Our Cross (11am)
April 9, 2017 Pastor: Series: The Dimensions of the Cross
Topic: Committing to your faith Scripture: Galatians 2:20–2:21
I think I’ve shared that my journey with Christ really took on its identity when I was in high school, after my mom had passed away. I don’t think I ever had a conversion experience like many have but I did eventually reach a place where I realized and knew with all I am that Christ was my savior, that He had died for me, and that I wanted my life to revolve around and be oriented toward Him. That wasn’t the beginning of my exposure to Christianity though. I was brought up in a pretty religious home and even attended private school up until junior high. But despite spending my early formative years constantly surrounded by and within a religious system, I never felt like it was mine or that I was a part of it.
The apostle Paul had this incredible encounter on the road to Damascus where Christ showed up, spoke to him, and knocked him blind. That was his conversation moment. I didn’t have one of those. God spoke to Moses through the burning bush and God told Moses who He was and what His plans were for him. Again, not exactly what I went through. My experience was more like the slow steeping of tea. It’s a gradual, steady process of extracting and exposing something to an outside force that will inherently change it in some way.
That’s how I eventually came to realize my place in the family and story of God; and where I began actively following Jesus. The little Bible church back in the Philly suburbs where I went to youth group gave me the environment to be steeped in and saturated with the truth of the Gospel, until one day, I realized what had happened and what I had become and who it was that loved me. From that day on, my identity as a child of God and follower of Jesus has been as much a part of me as the color of my eyes and shape of my nose.
This morning we are finishing our series “The Dimensions of the Cross”. And last week I shared about how the cross is an example for us to follow and not merely something done to or for us. We’ve also talked about the cross as healing, the cross as a clean slate, and even the cross as a foolish plan to save us. But all of those things, even the example, are things removed from and apart from us. Healing happens to us. A clean slate is offered to us. The foolish plan is a means to save us. The example is something given to us to follow. This morning, we finish our series by looking at the cross from a whole different perspective…from our own perspective.
Our text comes out of the book of Galatians. Galatians is a book that is focused on a pivotal truth of our faith: We are saved by the grace of Christ and our faith in Him and not by our own intentions or actions. Paul is writing this letter because a group of people have been trying to add other things into what it means to be saved by Christ and Paul wants to set things straight. And the way he does that isn’t be restating a list of rules or requirements. Instead, what he does is make a statement about identity. We’re in Galatians 2:20-21.
For Paul, his relationship with Christ and his identity as a follower of Christ wasn’t something he gained membership to like a gym or country club. He describes it as a part of who he is. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. His life is now one of faith and identity in Christ. When I was in my undergrad I took an intro to theology course and we read a book called Christian Doctrine written by a renowned theologian named Shirley Guthrie. In it, he makes a powerful statement about engaging Christ. He says, “To believe in Jesus is to believe that when I hear about him, at the same time I learn who I am.” For Guthrie, for Paul, our faith is more than something we simply say we believe. It is a statement and reality of our own identity.
To come back to my gradual realization of my own faith, I think that’s one of the reasons why religion never stuck with me when I was a kid. It was never more than something I simply went to or had to do. Was it good for me? Absolutely. But it wasn’t a part of me and I certainly didn’t feel like a part of it. It was more a story that was being read to me rather than a story I was a part of. It was something people told me about, not something about me.
In our text, Paul doesn’t leave an inch of space for that kind of thinking. Our verse opens with Paul declaring and owning that he was crucified along with Christ. This is a statement about his former life. The life he lived as an enemy of God and persecutor of Christians. This is a statement of identity. For weeks we have heard Paul, and Peter on one occasion, share how the cross is something for us and what it accomplished through Christ and for us. But this morning we hear a text that says that the cross of Christ is our cross.
Every single one of the statements we’ve made about the cross through this series are true and moving realities. And I believe they all stem from and grow out of the truth of this text. Because the work God does in our lives and hearts isn’t surplus, one-size-fits-all, generic work. It is a personal, specific, identity-oriented work. It is the stuff of relationships and deep love. Yes, the cross is force and a hope for all. But it is also a hope for you and me.
The healing the cross brings is different for every story it touches. The example we see in the cross inspires the faithful actions of countless personalities and leads in all number of directions. We share a single and common savior. We all meet at the same cross. But from that cross we become new creations and are sent to new areas. The cross of Christ is reaching enough to encompass every sinner and personal enough to inspire a new and unique life for each of them.
That’s why Paul says that the life he lives is no longer his but that Christ lives in him and why he describes his life now as one of faith in the one who loved him and gave his life for him. It is that same motivation and posture that we take in our own lives all because of the cross. To live a life like that, like the one Paul describes, a life that is an embodiment and expression and declaration of Jesus Christ is an immeasurable wonderful gift. And not simply for ourselves but for all that we encounter. It includes moments of emotional celebration, long-awaited intimacy, and new life. And it includes moments of crushing sadness, quiet grief, and tragedy. This week is a perfect example of that.
