Friday, May 22, 2015
Under the sign of the cross. . .
Today we remember and given thanks for Emperor Constantine, Christian Ruler and Helena, Mother of Constantine. Constantine I served as Roman Emperor from A.D. 306 to 337. During his reign the persecution of Christians was forbidden by the Edict of Milan in 313, and ultimately the faith gained his full support. Constantine was not inattentive to the teaching of the faith and called for the Council of Nicaea in 325 to bring an end to the challenge to orthodox Christianity by the Arians. His mother, Helena (ca. 255-329) was a strong influence on her son’s life and she was one of the first Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Her visit led to the identification of many of the holy sites we acknowledge in Jerusalem and Bethlehem to this very day.
According to the tradition, while at war with Maxentios, Constantine had the vision of the Holy Cross and fighting under the sign of the Holy Cross, he won his battle. Though Constantine was not baptized until close to death, this was not an uncommon practice of the day, preferring a baptismal date which would preclude major sins that would defile the baptism.
It's an odd story, to say the least. Today we are hardly bothered by the idea of sins that would stain our baptismal new life. In fact, we expect it. We tend to see sins as our job and forgiveness as God’s. The pursuit of holiness is not a high priority on our daily lives. We Lutherans in particular are often seen as having an invisible piety – that is, we live relatively anonymously in the world with little to draw attention to our faith and lives in Christ. To live under the sign of the cross is not only to rejoice in what Christ has done for us but to endeavor by the power of the Spirit to live the new life baptism has imparted to us.
The world is looking for signs, that is surely true, and we live in an age that runs to every story of a boy who visits heaven to every other strange anomaly as perhaps proof of the divine. The sign, however is simply Christ. His death as the payment for our sins and His resurrection as the promise of our own resurrection to eternal life – this is what God has given us. As good as this is in theory, when life comes crashing down or guilt continues to shame us or we shudder from persecution for what we believe or we simply call evil good, there is a voice in us that continues to ask for something more than Christ crucified and risen, for a sign, any sign, that will bolster our believing and make faith less risky.
Constantine fought under the sign of the cross. Victory meant God was good, was on his side, and even an emperor knew enough to pay back a debt. Well, brothers and sisters, you fight under the sign of the cross, too. It is not a symbol but a sacrament, water and the word. You were crucified with Christ into His death and you were raised in Christ to His new life. That is your sign. That is my sign.
When you were placed over the water, when the sign of the cross was made on your forehead and heart, you were marked as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified, the Spirit was given you to break through the barriers of your heart and plant faith where doubt and fear once reigned supreme. In your every day life as husband or wife, parent or child, employer or employee, you fight the good fight of faith under this baptismal sign of the cross marked on you. You belong to Him. Your life right now is hidden in Christ and one day it will be revealed to the world that has rejected Him and in front of them God will lead you to the heavenly place prepared for You.
Until Christ comes again to finish His new creation, you conquer under the sign of the cross. You live successfully by living faithfully. Your piety is repentance lived out within the boundaries of the church, where you confess your sins, where you receive absolution, where you recall your baptism, and where you feast upon Christ’s flesh and blood. Would that we took this more seriously. For then we would honor our baptism with a bit more effort at holiness than our usual half-hearted attempts to refrain from sin.
Now don’t get me wrong – your confidence does not lie in your life of holiness and it should not ever. But if we fight the flesh, if we fight the world, and if we fight the devil with the sign of the cross, we have the power in Christ to do better than we have done at manifesting the new life Christ has imparted to us. And God has good purpose in seeing us live the new lives of self-control, of holiness, and of obedience. For He has placed us as His people to be signs to the world of His grace, mercy, and power. Where we live out our lives in repentance, clinging to Christ and Him crucified, and living by the Spirit the new life of our baptism, God is at work showing the world His gracious character through us.
The sign of the cross is on you. The Spirit of Christ is in you. You are in Christ a new creation. Take up the sign and show it to the world. Live not in fear of your enemies but in confidence of Christ by the Spirit. Cast off the works of your old life and live your new life in Christ. Live not in the darkness of yesterday but in the light of the eternal tomorrow. And then, brothers and sisters, whatever happens to you, you will conquer. Amen.