The Old Rugged Cross
On a hill far away, stood an old rugged Cross The emblem of suff'ring and shame And I love that old Cross where the dearest and best For a world of lost sinners was slain So I'll cherish the old rugged Cross Till my trophies at last I lay down I will cling to the old rugged Cross And exchange it some day for a crown When I was a pastor in Nebraska, our ministerial group took turns providing worship for the local retirement homes and hospital. Each month you had your regulars and this one guy always asked to sing The Old Rugged Cross. I grew up with my Grandfather playing the song in the car, but I remember the first time I sang it with them. I didn’t understand what it meant and I didn’t want to cling to the cross. “I want to cling to Jesus,” I thought, “not the cross.” Years later I was in a hospital room and saw the cross on the wall and I wondered, when that man sang this song, was he singing about a time that God had brought him through suffering by clinging to his faith in the meaning of the cross? Was he singing about his past or his present? What did it mean to cling to the cross? The disciples on that road to Emmaus seemed to be stuck on that image of Jesus hanging on the cross, suffering and finally gone. It had been three days and they still couldn’t make sense of it all, so they started heading to a place where they knew they would be safe and they could maybe get restarted or at least rest for a while. I’ve always imagined the road kind of empty except for the three of them, but tons of people were traveling from Jerusalem because of the end of the passover festival, so the road could have been full. Perhaps that’s why the two of them didn’t stop talking about everything that had happened when the stranger came near. They didn’t notice the stranger listening in on their conversation, and when he interrupted them, they stopped dead in their tracks. They were so overwhelmed, so sad, it says, they didn’t know where to start. “How could you not know what has been going on here in these last several days?” The story sounded even more hopeless as they told it. “And now we just don’t know what to believe.” They had lost hold of where God was leading them, so they turned around and went back to what they knew. “Don’t you understand?” Says the stranger, “This suffering had to take place for God to bring redemption for all of us?” The stranger starts revealing the hope in God’s story throughout the history of their people, and suddenly their spirits are lifted and their hearts begin to burn with love and hope. They are eager to share more time with this new friend, and they invite him to join them for supper. “Stay with us,” they say. And when they sit down, Jesus is revealed to them in the breaking of the bread. When we set our hopes on things and plans we will always be disappointed. When we cling to Jesus and put our faith in a God who can bring victory out of suffering and new life out of death, we find hope. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian, warns about the embrace of cheap grace when we accept the free love and forgiveness of God and expect our life to be easy. “Cheap grace” is receiving the gift of forgiveness without changing your heart, without desiring to live in a new way, without giving into the change that compels you to walk differently with what you know to be true. He points out that Monasticism began as a resistance to cheap grace. Many felt that Christianity was becoming too secular or cool and publicly accepted, so they removed themselves from cities and lived in poor communities in order to better appreciate the gifts of God by caring for the earth and providing shelter for their neighbors in need. They wanted to live out their belief that the grace and faith they had was costly. It is costly not because we must earn it, but because it cost a lot to God and once we take up our cross and follow Jesus, we will endure suffering. Bonhoeffer, puts it this way in his book “The Cost of Discipleship": “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life…Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.” The cost of the Cross reminds us how precious we are to God, how important and essential we are to the creator of the universe, that this one who created humanity would become one and suffer for us. The suffering of one man absorbed the suffering of the whole world, and when we suffer, we bear that suffering as a connection with Christ and a connection with all who suffer. Bonhoffer extends this to our call to discipleship: “Every day (we) encounter new temptations, and every day we must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake. The wounds and scars he receives in the fray are living tokens of this participation in the cross of (our) Lord." The question put before us in these times and in ordinary times is this: which sufferings bear the greatest benefit to the whole, which bring us closer to justice, where are you called to serve and who are you called to forgive? The answer will not be the same for all of us and the way we answer this today may change in different seasons of our lives. Criticizing the choices of others only separates us rather than pulling us together. The greatness or comparison of our suffering is not what unites us.
We are united by our love for one another, and it is that love which compels us to make these sacrifices. This love is the love we know from Christ who suffered for us. In our gratitude for his suffering, we suffer for one another. The sufferings of Christ took place to free us to act and live in God’s love. In essence we are not set free “from” our suffering and tortured world, we are set free “to” be agents of grace and love within the brokenness of this era until the whole world is healed. In Christ, the power of resurrection has entered the world and therefore this possibility for new life and hope exists, and when we believe in God, we can see the opportunities to act and be a part of God’s recreation of the world. in his book, "A Theology of human hope,” Rubem Alves writes about the meaning of this liberation set in motion by our creator . “Salvation is achieved through a (social perspective) in which God makes man free to create.” This ability to create is part of our imago Dei—that mark left when we were created in the image of God. The sin and brokenness of the world causes us to forget our abilities and capabilities to make an impact on this world. Amidst the cultural, social and economic boundaries of our lives, Jesus sets us free to live in harmony and kindness with one another. The sacrifice of Christ carries weight because of the cost he endured, and it costs us when we choose the safety and the needs of our neighbor over our own. Bonhoeffer’s good friend Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a great prayer for such times, and I’m sure you’re familiar with the first paragraph, known as the Serenity Prayer. The prayer book edition of our Book of Common Worship has a longer version and we will close with this. “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that you will make all things right, if I surrender to your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with you forever in the next. Amen."