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Sermon: Cathedral Eucharist - 14 September 2014

Sunday 14th September 2014
Cathedral Eucharist
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Christ claims you for his own. Receive the sign of the Cross.
Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.

Those are words that will be addressed most particularly to Imogen Grace today as her parents, Pete and Jo, and her godparents present her for baptism. One of the integral parts of baptism is the Signing with the Cross: ‘‘Christ claims you for his own. Receive the sign of the Cross’. On Imogen’s head there will be, like on yours and mine, an invisible and yet indelible sign that she carries with her always.

So what does that sign mean? The cross, like baptism, is a multi-layered sign: it’s about identity, who I am; about identification, being identified as a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s also, literally, a matter of life and death, the cross, an instrument of painful death, from which life eternal life springs, and baptism a death to sin to be raised to new life in Jesus Christ. So the signing of the cross in baptism is a powerful action, not least on this Holy Cross Day.

The sign of the Cross was not always a given in Christian identity. The revulsion around the cross and crucifixion - the Romans’ very worst means of execution - meant that the very earliest Christians did not visually identify themselves with the sign of the cross. In the earliest days a fish symbol was used, derived from a mnemonic ‘Ichthus’ standing for ‘Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour’. That sign has been revived in recent times, largely on the back of people’s cars. The first two Greek letters of the word Christ, chi, looking like a ‘X’, and rho, like a ‘P’, were emblazoned on the coins and banners of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, and can be seen today carved around this Cathedral, not least as you enter the nave from the west end.

Very recently, and shockingly, a new sign has entered the consciousness of what identifies Christians, and that is the Arabic letter ‘nun’. It is used by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to identify Christian homes. That sign is a sign of death to Christian populations, some being crucified like our Lord, and theirs, and others being subjected to other brutal forms of killing. ‘Nun’ is the first letter of the word Nazarene, that is to say the community of the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Pinned to the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified were the words, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. When we talk about identifying ourselves with Jesus Christ we should never underestimate the cost of it, and the ultimate cost that others in our world bear today.

The cross is always a sign of contradiction for Christians: it speaks of death and of shame; and yet, it is the sign of hope and salvation; it is ‘an instrument of painful death’; and yet, it is, ‘for us the means of life and peace’; it is cruel, cold, hard wood; and yet it is a throne of glory. Writing in the fourth century St. Cyril of Alexandria captures this contradiction beautifully as he gazes upon Christ on the cross with us, saying, "You see him crucified and you call him King. You believe that he who bears scoffing and suffering will reach divine glory" (Comment on Luke, Homily 153).

Christian discipleship begins with the cross, expressed in the Signing of the Cross at Baptism. Our readings today express and testify to Jesus Christ fully God and fully human, the one who humbled himself out of love and obedience to the Father even to the point of death, ‘death on a cross’ (Philippians 2.8). St Paul describes in his letter to the Philippians, our second reading, how this lowest point is the starting point of his glorification, such that, ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bend’ (Philippians 2.10): ‘You see him crucified and you call him King’.

Being identified with Jesus Christ, and with his Body, the Church, throughout the world, is what baptism is all about. It’s not just about wearing a cross as jewellery or an accessory, it is about being shaped every day hearing Jesus’ call, ‘Take up your cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9.23). The way each one of us lives out that calling will be as different as each one of us is. Some will be able to be generous givers; others will challenge and provoke us to love; yet others will encourage us and give us hope; others will sing God’s praises exquisitely – wouldn’t it be lovely to see Imogen in a few years singing with the girls of our choir? Some will give their lives in the service of this way of life.

As Imogen takes up her cross, we might all hear St Paul’s words to Timothy, ‘Take hold of the life that really is life’ (1 Timothy 6.19b). I pray that Imogen, and each one of us, will walk the way of the cross, finding it none other than the way of life and peace, that we may never be ashamed of the Cross and all it represents and that we may be identified in Christ and find our true identity in him.