For the past several weeks I’ve been preaching on a theme: the Church should be cross-shaped. I don’t mean merely architecturally, of course, but rather in a organizational and philosophical one. Seems like a basic, almost cliche statement, but it’s not. Take a look the levels I’ve gone through in my progression of sermons:
Level one (Lent 1): The Vertical and the Horizontal
Our obligation, according to Jesus, has two dimensions:
37“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22.37b-39)
So I spent a whole sermon explaining how I saw our parish exercising the vertical (Love God) and horizontal (love your neighbour) dimensions of this text. Worship going up; service going side-to-side. I noted that like many Anglican churches we tend to put a lot more emphasis on the vertical and less on the horizontal. This is evident when you look at our budget, our building usage, our allocation of staff time, and so forth.
Your church may be different, of course, and I hope it is. But it’s just a fact that many of our churches need a little poke sometimes about the love neighbour command. It’s well and good that people are doing things on their own: volunteering, giving to charities, advocating for causes. But if the church, collectively, fails in it’s obligation to be cruciform in this way than it has failed to see who God is: that God is love.
Level two (Lent 2): The Joint Between the Pieces
In my second sermon I noted that those two pieces of effort actually exist in a relationship to each other, there is a joint in the cross–a place where they come together. So I spent most of this sermon brainstorming with the congregation about how we could better integrate the worship life of the gathered community with loving service. Ideas such as “Service Sundays” replacing our usual gathering worship was discussed. People also suggested ways of changing the Prayers of the People to include more proximal and urgent concerns. Even more interestingly, one parishioner thought we need appointed leaders of mission to keep people accountable and organized in their collective efforts of service.
In all of these efforts we see something of what God is. That is, the incarnated Word in our time is our efforts to take up the missional cross with worship and service.
Level three (Lent 3): That Place of the Crucified One
Last Sunday was a key pivot for us in the series. I spoke about how the double commandment given by Jesus is actually an insufficient understanding of what Jesus was about. If we stop there we miss what separates Him from any other wisdom teacher or prophet that has gone before: the crucifixion. The Cross I’m asking the church to become is not exactly empty, it’s just been vacated by the Son who Suffered. It’s bloody and has nail marks.
Question: do we embrace the sacrificial character of a cross-shaped ministry? Jesus said in the Gospel for Lent 2 that we had to “pick our cross and follow” Him. Where is he going with that cross? Golgatha, of course.
I began the sermon with Blessed Buechner’s great quote about the church, “There is perhaps no better proof for the existence of God than the way year after year he survives the way his professional friends treat him” (source). Year after year those who serve God fail him. There are the egregious and scandalous sins we can all list off. Then there are the more common and meaning little failures. Efforts that well intentioned but off the mark. Apathy, and a petty kind of country-clubish-ness that we have all seen.
Despite periodic reforms it has always been thus. The money changers and animal sellers were, after all, doing a service to make things easier for pilgrims and temple officials alike. They were helping make it easier to worship God. After all, how else could people get their hands on money without the Emperor’s face? And even if they had the right livestock to sacrifice, how on earth would they transport it to Jerusalem without causing a “blemish”?
In the Synoptic tradition, especially, Jesus turning over the tables is about reforming a corrupt and abusive system. Yet John doesn’t necessarily go that direction. The first explanation given in the text is from the disciples, “Zeal for your house will consume me,” -squares with the purification thesis. But Jesus himself takes it a step further, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” is mic-drop moment. Jesus is saying that the place where God dwells has shifted from the temple complex to the temple of his body–boom!
It’s good to take a little time at this point to reflect on the notion of God “dwelling” with the people. Consider his personal presence in the Garden of Genesis. Then jump to the burning bush. Next there is the pillar of fire/cloud and later the tent in the wilderness of Sinai. Then the 1st Temple and it’s destruction. In the exile God still has ways of being present with the people–God into exile with them, in effect. And when they return they make Him a new dwelling place: the Temple that Jesus spoke about in the Lent 3 texts.
One of the most telling conversations Jesus ever had was with the Samaritan Woman at the well. When asked about the Temple (and implicitly, where does God dwell):
21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (source)
Taken together, then, the place where God dwells has changed radically. He is not dwelling in the Temple, anymore, but in his Son, whom His followers know in spirit and truth. And that’s where the church must look for God as well, in the person of Jesus.
Yes, we encounter the body and blood of Jesus in worship–particularly in the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. But we also find him in our brothers and sisters, particularly those who have been “crucified” by this world. A church that domesticates the cross, makes into two clean and abstract lines, has abandoned the truth about the cross.
22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (I Corinthians 1.18-25)
We should be suspicious of any cross that does not arose resistance. This is the place where hung the saviour of the world. Only when we recon with that reality can be begin to be a truly “cruciform” church.
The implications for both service and worship are pretty awesome. On the service side it means embracing the brokeness and inadequacies of our response to suffering without abandoning our need to make these loving efforts anyway. Worshiping “in spirit and truth” means that we should show up on Sunday mornings with crash helmets and goggles. Those who preach the word should limp into the pulpit blood and exhausted from a night wrestling angels. Humbled into silence it would be enough from them to stick out a bedraggled hand and point to that cross lifted up in the sanctuary. That’s what a cruciform church looks like!
Level four (Lent 4): Lifted Up
The final level (for now) of this whole series of developing the notion of a cross-shaped church is to look at the “lifted-up” quality of the cross that the texts for Lent 4 dwell on. These are crazy texts and worth giving some historical context. But don’t go so far that your people dismiss the Numbers passage as the remnant of some weird desert snake cult.
The point is that God can take the very thing that is oppressing the people and transform into an instrument of healing and grace. Ugly snakes & public execution have both been transformed into ways that God’s love operates.
It’s important to note that in both cases part of the how of God involves the “lifting” of each sign. This notion of display or spectacle in important, theologically, because it points to both the communal/public character of special revelation and opens up possibilities for our participation in that action.
Both Jürgen Moltmann and Karl Rahner would be very be very pleased to read this. The crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection are astonishing facts of history that we can gaze upon. Looking at them in all their historic particularity transfixes and transforms us. Anyone who has ever heard of it faces an existential choice which is their spiritual posture toward the offer of grace made in that cross. Thus, the evangelistic declaration of that history is essential to Christian life. Who does that “lifting up”? We do.
The how of becoming a cruciform church comes down to the manner in which the specific revelation of God’s coming into the world, death, and resurrection is shared. So start kicking over those bushel baskets–let the light shine!
Reconsidered in this light, the worship/service level resolves into a kind of loving action which is itself a self-emptying (kenotic) and visible manifestation of God’s dwelling here and now. This is not our work, but by God’s grace it’s what happens when we, as church, are faithful to the calling of our baptism. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2.10).
Preach Christ crucified. Preach also the church crucified and resurrected by God’s grace. For it is only when we conform the Church to the image of the True Cross that we can, with Jesus, be lifted up.