Today is Palm Sunday and the start of what we call Holy Week. We begin our final steps to Easter with a triumphant celebration. Christ entered the city with shouts of praise and applause. On Thursday we remember moments of intimacy and depth like when Christ washed the feet of his own disciples and when a simple meal of bread and wine was shared together as friends. Friday is a series of tragic moments that ends with the greatest loss and sorrow. A day where everything his followers thought they knew about Christ is now in question. A time where all the value and safety and purpose they’ve been promised is now gone. A day where the earth shook and veil was torn and the son of God was laid in a tomb. And then comes Sunday. The single greatest and most celebration-worthy event in all of existence. Our Savior and Lord conquered sin and death, rose out of the grave, and now, stands beside the Father advocating for us and welcoming us into the family of God.
When we finally realize that the cross of Christ is our cross and that it is now He who lives in us, we gain a strange and wonderful place in the story of Holy Week. We stand in both the place of those who cheer for Christ and lay palms at his feet and, at the same time, we take the steps of our own journey. We are the ones being served and fed at the table with Christ and yet we also know that we are now called to serve and feed others. We must come to terms that just as the nails were driven into the hands and feet of Christ that it was our sin that held him there. And Easter, that glorious morning, we stand amazed and awed at the empty tomb as we marvel the resurrection of the Lord, and we take hold of the promise of new life and lasting freedom that we are now given.
The life and work and identity of the Christian is one of participation and community. It is a life declared by the voice and work of Jesus just as much as it is embodied and practiced within our identity as the church and people of God. Paul talks about a righteousness that is gained and given to us by the grace of God. One commentator writes, “The righteousness of God – given, received, and lived out – is not just a personal but a corporate reality. It involves participation in a community of people who risk their own security by being for others whose histories may be radically different, who culturally, ethnically, economically, politically, and/or socially live on the other side of the tracks.”
This is the reason this sermon is titled “Our Cross” and not “My Cross.” Christ does not save us merely so we can have our own personal ticket through the pearly gates. Yes, we are given the gift of eternal life, but through the power and work of Christ our cross gives us entrance into the family of God. We become members of the church with a big C. And that is a life and an identity that offers us both relationship and the mission to love and serve others.
And friends, this is about so much more than Sunday morning attendance. Believe me, I have no desire to preach myself out of a job here, but your presence here, the reasons why we gather together, has to mean more than things like obligation or tradition. A guy named Michael Wittmer wrote an awesome book about 10 years ago called “Don’t Stop Believing.” In it he says, “Going to church only counts when we are the church – when we know and belong to the people sitting beside us.”
This is what I had to find out as a high school student. Why, after years and years of going to church every week, and going to private school, and being involved in almost every activity that my childhood church offered, didn’t mean much to me? Why did my new church fill me with such a strong sense of identity and make me feel like not only was I part of a family but that I was called to be a part of something God was doing?
It’s because that little Bible church down the street from my house introduced me to a God who had a plan and a place for me. It’s because that church not only encouraged but also compelled me to take part in service opportunities and missions trips. It’s because the adult youth leaders and the other students at the church didn’t see me as a newcomer but instead as a beloved neighbor who just moved next door. I was told I had a purpose. That purpose was given by God, the same God who sent His son to die for me on a cross. A cross that I had seen week after week at my previous church. A cross that looked old and important but also scary and off limits. My church showed me that the cross wasn’t just the cross Jesus died on for me. It was my cross. The cross I would bear for following Jesus the rest of my life. The cross where my identity would flow from and my greatest hope would emanate from.
Friends, my challenge to you today isn’t an internal one. It’s not an exercise in introspection or spiritual exploration. It’s a challenge you can evaluate and wrestle with by looking at the calendar in your phone right now. Through the work of Christ and our cross, we are given the gift and responsibility of community – of being the church. It’s something I remind you of at the end of every service with my benediction. You are the church. That’s the truth I finally felt and experienced at my little home church. My challenge to you is this: How much are you the church?
And this isn’t a guilt trip. Believe me, I had enough of those when I was a kid. This is an encouragement and a challenge. What’s the last activity you had a presence in that wasn’t a worship service? When was the last time you talked with, confided in, or prayed with another person from the church? Are you a part of a small group? If yes, awesome. How can you help that group grow deeper and wider? If you’re answer is no, why? If it’s because of missing opportunities or a lack of options, talk to me. We’ll find, revive, or start something that you can plug into. This is even easier for our kids. And it has to include our kids! Ann and Conner are here to create memorable, meaningful moments for our kids and teens so they would have a faith that not only survives in this world but one that changes it. Parents, I get it. Sometimes that means making your kid go or rearranging the schedule. But as a former youth director, I’ll tell you this: I would always rather have a kid forced to be there than a kid who never was.
Bottom line: There is a place for you and for the members of your family in this church besides the spot in the pews you’ve claimed for Sunday mornings. And that place in this community of faith comes through the work of the cross. Our cross. The cross that gives us a clean slate. The cross that declares God’s willingness to do anything to save us, even if some think it’s foolish. The cross that brings healing and hope even in the darkest and most desperate of moments. The cross that is an example of how much God loves us, of how we are to treat others, and how we should see ourselves. That cross is our cross. And through it we gain an identity, a place of belonging, and a call to participate in the work God is doing in this world. Let’s pray.