Dr. Richard Nelson
CLC Passion Sunday 2011
The Subversive Cross
I’ve often wondered how Jesus knew he was to be the Messiah and suffer and die
Maybe he had a special pipeline to God’s will as God’s Son
Maybe his mother told him bedtime stories of angels and a star and wise men
But I think he also discovered his mission the way you and I often do -- by reading the Bible
Especially reading the book of Isaiah
Especially those passages that talk about the mission of God’s special servant
Whom the church has come to call the Suffering Servant
In the original context of the Old Testament that servant seems to have been a faithful prophet
Whose mission of truth telling led to his persecution and suffering at the hands of the powerful
A Servant who stood shoulder to shoulder with sinners and the oppressed of his people
And joined in their suffering to transform it into something like hope
Perhaps Jesus read his Bible and thought – "Hey, that’s me!"
Listen to our text from Isaiah about God’s faithful servant
and next to it hear the story of Jesus mission and death from Matthew’s gospel:
The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands
of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
He . . . prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want."
He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said,
"Let him be crucified!"
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my
face from insult and spitting.
Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him . . . and again
They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. . . and they led him out to be crucified.
Crucified – the cross and the barbaric horror of crucifixion
was the way the Roman Empire terrorized its subjects
Slave revolts were put down with the crucifixion of thousands
Near the year of Jesus birth
When rebellion arose in Jerusalem after the death of Herod the Great
The Roman governor of Syria marched his legions through Galilee and ordered 2,000 rebels to the cross.
Later when the emperor Titus besieged Jerusalem, he crucified hundreds of Jews each day where the
city defenders on the walls could watch
By his faithful obedience to God’s will as God’s servant
Jesus went to the cross, the most brutal tool of Roman oppression
He died on it
By dying he subverted the power of death and sin, cancelled out the empire of death
But what is more
In dying as the most innocent of all victims of tyrannical power and the perversion of justice
He subverted the power of the cross of the Roman Empire to oppress, to terrorize, to subject
He subverted the unjust power of all dictators, tyrants, and economic systems
We lift high his cross because it is a subversive cross
Twenty, thirty years ago there was a nasty conflict fought between the property-owning class of El Salvadoran whose army and death squads were backed by the US government and dirt-poor peasants who worked land they could never own, backed by Soviet Communists.
In Resurrection Lutheran Church in the capital of El Salvador there is a cardboard cross in a glass case, with a plaque beside it. It’s known as the Subversive Cross, the name given to it by the military, who took it with them when they occupied the church in 1989.
A few weeks before then, Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez had led parishioners in an exercise, asking them to write on the cross what sins they thought were being nailed to that cross with Jesus. In ones and twos, congregation members came up to the cross, took a black marker, and wrote their nation’s sins on that cross, such as persecution of the church, hunger, ambition for power, murder and violence. As they identified the sins of their country and their people, they also committed themselves to work toward forgiveness and to be strengthened for national healing.
On November 16, 1989, the same day when six Jesuit priests were murdered by security forces in El Salvador, Bishop Gomez was also targeted by the military. Gomez and his Lutheran church has publically and persistently denounced the injustice they saw in Salvadoran society. Soldiers arrived at Resurrection Church looking for Gomez. Forewarned, he had managed to flee to safety in the German embassy, so they didn’t find him. But they did find that simple white cross. The soldiers arrested 15 people and took possession of the cross as evidence of the subversive activity going on in the Lutheran church.
When Lutheran clergy and parishioners were arrested and questioned, and sometimes tortured, many reported that the subversive cross was in the interrogation room with them. "Look at this," they were told. "This is how Communists talk. This is subversive." After the civil war was over, the president of El Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani, a man from the political party which had sponsored the death squads, personally returned the subversive cross to Bishop Gomez.
That nasty conflict between the government of El Salvadoran and dirt-poor peasants who worked land they could never own . . .
May seem light years away from our middle-class life together in this community of faith
When we pass by the crosses clustered together as we enter and leave
When we lift up our eyes to the wall behind the altar
I doubt that "subversive" is the first word we think of
Now you know we Lutheran pastors are pretty conservative when it comes to preaching politics
You won’t hear us telling people how to vote or what strategies are best to solve our nation’s social problems
Or supporting some candidate or government policy
But the simple truth is that the cross of Jesus is a subversive cross
Not just in spiritual matters, not only in the realm of forgiveness and eternal life
But in the gritty world of real tyranny, oppression, injustice and unfairness
It is a politically and economically subversive cross
It’s not a left-wing or right-wing subversive cross
It’s a Christian subversive cross
A cross lifted high by those people who in the book of Acts were accused by angry mobs of
Turning the world upside down
That isn’t our choice
Jesus made the cross subversive when he rode into Jerusalem in a deliberate claim to be king and messiah
By deliberately fulfilling an OT description of the promised Jewish king
A deliberate affront to the Roman occupation authorities
And the crowd knew that he was doing a subversive thing and shouted:
"Hosanna to the Son of David"
Jesus made the cross subversive when he faithfully and victoriously died on it
How right the Romans were to inscribe over it – in unconscious irony
"This is Jesus, the King of the Jews"
All over the world people who are poor or hungry know the cross is subversive
Caught in impossible economic and political systems
Victims of tyranny or oppression
They are crowding this Sunday into very basic, even ramshackle buildings
In which the subversive cross holds central place
Because they have heard their misery has been taken by Jesus and nailed up there
Subverted and transformed into hope, freedom, food and water, education
As people of the cross we have no choice but to act as subversives
Of course, there are both conservative and liberal strategies of subversion
Many different views on how to deal with poverty, hopelessness, and tyranny
There are many options and we much carefully weigh them
But we Christians do know that we have to work to solve or soften human suffering
Whatever our politics or opinions
We must learn to listen to each other and honor each other’s core values and fears
The political theater of name calling, of demonizing the opposition, cannot be our way
The way of Jesus is all about telling the truth, being courageous, respecting honest difference
And also about subverting oppression and human suffering
So let us remember our Lord’s death on this Sunday of subversion
By sharing in the body and blood of a death that struck down
The power of sin, death, poverty, and economic or political tyranny
Let’s take another look at these palms we were just waving
An remember that they once were part of an unauthorized street demonstration
Of a downtrodden people greeting a political dissident they hoped would change their lives
And let’s look up at that subversive cross and ask ourselves
What does that cross mean for the choices I make?
As a citizen and voter
As a donor to charities and causes and movements
As an activist in causes I believe can make a difference
What does the subversive cross mean for the choices I make?