An icon of grace

Watching for the morning of September 14

Year A

Holy Cross Day:
(Proper 19 / Lectionary 24)

File:Codex Bodmer 127 053v Detail.jpg

Saint Helena finds the Holy Cross: Inuentio sanctae Crucis, Illumination from the Passionary of Weissenau (Weißenauer Passionale); Fondation Bodmer, Coligny, Switzerland; Cod. Bodmer 127, fol. 53v

An image of judgment becomes an icon of grace. The cross was a brutal instrument of Roman power. It was used to make clear the cost and futility of resisting imperial rule. But bearing the body of Jesus it becomes a sign of redemption and the means for our healing.

We don’t get to talk much about the crucifixion apart from the season of Lent and Holy Week. But in CE 326 Saint Helena, the mother of emperor Constantine the Great, while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, found what she believed was the true cross of Christ and on that site they began the construction of the church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was dedicated on September 14, 335 and became a feast day of the church.

It is for us an opportunity to remember and reflect on this central reality of Christian faith: God took an instrument of imperial power and made it a sign of the reign of God. God used a tool of oppression and torture to reveal the poverty of violence and the wealth of his redemptive love.

So this Sunday we read about the bronze serpent impaled upon a gibbet that the Gospel of John uses as an image of Jesus lifted up upon the cross. And we hear Paul declare that this cross that seems so unthinkable to us as a revelation of the divine is in fact the power and wisdom of God.

But in our celebration of the cross of Christ, we cannot skip the appointed Gospel for this Sunday (proper 19/lectionary 24) where Jesus answers Peter’s question about the limits of forgiveness – for the answer to that question takes us to the priceless sacrifice and grace without end worked upon the cross.

The Prayer for Holy Cross Day, September 14, 2014

Gracious God,
who by the mystery of the wood of the manger and the wood of the cross
brought redemption to all,
keep us ever mindful of your boundless compassion,
that with love and mercy
we may be faithful sons and daughters of your reign of grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for Holy Cross Day, September 14, 2014

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
“The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” – God overcame the army of Pharaoh and led the people out from bondage in Egypt, but the people rebelled in fear when faced with the challenge of taking the land of Canaan. Sent back towards Egypt to approach the promised land from another way, their poisonous speech towards God comes back upon themselves in the form of poisonous snakes. But God uses the image of a serpent on a pole as a means for their healing. An image of judgment becomes an icon of grace.

Psalmody: Psalm 98:1-4
“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” – A song of praise to God who has delivered the people and reigns among them as Lord.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-24
“The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
– writing to his troubled congregation at Corinth to call them back to a life shaped by the grace of God revealed in Christ Jesus, Paul begins his letter by focusing their attention on the cross of Christ. God’s unexpected work in the cross defies our human expectations of the divine, but in the cross is made known the grace and power of God.

Gospel: John 3:13-17
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” – In conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses the image from our first lesson to anticipate the cross: those who “see” (see with understanding) Jesus on the cross will be “saved” (a word that also means healed) as those who gazed upon the serpent were made whole.

Sermon text: Matthew 18:21-35
“How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” – Having taught reconciliation rather than “getting even” as the fundamental principle of life in the Christian community, Jesus is asked about the limits of forgiveness.

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