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by Trygve Johnson
Three weeks ago Friday I am walking from my study at the Kepple House towards Dimnett Chapel. My path moves south along a sidewalk that bends through the Pine Grove like a concrete river. I’m walking slow. My eyes are red. I am sad. Two days before a Hope student, Ruth, was found not breathing on campus. I’m on my way to chapel. To preach? What do you say? What what kind of faith can hold up to this severe loss? Where do I take my people?
These are the questions I am asking as I walk. Then I look up, and like Mary Magdalene, in this Otto Dix image, I see, high and lifted up, a steeple spiraling toward the light, and at the pinnacle, set against a marble sky, giving the appearance of suspension, as if defying the laws of gravity, a cross.
I must pass this cross ten times a day. But this morning I see it as if for the first time. I can’t take my bloody eyes off it. As I look I am reminded there is a connection between the grave news of Ruth and the good-news of God that this cross is inviting me to trust.
Here, in the pine grove, I am reminded that the cross of Christ is the only resource I can lean into right now. For the cross of Jesus is our only answer to the suffering of the world. As P.T. Forsyth once wrote: “The Cross of Christ, with its judgment-grace, its tragic love, its grievous glory, its severe salvation, and its ‘finished work,’ is God’s only self-justification in such a world.” (P.T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, 37)
For on the cross, we see there is no dimension of human life that God was not prepared to reach into and redeem. On the cross we see there is no suffering Christ failed to experience. The cross reminds us that even though we many not know what to say, there is still a place we can go to be found.
Like those in Dix’s image, we can go to the cross, looking to Jesus, the Son of God, who is one of us – fully human – and yet still divine, not confused, nor parted or divided in nature, in order that in his sole person – in his death and life – he might pioneer a new way so that all might live through him. Only in Jesus can humanity and divinity be recapitulated into a freedom of reconciliation between heaven and earth. Looking to the cross we see God’s narrow way for humanity’s saving hope.
For on a different Friday, at a place called Golgotha, something happened at the very foundation of the universe; something that is still pulling all things into the center of God’s circumference of salvation. Call it what you want – a cosmic redemption, an ontological healing, a metaphysical reconciliation, call it light over the darkness, or think of it as the Shire’s victorious triumph over the forces of Mordor, whatever allows you to imagine the largest and deepest experience of hope for the world. A hope accomplished once and for all, when “God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:20)
This is the faith I can trust this morning. The faith that on the cross, we see Jesus, lifted up, the power and the glory of the Word made flesh – the glory of a Father’s only Son full of grace and truth. We do not understand this glory or the power of God till we come to the cross. We don’t understand the mystery of our faith till we are lost enough to be found at the cross. We don’t know how to lead until we are led to the cross.
It is seeing the cross that allows us to know, as our defining reality, that no matter what – in life and in death – nothing shall ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the good news I see suspended over Hope College that Friday morning.
And maybe this vision is enough right now? It’s enough to know I don’t have to have the right words, or even answers. It’s enough to remember that pastoral leadership is less about leading others, than being led yourself, by the Spirit who takes us to a place where our grief, our questions, our doubts, our hurts can gather – at the cross of the Son – that we might wonder in awe at the gravity of the Father’s grace. The grace, which allows us to confess, along with the centurion, and all who believe in his name, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Amen.
Trygve Johnson is Dean of the Chapel at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. If you would like to listen to the sermon preached on that Friday morning, click here.