pride. The attacks horrified us, and brought an incredible sense of helplessness. Most of us want to strike back, but we don’t know where or how. We feel we have been laid bare to dangers that have previously existed for us only on CNN newsreels about other places. We grieve as the body count rises; we’re confused over the meaning of these events, uncertain as to our future, and so very angry. The triumph of the cross? The victory of our Lord over sin and death? What’s that supposed to mean after September 11, 2001?
It was Augustine, who, trying to make sense out of the chaotic crumble of Rome, reminded believers that the victory of Christ and the triumph of the state are not the same things. Augustine pointed folks to Jesus, who said that believers live in this world, but we are not of this world. We are members of a different kingdom; our allegiance belongs to a different king; our actions and attitudes are formed from a very different source than that of the society around us.
The obscenities of the last few days are catastrophes of biblical proportions. How can we live in the shadow of the cross triumphant? What does it mean for that cross to lead us in the face of so much uncertainty and pain? Before Tuesday, it was a much more theoretical exercise–today it’s where the rubber meets the road.
I think we must start to orient our life toward the cross this week by finding our place in the scriptures. How much more alive the Bible, especially the Old Testament, has become to me this week. We cry with the lament of the Psalmist:
You have rejected us, O God, and burst forth upon us; you have been angry—now restore us! You have shaken the land and torn it open; mend its fractures, for it is quaking. You have shown your people desperate times; you have given us wine that makes us stagger (Psalm 60:1-3 NIV).
Deliver me from my enemies, O God; protect me from those who rise up against me. Deliver me from evildoers and save me from bloodthirsty men. See how they lie in wait for me! Fierce men conspire against me… (Psalm 59:1-2 NIV).
Hear me, O God as I voice my complaint; protect my life from the threat of the enemy. Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked…(Psalm 64:1 NIV).
Open your Bible and let God speak to you this week. Enter the world of people who were assaulted by enemies, people whose lives were threatened with extinction. Enter the world of people whose lives hung by a thread, people who were confused and desperate and hurting.
Go to the Word not just to find expression for your pain–but go to also find hope in turbulent times. Go to discover that whatever befalls our nation, however our own lives are assailed, our God still reigns. Our God is still in control. Our God is still here with us, still cares for us, still walks with us. Go to the Word be reminded that our security does not lie in our wealth or our isolation, in our fighter planes or nuclear missiles. Our only defense is in the Lord God.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (Psalm 46:1-6 NIV).
How do we find victory in the cross of Christ? We find it by becoming imitators of our triumphant Lord, who, although he was over all things, lowered himself to the lowest place–allowing himself to be nailed to a cross that he might win us all. Paul wrote to the Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11 RSV).
How does the triumphant Christ find a home in the lives of his children this week? He finds it when we, the servants of his now and coming kingdom, follow his example. Victory in the cross is found when we Christians reject the violence of the kingdoms of man. How many of us who have been hurt by the terrorist acts of this week long to see the missiles fly? How many of us seethe with anger and yearn for vengeance against the enemies of America? How many of us are a part of that 94% of Americans who support military action to strike back at those who have wounded us? Reject violence, as Jesus rejected it! Don’t look for glory in our own power. Don’t rejoice in it. Don’t support it. “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19 NRSV).
Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-5 NIV).
Over the next weeks and months, the kingdoms of this world are going to get all the support they need to unsheathe their swords and blow the dust off their cannons. They don’t need our help or support. Don’t rejoice when the bullets fly. Don’t enter into the feeding frenzy of hatred for our enemies. Choose to live like your Master, Jesus, who, although strong enough to find victory in any field of battle, chose to humble himself and become obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Jesus leads us in victory if the violence we have suffered this week makes us more a neighbor with our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering. Most of us have never known what it means to be afraid for our lives. We don’t know what it is to go hungry, to suffer want, to be homeless and hopeless. We are not used to bombs and bullets. We don’t know what it’s like to be at the bottom of the pile. Allow the tragedies of this week to help you understand the Israeli and the Palestinian who spend their whole lives watching strangers’ eyes, listening for sirens, living in constant fear of the next bomb blast. May we be changed as we experience just a little bit of the fear that comes from being on the receiving end of terror that rains down from the skies, and may it make us less willing to remain silent the next time we rain terror upon others. May our own suffering give us new eyes to see.
Victory by the cross comes not with force, but with service and love and submission. I wonder how the radical Muslims would feel about us if they knew us first as a superpower in healing and education and mercy and sacrificial love? That’s not going to happen on a national scale, so we Christians must model it in our lives.
When will the victory of the church be won? When all the points on the map are covered? When Christians are in charge everywhere? When we have a bible in every language? When we blast the Muslims into submission? Maybe, as Robert Lupton says, victory will be found where Jesus said it will be found–in the lives of Jesus’ followers which have been laid down for each other. Perhaps the world will glimpse that great victory when the wealthy ones and the bright ones among us lavish their time and talent on the less fortunate…when those who have too much sacrifice for those who do not have enough, when those who are normally separated from each other on basis of skin color or earning potential place their lives together for the sake of their Lord.
Maybe it will happen when Christians reach out to Muslims in love. A guy in my church, Greg, teaches at a local high school. He told me about a little Muslim girl in his class who said to him last Friday, before the events of this week. “I am a Muslim. You are all Christians, and it’s so hard…I just don’t know what to do about it.” How should a follower of Jesus respond to that precious girl? Life is not going to be easy for Muslims in America after the events of September 11.
Our church at Hopwood is getting ready to resettle a Sudanese couple into the area. We’ve done it before. A couple of years ago we helped two young Christians who had undergone much suffering at the hands of the Muslim government in Sudan find a new life in the US. But the folks coming to us this time are not Christians, but Muslims. Can we show them how the kingdom of Christ really works? I hope so.
Christ’s victory is assured. The entire witness of the Bible, fulfilled in Jesus Christ tells us that the victory has already been won, that Christ will be over all and in all. The great day of the Lord is coming; God will reign in fullness. On that day, every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In the meantime, we are called to walk the path Jesus walked to the cross. We are called to reject violence, to trust in our Lord, and to live lives of service and submission and humility. Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). The cross, not the sword, is our path to victory.