Sermon: “The Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (July 3, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14)
July 3, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Have you ever been at a lunch or social gathering and been trapped in a conversation with someone who will not stop boasting?  They may be boasting about their job, their exercise routine, their new boat or car, or their amazing vacation trip to Europe—as if Facebook posts weren’t enough.

Sometimes this takes the form of what a friend of mine calls “parent poker” in which parents try to “one up” each other when it comes to their kids.  “Your kid plays soccer?  That’s cool, my kid plays on a travel team.”  “Nice—my kid plays for their high school team—varsity, not JV.”  “My kid played for their high school team but now plays in college—Division 1, not D-2 or D-3.”  “Excellent, my kid plays for the national team—looking forward to the next World Cup.”  “Well…my kid invented soccer”—on and on it goes.

“Parent poker” of course can also revolve around areas like grades or SAT scores or the college to which they were admitted.  Whenever my friend finds herself enmeshed in one of these conversations she goes the other way and will make a comment like, “Your son is valedictorian?  My son spent the weekend in jail for his second DUI” or “That’s great about your daughter being admitted to an Ivy League school—my daughter was admitted to rehab.”  This brings the game of “parent poker” to an abrupt end.  She takes great pleasure in the palpably awkward silence that invariably follows—“cricket…cricket…cricket.”

People tend to boast about things with which they are obsessed—and there are many obsessions besides our kids from which to choose.  Some are obsessed with money.  In 1959 Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, wrote a hit song called “Money (That’s What I Want).”  It was originally sung by Barrett Strong in 1959 and was later covered by The Beatles 1963, and my favorite version is the 1979 cover by The Flying Lizards, but I digress.  Berry Gordy gets right to the point:

The best things in life are free
But you can give them to the birds and bees
I need money
That’s what I want, that’s what I want, that’s what I want

Many people are obsessed with sex, as professor Jessica Spector writes in her book:

The sex industry is an enormous economic force in the United States…the American pornography industry grosses more per year than the American music and mainstream movie industries combined…Estimates of the amount of money spent per day on prostitution in the United States range upward of $40 million (Prostitution and Pornography: Philosophical Debate about the Sex Industry, 2).

People will go to great lengths—fifty shades of whatever—in their never-ending pursuit of sexual pleasure.

Still others are obsessed with sports, and plan their entire life around it—as the popular T-shirts and bumper stickers put it, “Football is life…the rest is just details.”

We Americans have a massive obsession with celebrities.  How are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (I mean “Brangelina”) doing with all their kids?  What is Taylor Swift’s (I mean “T-Swizzle’s”) net worth?  Will Beyonce and Jay-Z work out their marital issues?

Some people become obsessed with something fictional, like Star Trek.  Some of you may remember the evil Klingons, who had their own language.  In 2010 The Huffington Post featured an online article about a Star Trek fanatic, or “Trekkie”, named d’Armond Speers who only spoke Klingon to his son for the first three years of his life (I am not making this up):

Speers says that he spent the first few years of his son’s life speaking to him in the invented language of the alien race featured in the series Star Trek…  Meanwhile, Speers’ wife continued to address the child in English…“Alec very rarely spoke back to me in Klingon,” d’Armond said, “although when he did, his pronunciation was excellent and he never confused English words with Klingon words.”

The article continues:

Eventually, Speers stopped using Klingon to communicate with his son, saying that his son “stopped listening to me when I spoke in Klingon” and “it was clear that he didn’t enjoy it”… His son, now in high school, does not speak any Klingon (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/19/darmond-speers-dad-spoke_n_363477.html).

What about you?  What do you boast about?  What are your obsessions?

