Sunday Sermon by Rev. J. Michael Solberg at The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C. on January 17, 2016 at the 10:00 a.m. Service.

There is only an audio recording of this service. We are looking for volunteers to help us video tape Sunday morning services and special events.

“MLK and the Real Meaning of the Cross”
(Romans 12:19-21)

            And I begin with a second reading for today, from the letter of 1 John…

“Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.” “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.”

Today I begin a series of sermons in which Bromleigh and I are going to talk about some ideas and convictions that undergird our understanding of the Christian faith.  We are calling this our “Roots and Wings” series, because of that line that says “there are two lasting gifts we can give our children, one is roots, the other wings.”  We want to dig deep into the faith and examine our roots, so that all of us can be set free to know the depth of God’s love and live with the wings of faith by embodying God’s love in our everyday lives.

So, these sermons are meant to dig into our roots, and give you wings.  They are, in a sense, meant to make you better able to hear what we try to say at other times, why we interpret the Bible the way we do, why we place our priorities here rather than there.  If you understand and can appreciate the roots, you’ll get more out of everything we do here in church, and, although it sounds cheesy, fly with your faith.

Let me say also that there will be in these sermons a heavy element of addressing questions we know many of you have about the Christian faith.  Is the Bible true?  What is forgiveness really all about, and how can I forgive?  What about suffering, justice, and the riddle of inequality?  What is “salvation” anyway, and what does it actually mean to have ‘faith?”

I start today with something that is clearly at the heart of our faith: the cross.  It is the universal symbol of Christianity, something we talk about and sing about and see practically everywhere.  But what does it mean?  What is the cross actually all about?  The truth is that cross has acquired many meanings through the 2000 year history of Christianity, and many of them aren’t very helpful.  So I want to dig down to the roots today and give you my understanding of what the cross is essentially all about.  And, because Friday was the 87th anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and this is his holiday weekend, I am going to do this by talking about what King believed was the real meaning of the cross.

King, of course, is known as the great Civil Rights leader – the man who did more than anyone to lead America toward becoming more true to its proper convictions and its constitution by assuring full civil rights for black Americans.  It is wonderful that we have a national holiday dedicated to this man.  But in addition to being a great American, King was first and foremost a follower of Christ, and an extraordinary theologian.  He himself said that what he did and the way he did it made no sense apart from his commitment to Jesus Christ.

How did King understand the basic message of Christianity, the basic message of the cross?  I can put this in three points:

  1. First, King believed that Jesus’ primary goal was to bring about what he called “the brotherhood of man.” Jesus’ goal was that everyone would be committed to love/respect/justice for all humanity.  King was not interested only in civil rights for black people, King wanted “the brotherhood of man” among all people.  He believed that through Jesus, the changing of human hearts was possible, and that love/respect/justice among all people was possible – at least to a vastly greater degree than we see in the world.
  2. Second, King believed that Jesus could do this for humanity because he paved the way of real peace, love and forgiveness. Salvation, according to King, is not getting yourself into heaven by accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, but salvation is taking up the life of discipleship, living in the way of Jesus.
  3. And, now third, building on the first two, King believed that salvation, taking up the life of discipleship, means many things, but the hardest thing, where we are most seriously tempted to take another path, is when Jesus calls us to be true to the cross – to be true, that is, to the path of non-violence. Only in embodying the same love and forgiveness that Jesus embodied on the cross can we truly live into the brotherhood of man that was at the center of Jesus’ life.

So to put all three points together, the basic meaning of the cross is that we have salvation when live to build the universal brotherhood of man and that necessarily includes a commitment to non-violence in all things.

To unpack this, I need to tell you more about King.  King’s commitment to non-violence came out most dramatically in his opposition to the war in Vietnam.  For many people in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement was primarily a tactic.  They examined different methods to achieve their goals, and decided that non-violence was going to be the most effective strategy.  That wasn’t true for King.  Non-violence was for him an essential element of the movement, because it was an essential element of his understanding of Jesus.  King criticized people in the movement like Robert Williams who advocated armed self-defense against violence by whites.  In 1967, when King publicly and passionately condemned the war in Vietnam, his best friends and closest advisors told him he was making a tactical mistake, that he was hurting the cause of Civil Rights.

Quoting these people, King said: “’Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?’ ‘Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’ ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say. ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,’ they ask? And when I hear them,” King continued, “though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

In 1967 King said: I “have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I’m speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?”

King didn’t oppose the Vietnam War because he opposed the Vietnam war.  He opposed the Vietnam War because he opposed war.  And he opposed war because the salvation brought by Jesus was the salvation of a “brotherhood of man” which requires us to love and forgive even our enemies.

In my view, sadly, most people couldn’t accept this message from King.  Beginning in 1967, when King began to be more public with the broader implications of his commitment to Christ, King became more and more unpopular.  On April 4, 1967, he expressed many of these convictions in a speech at Riverside Church in New York City, a church related to the UCC, by the way.  The next day, 168 major newspapers denounced him.  Lyndon Johnson soon disinvited him to White House.  Life magazine accused him of betraying his relevance to the nation.  Through 1967 and 1968, his public support was steadily falling, and when he was killed on April 4, 1968, his public approval rating was down to only 30%.  We tend to forget that because of his Christ-centered commitment to non-violence, King wasn’t a hero to most when he was killed.

King was quick to acknowledge that he did not, and no one should, come to these convictions easily.  I think it is pretty clear that King intimately knew the suffering of humanity, how common it is for us to inflict harm upon each other.  He sat with the families of people killed in non-violent protests.  He himself was beaten and abused.  He knew that governments in far off lands used their power to oppress their people.  One should not lightly take this path.

But then why?  Why should we love our enemies?

In a sermon published in 1963, King laid out several good pragmatic reasons for following the way of Jesus – in many cases he agreed with others: it is an effective way to get what you want.  But King went on to say:

“Let us move now from the practical How? to the theoretical Why?: Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says ‘Love your enemies,’ he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

But, disciple of Jesus he always ways, King went on to say:

“We must hasten to say that these are not the ultimate reasons why we should love our enemies. An even more basic reason why we are commanded to love is expressed explicitly in Jesus’ words, ‘Love your enemies . . . that ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven.’ We are called to this difficult task in order to realize a unique relationship with God. We are potential sons of God. Through love that potentiality becomes actuality. We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of his holiness.”  A truly stunning statement: “We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of his holiness.”

Loving all people, enemies, included, which is for King the real meaning of the cross, is how we can we know God and experience the beauty of his holiness.  Roots and wings.

King takes his message further, though, because love doesn’t just mean non-violence – it means being pro-humanity – all of humanity.  King says:

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

And I can do no better than to continue to quote King, and forgive me if I take on something of his rhythm:

“This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing — embracing and unconditional – love for all mankind. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate — ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.’ ‘If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.’ Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.”

That is the cross, my brothers and sisters in Christ, according the man whose life, whose ministry, whose message we celebrate this day.  And how stunning, and ironic, it is that we have a national holiday to celebrate this man.  But I believe it is a sign that God is working, God is longing, God is maneuvering, to hold up this man and the true meaning of the cross – to give all we are to love our enemy, our brother, our sister, our neighbor, to love all of humankind, and make that transform the world.  In the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.