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The Cross is Central

The cross is central.

Pastor Jim used these words last Sunday as he called our attention to the crucifix, the unique image of Christ crucified. It is arguably the single most meaningful image of our faith, and it is, at its heart, a paradox. A contradiction. The cross was an instrument of death. But our cross, Jesus’s cross - the crucifix - is our God’s way of bringing new life.

But for all its theological depth, the mere shape of the cross has always fascinated me. However it’s depicted - upper case “T” or lower case “t” - it requires two lines to intersect each other. It is, literally, a crossing, and that physical crossing reminds me of the many contradictions found within Jesus’s teachings, one of which we see in Sunday’s Gospel when he says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” It seems to make perfect sense to Jesus, but Nicodemus gives voice to our human confusion. He asks Jesus, ““How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

Jesus answers the question essentially by repeating himself, leaving Nicodemus - and us - to find meaning in Jesus’s seemingly contradictory words.

The word contradict consists of two Latin roots: “contra-,” meaning “against,” and “dicere,” meaning “to say or speak.” Put them together, and the simple definition of “contradict” becomes “to speak against.” To Nicodemus, Jesus’s words seem “to speak against” themselves. In fact, many teachings across God’s grand, redeeming narrative appear to “speak against” themselves. For example, the Ten Commandments say, “Your are to honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20), but Jesus says, “If any of you come to Me without hating your own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and yes, even your own life, you can’t be My disciple” (Luke 14). Over and over Jesus appears to contradict Jewish teachings, but Jesus himself insists that “until heaven and earth disappear, not one letter...will disappear from the sacred law” (Matthew 8). It seems there may be no better word than “contradict” to illustrate the cross.

Yet the cross holds the opposing lines - and ideas - together.

On the cross, Jesus brings together death and life, despair and hope, suffering and redemption. Reflecting on that makes me wonder, “What if we thought of “the cross” less as a thing and more as an action?”

In other words, what if “The cross is central” didn’t mean “The image of the cross is central” but rather, “The act of crossing is central,” as in...

Crossing out of judgment and into empathy is central.

Crossing out of conflict and into peace is central.

Crossing out of ignorance and into understanding is central.

Our faith does not fear contradiction. Our faith embraces contradiction, confident that wisdom lies within the crossing.

As our world and our communities grapple with a rapidly expanding pandemic, we face another significant contradiction: The primary way we may be called to show our love, care, and support for our neighbors in the coming days is to allow for greater distance between us - literal, physical distance. It is a reality that challenges some of our most basic instincts for how to care for ourselves and others. I am neither a scientist nor a medical professional, but I’m trying to listen to those who are and respond with love for the sake of my family and my community. We all are. It is for moments like this that each year we practice looking toward Jesus’s cross, so that when we are faced with struggle we may respond with courage and compassion.

Lord, you died so that we might live, and more than that, so we might see how to live according to your radical love. By your Grace, show us what that means now.

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