The Law and the Cross

a sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7C)


How do we live under the law and remain faithful followers of Jesus Christ?





Recently, a friend of mine was telling me about an adult Sunday School class called the Wired Word. Basically, it’s a bible study in reverse. Instead of studying a passage of the bible and trying to figure out how it applies in today’s world, it takes one or two current events from the news and tries to figure out what the bible has to say about them. That sounds pretty neat, huh?

One of the current events in the news this week was the Supreme Court decision on a World War I monument in Maryland. In a 7-2 decision, the Court decided that this monument, which consisted of a 40 foot tall concrete cross sitting on a piece of public land, did not violate the Constitution’s clause on the separation of Church and State, and could remain standing on public land just as it has for the past 94 years. But what was interesting was the reasoning behind the majority opinion, which was written by Samuel Alito, a Christian. He argued that due to the longstanding of the monument and the prevailing culture of our current time, this particular cross had become a secular symbol. In other words, Alito is saying that this particular cross has lost its religious power and influence in society and was therefore no different from any other war monument made of stone or concrete.

Let that sink in for a minute. Our society has so domesticated the cross that it has lost its power and has become simply another symbol among many. Regardless of whether or not you believe this was the right outcome, as a Christian this victory in the law came at a very high price. For what could be costlier than the law saying that the premier symbol of the church no longer had anything to say to our society?

Ironically, it was Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was raised in a Jewish home, who argued for the uniqueness of the cross. In her dissenting opinion she wrote, “The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the ‘central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.’ … Precisely because the cross symbolizes these sectarian beliefs, it is a common marker for the graves of Christian soldiers. For the same reason, using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized.”

How do we live under the law and remain faithful followers of Jesus Christ? Should we celebrate this finding by the Supreme Court because it upholds the place a piece of cross-shaped concrete, or lament it because it signifies our own dull loss of faith?

In today’s reading from Galatians, Paul argues that the law, by which he means the Old Testament teachings, was given to us “as a disciplinarian,” to keep us in line until Christ came. He says that laws are fine as far as they go, but even when we follow them precisely, we will never be able to fulfill God’s intent for us. The only way to do that is to depend not on the law, nor even on our own faith, but the faith of Christ Jesus, himself.
His faith, not ours, is what saves us. A faith so strong that he sacrificed himself on a cross for us, a faith so pure that he was raised again from the dead. A faith so broad that it holds that we, too, can become children of God. A faith so deep and abiding that it encompasses the whole world.

Today we live in a world which is made up of many and varied factions, tribes, and clans.  They are mini-communities and most have little or nothing to do with being part of either the family of Abraham or the Gentile offspring which Paul is speaking about.

Christ’s faith, not ours and certainly not the law, is what saves us. And by our baptisms, we are clothed in Christ – we become more Christ-like – and THIS binds us together into one people. By Christ and his faith, we become one – no longer distinguishable by our nationality, or our social status, or our gender. One – united in common mission, common teaching, common care and concern for each other and the world around us. One people, united by Christ’s faithfulness and his love.

So what if we took the same argument that Paul makes to the Galatians and apply it to us? What if we applied it to all the different denominations and non-denominational churches around us today?  Is it possible that a key to our failure in the church to be meaningful in or current society lies in our faithlessness to the teachings of Jesus Christ? Can it be that because we have so cut ourselves off from the very people Jesus has come to save, that the cross has no meaning for anyone?

What would it be like for the Christian Church to take up the banner of the family of God and welcome all people?  Instead of figuring out how they can’t or don’t belong…how might we be better served by talking with our neighbors and friends about how God’s faithfulness in Christ Jesus has freed us from the law, has broken down the barriers between the “us” and the “them,”  and made us one people.

Once we are baptized, our nationality, our station in life, even something as fundamental as our gender, all become completely unimportant to God. And if that is true, then the certainly same applies to our denominations, our tribes, our clans, and our politics – they all become completely unimportant, and completely incomprehensible to God. We are bound together, then, not by our own wishy-washy faith that bends and sways in whatever way is convenient, or even our laws; but by the faith of Christ, who died on cross, and rose from death, and offers us eternal life through his steadfast faith.

This is what makes the cross such a uniquely powerful symbol. And if we really believe in its message of God’s salvation of all humankind, this is what forces us to open ourselves up to lots of different tribes and points of view. And this is why Paul might say that given the choice between a cross that has power and meaning, one that is foolishness to the wise and a stumbling block to the powerful; and a cross that has become so secularized and coopted by society that it is simply another monument among many – he just might choose to see the powerful cross, the meaningful cross, the cross that has the power to offend the state and those who do not follow Jesus Christ – that cross – be removed from its place in the public square, and moved to a place that brings people together, that binds them into one people, one tribe, without superficial distinctions.

What makes us Americans is our common laws and the Constitution. But what makes us Christians is not our common laws, but our common Lord, Jesus Christ. By his faith we are made one. By his faith we are made whole. By his faith we are saved and equipped to do God’s work for God’s people in the world.

Thanks be to God.


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