Sermon: Sunday before the Cross

Sunday before the Cross

John 3:13–17

Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

In anticipation of the forthcoming celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross, we are all invited today to contemplate the significance of the Holy Cross in our lives. For many non-believers — but I would also add, and believers — the Cross has only historical significance: our Lord was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered and was buried. But for Christians throughout history and all over the world the Holy Cross determines who we are — that is to say, it determines our identity — but it is also the source of life; it is life-giving. We speak of the Holy and Life-giving Cross. We draw from the Life-Giving Cross our life, our protection, our strength, our identity.

In today’s Gospel reading from the Gospel of John we are reminded of a discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus, the secret admirer and follower of Jesus. Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the presence of the Holy Cross before its appearance on Golgotha. He states: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).

The Lord is referring to the Old Testament (cf. Numbers 21). The people of Israel were attacked by poisonous snakes, venomous vipers, as a result of their own disobedience. The people then went to Moses for help, and Moses consulted with God. God then instructed Moses to make an image of a snake and mount it on a pole. Anyone who looked at the snake would be cured of the bites and live. This events foreshadows the saving power of the Holy Cross, which also implies faith in something beyond ourselves. The idea of being healed simply by looking at the bronze snake left no doubt in the minds of the Israelites that it was God’s power, not their own, that brought healing and salvation. In the same way, “Whoseover believeth in him” that is lifted up on the Cross; it is God’s salvific power which is at work, not our own.

Additionally, the holy Cross transforms our perception of God. For example, when we refer to God’s power to act — actus purus, as the say in Latin — we naturally project our experience of power into the divine. If there are powerful men, then God is all-powerful. If men are wise and knowledgeable, then God is all-wise and omniscient. There is always something positive to say about these expressions. However, if we refer to “Christ crucified” for our salvation, this is a scandal to the human mind. St Paul says, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but [unto them that believe, it is] the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:23–24).

The biggest scandal for the human mind: How is it possible for God to die and be crucified? Where is God’s power? The crucified God is a contradiction to our perception of God Almighty. Where is God’s power? It’s as if Jesus is saying, “I am accepted only by my qualities. For example, by having the power to act, or the power to do as I please. And we only perceive God in this way. However, is it possible to be worthy of one’s acceptance through my inability to act?” This is what’s God is saying through Jesus on the Cross. And it is his inability to act which revealed the power of his love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Amen.

Archimandrite Chrysostomos Michaelides