Readings: Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalm 98:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17
Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross, I want to share some love stories with you. It is not difficult to understand why love stories are popular. Love brings joy and happiness our lives. It also makes us vulnerable. It is transformative in our lives. Remember for a moment the first time you fell in love. What was it like to be head-over-heels in love with someone? Our gospel is a love story, the greatest love story of all. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” What a wonderful reminder that is that God’s grace reaches out to us, saying “I’d do anything for you.”
Love has the power to transform. I’ve seen it. I remember as a teacher dealing with a little girl whom no one liked. In fact, the children picked on her mercilessly. I found it difficult to like her myself. She had a skin condition that left her looking strange. She was messy in her work. She came to school looking dirty and unkempt. The constant teasing from her classmates led to behavioural problems and aggressive behaviour. I knew that it had to stop. I also knew that it was not going to be easy, even for me. I began to find little things to praise her for. Every day I said something positive to her. Sometimes it was difficult to find anything. But I persisted. And somehow it rubbed off. The children in the class began to react differently to her. They stopped the teasing. Her aggressive behaviour changed. She began to take more interest in how she looked and in her work. Over the course of that year she blossomed until all the teachers in the school and her parents were remarking on it.
And God’s love is much greater than ours. I have experienced it in my life and in the lives of others. There is my friend Bill. Because of his addiction to alcohol, he lost everything – work, family, friends. When I first met him he was living on the streets of Toronto. I helped him get into a rehab program. Now he works with street people helping them to overcome their addictions. He will tell you that it was God’s love that changed things for him. It was God’s love that turned his life around.
I truly believe that God loves me. I have experienced that amazing fact in my life. There are the obvious signs that God loves me. I see it all around me in the beauty of the world God has created, the kindnesses of people, the acts of generosity. And there are the serendipitous things in life that remind me constantly of the nature of our loving God, the things that happen in my life that I know I do not deserve. They just happen. They are pure grace. I experience God’s love in prayer, both as I reach out in my own times of prayer, but also as we worship as the body of Christ. I experience the awesome power of God as we offer up prayers of intercession and of thanksgiving. I experience it as we gather at the table. And finally I look back at the times that without God’s love I simply would not have survived, those moments when life was at its darkest. Those are the times that I truly know that not only nothing I could do would make God love me more but also that nothing I could do would make God love me less.
The cross has the power to transform. It is a sign of God’s love. It is God’s way of uniting suffering with love. It is God’s way of showing us that God would do anything for us. It is a symbol that we look on with a sense of reverence and awe. We make the sign of the cross. We wear crosses in recognition of our faith. We use it as a symbol of God’s redeeming grace to decorate our churches. Through the ages the event of the cross has become the symbol of God’s love.
A friend of mine questioned me about why I always wear a cross. I was taken aback by the question, since she is a person who confesses Christian faith. She also knows that I am a priest. I gave her a quizzical look. I did not answer right away. I needed to figure out what was behind the question. Was it something about the particular cross I was wearing? Was it because I was on holidays? Was it what the cross represents? Finally I asked her and was confronted with a barrage of hurt, anger and frustration. It was abundantly clear to me that for her the image of the cross was not merely foolish, but abhorrent.
Indeed, it is a very strange symbol to have at the heart of our faith. That is exactly what Paul is saying to the Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” Of course it is! The people of Jesus’ time understood the horror of the cross. There is simply no way they would ever have connected it to God. People of the Jewish faith expected salvation to come through the long awaited Messiah. They could never even consider that God’s promised agent could be put to death. The Greeks were seeking pure knowledge. A suffering god would be impossible for them to accept. And still today people who are themselves carrying heavy crosses, the sick, the elderly, the handicapped, the unemployed, the lonely, the depressed, may find themselves unable to fathom the cross as a symbol of the love of God.
Yet for those of us who believe it is a reminder that God’s power is able to transform even the most terrible suffering. It is a reminder that God is with us. Through our encounter with the crucified Christ we learn that the sharing of suffering is the beginning of its transformation to wholeness and joy. We are reminded by our very ‘woundedness’ that God loves us. The ultimate test of love is whether it is giving. Through our own inadequacies and sufferings, we begin to understand the great gift that God has given. Salvation truly is a gift, a gift of love.
How can we lighten the load for those who find it unfathomable? How do we help them to understand that God loves them? It is, after all, about sharing the love of God, about sharing our Christian love story. It is about reminding them that from the cross Jesus is saying, “I’d do anything for you.”
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