Holy Cross Day: It’s a Trap!

Holy Cross Day: It’s a Trap!

John 3:13-17

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

It is becoming harder and harder for me to read the third chapter of the Gospel of John without worrying about the dangers embedded in a few beautiful lines. The image that comes to mind is Admiral Ackbar shouting, “It’s a trap!” during the Battle of Endor in the 1983 film “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.” That may sound odd. After all, our pericope for the day contains one of the most popular lines in all Holy Scripture. The sixteenth verse, specifically, was thrust into the pantheon of American iconography thanks to Rollen Stewart, an eccentric and troubled man who would hoist signs during major sports broadcasts in the 1980s emblazoned with “John 3:16.” Introducing the Gospel to millions appeared to be Stewart’s goal, but as I have discovered in my own study, pulling this one verse out of the rich context of John’s entire story is dangerous business indeed.

Falling into the trap of focusing solely on the oft-confused and maligned sixteenth verse can result in wielding a weapon of exclusion and elitism rather than the life-giving tonic that it was meant to offer. John’s message was intended for a closed group of persecuted believers. This is a message of Good News and inclusion, meant to provide life and hope during dark days. The author would not have imagined that it would one day be wielded to exclude people from the faith or even worse, the basis for which violence might be conducted in efforts to “purify” and expunge infidels.

This well-worn passage also risks a superficial gloss by even the most careful of preachers. For those raised in the Church, it is one of the first memorized lines of scripture for even the youngest of disciples. We think we know it so well that there is nothing more left to reveal. In cases such as this one, it is helpful to heed the advice of Barbara Brown Taylor: “Whenever you come up on something about God, the Gospel, or the life of faith that everyone knows is true, step back from the reverential crowd whose gaze is fixed on it and look in the opposite direction—because nine times out of ten there is something just as true back there, though largely ignored because its benefits are less obvious and its truth harder to embrace.”[1]

For the discerning preacher, gazing in the opposite direction means exegeting one’s own community before wading into the waters of this text. What is your community’s current understanding of this passage? How much of John’s world and context do they understand? Are they even aware of the critical seventeenth verse?

Additionally, the preacher will need to have a solid understanding of how their community understands the cross. Within the lectionary cycle, this passage is the stock Gospel text for the Feast of Holy Cross Day (September 14). This holy day provides the Church with an opportunity to celebrate the cross itself as the instrument of salvation. The collect for the day recalls that Christ “was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world unto himself,” and prays that “we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him.”[2] It has been my experience that congregations tend to be unbalanced when it comes to their glorying in the mystery of their redemption which offers preachers an opportunity to expand the possibilities of the cross and thus, humanity’s salvation. I have experienced some churches that spend most their salvific exploration on Good Friday and the crucifixion. Even on high holy days, these congregations tend to revel in the mortification and humiliation of the cross. These folks like sing about the grave on Christmas (just Google “cradle and the cross” Christmas lyrics.) On the other hand, I have experienced as many communities that rarely glory in the mystery of the cross because “it makes everyone feel bad.” In these congregations, Good Friday services were sparsely attended and during the few sermons that dealt with the topic, everyone squirmed uneasily in their seats, anxious for it to be over so that brunch plans could begin. Understanding where your community resides will help you determine the preaching path forward that might expand their approach to salvation.[3]

Holy Cross Day provides an opportunity to celebrate Christ’s redeeming death on a cross. One might ask if it is more honest to the Gospel message to balance the agony of the cross with the ultimate outcome–the resurrection of the One crucified for the salvation of all the world (v. 17.) To accomplish this task, the preacher might benefit from theologian Gerard Sloyan’s identification of the Johannine “double ‘upraising’ in crucifixion and resurrection” (8:28, 12:32, 34) throughout the book .[4]

For the church that inclines toward a more punitive atonement focused on Jesus’ death, they may need reminding that “God wills life and not death for all who believe in the only Son. That indeed is why God gave him (v. 16), not for the world’s condemnation but its salvation (v. 17) [emphasis mine].”[5] For the church that hesitates to acknowledge the cross, unpacking the true power of the cross during a feast day celebration, or perhaps more appropriately, in a small group teaching time, may deepen the faith by exploring the mystery of how a symbol of shameful systemic oppression was converted into a sign of hope and life.

This balancing act of the cross’ role in salvation is a perfect opportunity to draw out J.R.R. Tolkien’s brilliant description of the birth of Christ as the eucatastrophe of human history and the resurrection the eucatastrophe of the incarnation.[6] This imaginative phrasing of the paradox of salvation allows for a preacher to resist the trap of focusing solely on John’s sixteenth verse and instead, to invite the congregation to hold in tension both the crucifixion and the resurrection. To further emphasize the mysterious enigma of the cross on its feast day, singing the hymn “Lift high the cross” can highlight this that the cross is a sign of resurrection rather than one of death and shame, and that John’s Good News is that “once lifted on the glorious tree, as thou hast promised, [Christ will] draw the world to thee!”

[1] Brown Taylor, Barbara. “Entering the Dark Cloud of God” Festival of Homiletics. 25 May 2014, Central Lutheran, Minneapolis. Address.

[2] The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer, Oxford UP, 2007.

[3] I find that in one-on-one and small group settings, inviting people to tell their earliest memories of Church and how the cross was introduced to them as young children, adolescents or even adults provides for the beginnings of exegeting their current understanding of the cross. These stories can aid a skillful preacher in contextualizing sermons on atonement for their congregation.

[4] Sloyan, Gerard. “John” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, 1988, 46.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Oxford UP, 1947.

The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Annual Conference, Boundaries, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus Christ.