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The cross is upside-down

Sermon for Good Friday, based on the passion story of St John

I probably watch more horror movies than most Lutheran pastors – not so much the gory as the spooky ones.  Rosemary’s Baby: maybe that’s the first horror movie with an upside-down cross as a prop?  Many folks have seen it: about people who seem like respectable Manhattan apartment dwellers – but really they’re Satanists.  They force the main character, played by Mia Farrow,  to bear Satan’s child.  When he’s born, three Satanist wise-men visit, like an inversion of the Epiphany story, and one of the gifts they bring is an upside down cross (intended as a sort of anti-Christian work of art, I guess to hang on the black wallpaper in your nursery.)

Believe me: since then it’s been in lots of horror movies – an evil spirit enters the house and Grandma’s nice gilt cross swings upside down on the wall.  The forces of badness spoil the nice, good, clean values of Christian living.  It’s taken up by Heavy Metal bands as a symbol: one such band is actually called “Deicide.”  Hmmm.  The upside down cross is an earring worn with black eye-shadow and studded leather, all Goth, to raise your parents’ blood pressure.  It’s Rock’n’roll, rebellion and I’ll do as I please; shadows and sin, dark alleys: an obscene gesture against the suburbs.

But here’s the thing: the upside-down cross is kind of a good symbol for – well, the cross!

As we heard in a recent children’s sermon, when you look at the cross we use in processions, a Greek cross,  in all four directions it’s of equal length, like a plus sign.  Turn such a cross upside down you get –  – the same cross.  And no matter its particular design, the cross of Christ is already, always upside down!!   A symbol of rebellion, criminals, deals made with the devil in dark alleys, pierced flesh, defilement, and badness.  For St. John, the poisonous snake you look at to live.  St Paul’s words are: “scandal.  Foolishness. Curse.”

And yet used by God, made to show God’s glory.

The cross shows God’s glory.  When in John 12 Jesus faces up to his coming trial and crucifixion – we hear that it’s about “glorifying” – you could say “hallowing” – the Name of God, and glorifying the Son of God.  Glory: in Greek, “Doxa” – can mean visible splendor, honor, reputation. We want to know not just that there IS a God – but why this God would be worth our attention.  Why get involved with God?   What is it about this Christ, that we should trust him?  What glory does God have, that we would give him our hearts and minds and time?

When we think about Christ’s “moments of glory” we may think of the times he healed people – or his wise teachings – his resurrection.  Wasn’t the cross just this dark valley he had to go through to bring about the brighter moments?  Well, in John’s Gospel – being lifted up on the cross IS Jesus’ moment of glory. When he dies he says “it is finished” – as if he’s put the last bit of paint on his masterpiece, to show us the visible splendor of majesty.

But how could this be?  Crucifixion was the ultimate anti-glory sort of torture and execution.  It was a public display meant to show not people’s splendor but their ugliness.  It was about degrading people, shaming, dishonoring them. A crown of thorns – a body exposed to the elements, nude – a sarcastic inscription: “King of the Jews.” A punishment fit for slaves and insurrectionists, to show you’re a nothing and nobody.  It was a kind of satanic symbol: this is what the Devil, the powers, the Ruler of this World, likes: to humiliate and destroy people.

And yet, God’s glory: because God – in love – wouldn’t let even this stand between us.  Jesus had come for everyone on the scene: for those on the margins of society, the criminals on crosses hung on either side.  Christ also came for the cruel soldiers who whipped him, for the mob hoarse with shouting, Christ came for the privileged, for Pilate at his safe distance, for the high priest, Peter and Judas and the most cowardly disciples.  He came for all those who are completely lost, in Satan’s grip, without any hope whatsoever.  Satan can try his worst, turn the sacred symbol upside down, but there’s nothing he could do to break God’s love for us.

You could say the cross was always upside down.  We think of it as a religious symbol – but it’s really a symbol of religion defiled.  I don’t know how accurate John’s portrayal of the priests is here – it seems pretty bitter – but as the story is told: they want Jesus executed, but can’t do it themselves, it will defile them before celebration of the Passover. And in Israelite law – Deuteronomy – it says no corpse was to be left on a tree overnight, or it would defile the whole land.  So the priests want it removed quickly.   Jesus’ body was this pierced horror to be rid of, if we were to bring back peace and sanctity.  And yet, as Jesus was always saying, “the Father and I are One.”  In his very flesh and blood the Holy One was present for our healing and hope.

I imagine most of us have felt we’re really outside of religion in some way.  We may not be the type of people who listen to the band Deicide and sport satanic tattoos – I mean, here we are at the Good Friday service (curious that during this very service on zoom, we were zoom bombed with offensive language and images, thus the need to post my sermon as a blog entry!).  But some of us do feel we “defile” religion in some way: even just in our doubts – we don’t know what we believe – “I’m not really as Christian as people think I am.”  Well – the glory of God for you is the cross.  God doesn’t wait for you to step forward and meet him halfway – but goes to where you are, to give and forgive everything – not to put on the pressure or guilt, but just to set you free.

Maybe our struggles aren’t so much against faith as against religion itself.  Too often it seems at odds with Jesus’ teaching.  All status quo.  Too often concern for those at the margins is all talk and intention, not action.  Too often, church is not really a place for criminals, soldiers, governors, priests, betrayers and deniers – but only those who seem to measure up or fit right someway.  Again, the glory of God for you is the cross.  Christ disrupts our status quo, and leads us by way of the cross into the dark and oppressive and at times beautiful world God so loved that he gave his only Son, that anyone who trusts him may not be destroyed but find life eternal.

One more thing about the upside down cross: as you may know, way before Rosemary’s Baby it originated as a Christian symbol.  Very early on there arose this tradition that when St. Peter was crucified by the Emperor Nero, he asked to be hung upside down by choice.  It was supposed to be about humility: he didn’t want to presume to suffer the same death as Jesus.  It’s not in the New Testament.  I’m not sure how I feel about it.  Yes – Peter, Jesus’ disciple, failed Jesus – denied knowing him, three times.  But God’s love for him on the cross is given without regard for our deserving.  What kind of humility is called for here?  Is it only saying “I’m not worthy?”  Or also, “by Grace, I am?  What you give, God, is fully for me, too.”

I am drawn to the image.  We can’t turn the cross upside down: whichever way you turn it, it’s already a scandalous – subversive symbol.  But what God did that day is about turning us upside down.  As Mary the mother of Jesus prayed: “you have cast the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” He came in love for you, such as you are – in your doubts and struggles, your hopes and failures, to redeem and to heal you and make your life new.  Thanks be to God.