Cross Culture

 My former colleague Lonnie Lee once came across a piece about a Macy’s store in New York City that had created a new department for selling crosses. One of the clerks explained their business model this way: “Crosses are a fashion statement. This counter used to have silk scarves and evening bags. That’s gone. Now we’re doing trend-type crosses here … we have one of the best selections in New York City, but honestly, I’m a little low on crosses right now. They’re flying out the door.”[1]

I suppose that Christians can take comfort in the fact that the cross, originally an instrument of torture and humiliation, has become such a powerful symbol of victory that it is worn by trendy urbanites. But you have to wonder how many cross wearers appreciate that the victory of the cross is measured not in terms of personal profit and political power, but rather by the quality of our justice and compassion. You have to wonder how many people who wear the cross as a fashion statement understand the commitment to service and sacrifice that the cross also implies.

Peter didn’t.  Peter is the first to recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah, but his understanding is misshapen by impatient expectations.  Peter had heard the prophecy of Daniel, and assumed that the Messiah’s dominion that would not pass away, and kingship that never would be destroyed was beginning without delay. Peter lived in the context of Roman occupation and oppression, and like others in his culture, he wanted a Messiah who would conquer evil immediately and on his terms. Peter wanted to be a trendsetter, wearing his dress uniform on a parade to easy victory.

When Jesus calls Peter to embrace a new understanding, his message runs contrary to Peter’s expectations. Peter expects Jesus to save his followers from suffering and sacrifice, not through suffering and sacrifice.  The disciple who first recognized Jesus as Messiah now begins to scold him for acting contrary to expectations.

Peter’s response to Jesus is not surprising.  When we are challenged to think of spiritual life in terms of sacrifice, our defenses go up.  When we are told that consensus building requires patient compromise, our defenses go up.   When we are told that the youth programs and missions support we want to provide as a church involve each member’s sacrificial giving, our defenses go up.  Peter’s answer is quite natural.

Kenneth Carder says that “We want an invincible God who shields us from our own vulnerability. That is the God we imitate and worship . . . . Strength in weakness, gaining by losing, the power of the cross – that still seems foolish to those who measure strength by gross national product and megaton bombs, those devoted to finishing first, those who thrive on power as prominence.”[2]

Jesus’ forceful reply to Peter shows us he will not be dissuaded from his perspective or his purpose. Life, he proclaims, is not about setting one’s mind on human expectations of comfort and prestige, but rather focusing on God’s call to mission and service. Personal commitment to mission and service necessarily entails times of patient suffering and personal sacrifice.

On Tuesday evening, I co-lead a September 11 Service of Remembrance at the Holiday Shores Fire Station. The guest speaker was Roger Lunt, retired chief of the Taylorville Fire Department, now Deputy Director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute. Roger was among the first group of Illinois emergency personnel to depart O’Hare Airport in a C-141 transport plane, under fighter jet escort. At Ground Zero, Lunt was a member of DMORT: Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. His job was to escort bodies and body parts from the spot at which they were discovered, through various stages in the cataloging and identification process, until each bag was respectfully and gently placed in the mortuary freezer.

In his speech, Roger spent some time analyzing the now popular saying on September 11: “Never forget.” He recalled the generator noise and diesel fumes of the World Trade Center site , the frequent trips through three layers of security to sit on a concrete curb and decompress emotionally. It was clear to those of us listening that there are many parts of the experience that Roger wishes he could forget. Many of us no longer need to see the videos of the towers falling, for that video plays itself in an infinite loop in our memories. What is it that we should be remembering from that awful experience in order to live into a better and more hopeful future?

From Roger’s perspective, one photograph is impressed upon his memory in a special way. It is a picture of people running through a New York street in the wake of a collapsing tower.  Roger said that the picture endures in his memory because the covering of dust obscures each person’s occupation, socio-economic status, race, sometimes even gender. They are just people, united by a common humanity and a common need. The way forward, he said, is not by isolating ourselves from one another according to our differences, but by remembering that we’re all in this together.

Jesus believed that his vocation called him into solidarity with those who were suffering.  He knew that the way to alleviate suffering was not to avoid it, or to isolate himself from it, or to find a way to live above it. Rather, he believed that the way to deal with suffering was to move through it, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those who suffer, and emerge with them from the suffering safe on the other side of the abyss. Then, and only then, does the cross become a symbol of victory.


[1] As shared by Lonnie Lee in “Clash of Cultures,” a sermon delivered to the Westminster Presbyterian Church, Springfield, IL, 23 February 1997.

[2] Kenneth L. Carder, “Why follow a crucified Christ?” The Christian Century, 27 August 1997, p. 753.

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~ by JohnH1962 on September 16, 2012.

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