In today’s reading from his letter to the Galatians the Apostle Paul reveals what he boasts about, the one thing with which he is obsessed: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

One of the leading scholars and pastors of the Church of England in the twentieth century was the late John Stott.  Throughout his ministry he, like Paul, remained focused on the cross of Christ.  His 1986 classic, The Cross of Christ, in my opinion is one of the most important theological books ever written.  Late in his life he wrote a short book called Evangelical Truth (1999), in which he wrote the following about the Greek verb translated “boast” in Galatians 6:14—

There is no exact equivalent in English, or I believe in many other languages, to the Greek verb kauchaomai.  It may be translated “to boast in,” to “glory in,” “to take pride in,” “to revel in,” even “to live for.”  In a word, our kauchema is our obsession.  It engrosses our attention, it fills our horizons, it dominates our mind.  For Paul this was the cross.  The cross of Christ was the center of his faith, of his life and of his ministry” (67).

And yet, this was not always the case with Paul.  Prior to his encounter of the Risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus, Paul had been boastful about his standing as a Pharisee, as he reveals in his Letter to the Philippians: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  But then he writes, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Philippians 3:4-7).

Paul’s obsession had been destroying the Christian Church.  As he wrote to Timothy, he had been “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13), who as we read in the Book of Acts approved of the stoning to death of Stephen (Acts 8:1) and was “still breathing threats an murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1) as he embarked on his journey to Damascus to persecute the Christians there.

But when Paul encountered Risen Jesus, he experienced the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God, and that changed everything.  His new reason for boasting had nothing at all to do with his distinguished career as a Pharisee, and his obsession shifted to “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul had experienced the transforming love of God personally and individually, as he put it earlier in his Letter to the Galatians—“the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

In fact, in light of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross to atone for the sin of the whole world, Paul writes, “Then what becomes of boasting?  It is excluded” (Romans 3:27).

All this is captured in the first two verses of Isaac Watts’ brilliant hymn:

When I survey the wondrous cross
Where the young Prince of Glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the cross of Christ my God
All the vain things that charm me most
I sacrifice them to his blood
(Hymn 474 in The Hymnal 1982).

Last week the retired bishop of South Carolina, the Right Reverend Edward L. Salmon, Jr. passed away.  Bishop Salmon ordained me to the priesthood fourteen years ago.  He was someone who showed me, and many, many others, what it looked like to be someone who only boasted about the cross of Christ.  His sermons invariably pointed back to the cross of Christ, and his demeanor invariably mirrored the compassion of Christ.

I had several lunches with him over the years, the first when I was a lowly aspirant in the ordination process, and he treated me and my wife Steph to lunch in downtown Charleston.  After I graduated from Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary in Wisconsin in 2002 he took Steph and me to lunch and then drove us to the Milwaukee Airport where he bought us Starbucks coffee and joked with us as we awaited to board our flight back to South Carolina.

During every lunch I had with him, Bishop Salmon never boasted about himself, ever—never boasted about his long distinguished career or his numerous degrees or his high standing in the Anglican Communion.  Instead, he would ask me questions about my life, and listen, really listen—sometimes tilting his head and squinting his eyes as he did so.  Only then would he gently offer gems of sagely advice, the most important of which I remember is this: “Dave, keep preaching Christ crucified, just like the Apostle Paul did, keep preaching Christ crucified.”

Christ crucified, “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”—that is the heart of the gospel.  The same Jesus Christ who died for the Apostle Paul died for you.  The same Jesus Christ who gave grace, mercy, and forgiveness to the Apostle Paul offers it to you—regardless of your boasting, regardless of your obsessions.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Creator and Redeemer of the World, never boasted about who he was, never boasted about what he did.  Instead, you could say his obsession was saving you, to the point that he died to do it.

In other words, in his death on the cross Jesus loved you and gave himself for you.

“Then what becomes of boasting?  It is excluded”—in the light of “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” all boasting is ultimately silenced, all obsessions ultimately rendered powerless.

So how can we respond?  I’ll close with these familiar words:

So I’ll cling to the old rugged cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged cross
And exchange it someday for a crown
(From “The Old Rugged Cross” by George Bennard).

Amen.