We had a scare one week at The Villages Charter Schools. The threat of a gunman put the schools on immediate lock down. Law enforcement swarmed the area, helicopters zipped by overhead, my wife, Jill Beck and I frantically texted our children, trying to find out if they were okay. While in this case, the incident was merely a threat, and no one was hurt, it shook us up quite a bit. What I appreciated about that moment of crisis, was the way our local churches responded and immediately became shelters. Our folks, genuinely concerned people of the cross, were on standby to offer comfort and love. I realized that in every ground zero of the epic failures of humanity, there is always a cross.
This week I’m reflecting on John 3, the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, from which emerges John 3:16-17, the most known and least contextualized passage in the Bible. There Jesus connects his own crucifixion with the bronze serpent in the wilderness from Numbers 21. The people grew impatient in the wilderness, grumbled against God, and a tragedy arose, poisonous snakes everywhere! Moses lifts the bronze serpent, the very image of their rebellion, and the power of the poison flowing through their veins is neutralized. Just as when we look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, the poison of sin is rendered powerless, and we are set free to live again. Crosses and poisonous snakes. Jesus takes images of failure, death, rebellion, and brokenness and transforms them into images of hope and healing.
I was reminded of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the “Ground Zero Cross.” The cross that emerged from the carnage of that tragedy became a symbol of consolation and strength, and is now preserved in the museum there.
Jesus Brings Hope in Tragedy
A couple weeks ago another devastating shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, ironically on Ash Wednesday. Once again, the dominating symbol that has arose from the ground zero of this tragedy? A cross… of course. This time, an ashy cross on the forehead of a woman holding a fellow sufferer.
Many of you may have seen this picture in the news and media over the past weeks. It became fodder for local media and local clergy. One of the things I didn’t appreciate, was how this portrait of two humans was just labeled merely an “image” to symbolize what was happening. Many people dehumanized this moment, reducing these two people of sacred value and great worth, to an image for us to preach sermons about.
What I see here first, is two human beings in a moment of great pain. I see the vulnerability of these two women, frozen in time, and the greatest semiotic power lies in just that truth. In every tragedy there are always very real people, experiencing very real pain, and leaning into each other for strength.
Once we have acknowledged that, we can see the sign of the cross rightly. The ashy cross, a symbol of our own mortality, and simultaneously our greatest symbol of hope, comes to its greatest fulfillment in the flesh of real Christians. What a beautiful embodiment of the church this woman is being in this moment. The frail, shaky, ambiguous, flesh and blood organism of real people like her. This is a moment of withness as witness, a call to genuinely be with each other, in our greatest moments of pain.
Living as People of the Cross
This woman, marked with sign of the cross, is a microcosm of the larger church, doing exactly what the church is called to do in these times, offer authentic presence, withness, and tears. It is our vulnerable, non-violent, non-reactionary withness, that makes the cross not simply a symbol to be interpreted, but a cruciform life that is lived. The ashy cross is an outward symbol of an inward grace, two human beings embracing each other becoming the enfleshment of consolation, hope, and healing.
Much like the Ground Zero Cross is monumentalized in a museum today, so this moment of vulnerable love will be memorialized throughout history, and there prominently displayed in the ashes… the cross. In every ground zero, people of the cross will always be on standby.
In a time when our epic human failures seem so pronounced, a world where one can access assault rifles as easily as water guns, and mental health care systems seem fragmented and ineffective. In a nation torn apart by violence, where our children go to school every day under the shadow of a very real threat of death by mass shooting. In a generation where those of us who have been around for a while can no longer even dream of a world where we “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isa. 2:4). We need to remember the first “ground zero cross.” On a hill called the skull, we beat, mutilated, and executed the Lord of life. The life of heaven came to earth and we gave him hell.
Embodying God’s Love
The cross shows us the great lengths God goes to save us from ourselves. There, on that ground zero, where corrupt imperial and bankrupt religious powers colluded to answer love with violence, God takes all the powers of evil, sin, and death, into his own body and breaks their power. The cross shows us God’s answer to a world of swords, spears, and AR-15’s. It is the vulnerable self-giving of non-violent subversion. It is ultimate withness. It is solidarity in our moments of deepest failure and pain. As followers of Jesus, we are people of the cross. Not people who worship a lifeless image, but people who embody a cruciform life.
Every time buildings are falling from the sky, Christians will be running in to save others. Every time people’s hearts are at war, expressing their dominance with bullets and missile tips, people of the cross will be there bandaging wounds. Every time there are devastating plagues, followers of Jesus will be there, touching and healing the sick. Every time children are massacred in the spaces where they come to learn, unnamed, cross-marked women will be holding the sufferers in their moments of deepest anguish. Every time there are serpents and crosses, we will turn images of despair into icons of hope.
Let the church hear the call to leave behind our buildings and embody God’s love in the very real ground zeros all around us. Let us remember the cross is more than an image hanging on the wall of our country clubs, but a cruciform life to be lived in the greatest moments of anguish. Let us come together as one voice and speak truth to the powers of corruption at the highest levels of our hierarchies.
May we all follow the bold example of this woman, to be people of the cross, who offer each other authentic withness, death-defying love, and empathetic tears. Maybe in the solidarity of those ground zeroes, together, we can awaken to God’s resurrection dream and unleash a flourishing creativity that will remake the world.
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.