SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 2011, THE SOLEMNITY OF THE FEAST OF THE HOLY CROSS

From the Epistle this morning:

. . . who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be held on to, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And bring found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6 - 8)

And from the Psalm appointed for today:

With his own right hand and with his holy arm, hath he gotten for himself the victory. (Ps. 98:2)

As some of you know, I began my stint in the ordained ministry of the Church as the vicar of two small mission churches in Laurens County, South Carolina. It was wonderful. Having been in school in the tumultuous late sixties and early seventies, a few years in a sleepy southern town was just what I needed, and I loved it. The people were wonderful and quite dedicated to their church and pleased by my youthful enthusiasm. Our resources, to be sure, were limited, but together we made do with what we had - good on-the-job training for a young priest just out of school.

At each of these churches I had a volunteer organist, and though both were very faithful, neither was very good. When I say this, I’m not saying anything either of these dear ladies would not have said herself. They were not trained church musicians. Both were amateurs. But they played for us - God bless them - they played, and we sang and soldiered on.

At one church, “soldiering on” was, I’m afraid, quite literal. The organist there had a half dozen hymns absolutely under control. Anything else, however, was a challenge, and so if I asked for something new or different, she would work on that during the week and fall back on one of the six basics which required no effort and no practice. One of these six - you guessed it - was Onward Christian Soldiers.

There are music snobs who despise this hymn. I’m not one of them. I rather like it. It’s rousing and easy to sing with gusto. However, singing it at least two Sundays a month got old pretty fast, and when, after some years, I moved on to serve at a church where we never sang it, that was fine with me.

As I said, some people dislike this hymn because of the tune. Others object to the martial imagery - “soldiers marching as to war.” That’s silly. I am no lover of war. In fact, like most relatively sane people on earth, I hate everything about it. Even so, martial imagery is very much a part of scriptural tradition. If you don’t want martial imagery, you’re going to have to ditch the Bible. For instance, aren’t we told to “fight the good fight.” Doesn’t Paul urge us to “put on the whole armour of God,” “the breastplate of righteousness,” “the shield of faith,” “the helmet of salvation,” to take up the” sword of the Spirit.” (Eph. 6)

Martial imagery is very much a part of the scriptural tradition, and this is so because it is true. It describes something which is real, for living the Christian life is at times very much like a battle, and we need that armour. Indeed, human life itself is often a battle - a spiritual and a moral battle - and this is something which has been understood and discussed for as long as people have reflected upon what it means to be human.

Sometimes this is portrayed vividly in what is called in art and poetry a psychomachia. That’s the title of an ancient poem and it means a “battle for the soul” or a “battle of the soul.” It’s also the word used to describe a certain motif in painting or sculpture. A personified virtue on the right and a vice on the left contending for the prize - which is you or me - in the middle. Or a good angel whispering in one ear and a bad angel whispering in the other . . . to which will one listen ? and what will one do ?

This is colorful and amusing, but it is not naïve. Human life is a struggle. It is indeed a battle. To live life legitimately, to live according to one’s convictions, according to one’s ideals and one’s faith - this involves making choices and acting upon them. It involves accepting certain things and rejecting others. Choosing. And to choose is always a struggle of sorts. When there is little at stake, we hardly notice. But when the character of one’s life itself is at stake, it is more than a struggle. It is an interior and spiritual battle. A battle which, though difficult even deadly, cannot be avoided. At some point and sometimes even daily, each one of us is forced to choose between what is true in life and what is false. This can be a torment, for the truth is often costly and difficult, and what is false seems so easy and convenient. But to be human is to choose and to choose is to struggle. Life is a battle. It is a battle and the outcome, as Jesus tells us, is to gain or to loose one’s self. (Mt 16:25, 26)

* * * * * *

This morning we are celebrating another battle. A battle not unlike our own battle in life. A battle which may decide the outcome of our battle in life. The battle of the Cross. This is one sometimes overlooked facet, of New Testament theology. It is not peculiar to any one writer, nor is it a consistent and developed theory. It is rather an image, a picture which is intended to guide our thought and devotion and our life. It has to do with the feast which we are observing today, the Feast of the Holy Cross. And the image, again, is this: the Cross as a battlefield and our Lord Jesus as the warrior and finally the victor in that battle. And the implication is this: that to those who give their allegiance to him as Lord, his victory is also their victory. In the battle which is your life and mine, Christ the Victor shares his victory and saves us.

You may be familiar with this image from some of the hymns we love to sing. Even so, it is an unusual idea, and to people outside of the Church it is a probably puzzling if not ridiculous thing. How can the Cross be a battle? And that death in Jerusalem so long ago, how can it have been a victory? It looks like nothing more than tragedy, just another obscene injustice, another notch in the tally of human perfidy. There was nothing new then about a good and innocent man being put to death. And certainly there is nothing new or exceptional about this now. In the past century and in the present we’ve gotten so used to it, it seems an every day occurrence. We are accustomed to, almost at home with evil, sin, death, injustice on a grand scale, how then can this one particular death have been any different from all the rest?

Scripture and the Church have no really logical answer to such a question. Rather, the answer given is an assertion, and the assertion is a proclamation, and the proclamation is based on the experience of those who do acknowledge Jesus as Lord and who do therefore know his victory as their own. And what they proclaim is this: that the Cross of Jesus was more than just one death among many. Indeed, it was a contest between God and everything that opposes him. There, those things which we call evil, sin, the devil, the destructive and demonic powers in this world - there, on the Cross, they tried to wrench away from God the One who was totally dedicated to God. There, on the Cross, they unleashed their full fury - pain amid mockery and hatred and death - on the One who had come to bring humanity back to God. But there, on the Cross, he was faithful. Even there, his will, his integrity, his dedication would not be broken. He was “obedient, obedient even to death, death upon a cross.” (Philippians 2:8) And through his obedience came their defeat. Disobedience alienated us from God and gave us over to those things which would destroy us. His obedience restored the unity and broke their power.

The Epistle to the Colossians tells us, that in a wonderful reversal Jesus, by his obedience and death, nailed to His cross everything which was against us, “having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them, openly triumphing over them” by his Cross. (2:14, 15) Through obedience and “through death” says the Epistle to the Hebrews, “he destroyed him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.” (2:14) Triumphant, he “led captivity captive” proclaims St. Paul. (Ephesians 4:8) “Now is the judgement of this world,” says Jesus just before He is betrayed. “Now shall the ruler of this world be cast out,” He cries as He approaches the battle of the Cross.

And in that battle, Christ, our Victor, shares with us his victory and he saves us. In that battle, God through Jesus shows us who He is and what He does. The Cross reveals the Face of God. The Cross reveals the Heart of God which yearns for his creatures. And the Cross makes clear to all humanity the infinity of His love.

Hail Holy Cross, our life, our hope!

Hail to the Lord Jesus, our Savior, God’s victor and the triumph of His love!