daily biblical sermons

Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Thursday, the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, September 14, 2017
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 77, Philippians 2:6-11, John 3:13-17

Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted


"‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.' For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:14-16).

Today is the anniversary of the dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on September 14, 335. It is also the celebration of the recovery of the true cross in 629 from the Persians, who had captured it in 614. We continue to celebrate this day because of the great importance of the cross of Jesus Christ for the salvation of all who believe in him.

Today's gospel reading contains Jesus' words about his life-giving death on the cross for all who believe in him. He compares his being lifted up on the cross to Moses lifting up a bronze serpent in the desert so that all who looked at it might recover from their snakebites and live (Numbers 21:8). In the same way, Jesus says, whoever believes in him, when he is lifted up on the cross, will have eternal life.

Why does Jesus' being lifted up on the cross give eternal life to all who look upon him with faith? It is not the looking up or the believing in him that gives us eternal life but rather it is his being lifted up that reconciles us with God and enables God to declare us righteous. Our looking at him with faith is merely our acceptance of God's justifying decree. The real cause for our being saved from our sins and declared righteous by God is Christ's suffering our punishment for our sins for us when he was lifted up on the cross.

We had been condemned in justice by a just God for our sins. But God is not only a just God. He is also a merciful and loving God. So he devised a plan whereby he could remain all just but also be all merciful towards us and not violate his justice in doing so. Having his Son lifted up on the cross was his plan. So God sent his only Son as our stand-in, our proxy, to suffer for us what we should suffer in just punishment for our sins. Once this was done, God could justly forgive our sins and send us away acquitted and justified, that is, declared just and righteous in his sight, when we look up at his Son on the cross and put our faith in him.

Our debt for our sins that alienated us from God has been paid by Christ on the cross, and when we put our faith in him, God credits to our account the reparation he made for our sins on the cross. So we are pronounced by God acquitted and are declared to be righteous. This is why Christ had to be lifted up on the cross, and this is why whoever believes in him has eternal life. He was lifted up to make up for, to atone for our sins, and when we look up at him on the cross and believe in him, God counts our debt of punishment that we owed him for our sins as paid, and we receive the gift of eternal life. God then and there declares us righteous.

The next verse is: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). God the Father takes the initiative and gives up his own Son to die on the cross to atone for our sins. Why does he do this? He does this so that "whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

Were it not for Christ's death on the cross, we would all perish, since we could not atone for our own sins. God therefore sent his only Son to atone for them. Our part is to accept this atonement by putting our faith in him and in his atoning work on the cross.

So it is our faith that enables Christ's atoning death to be personally credited to us as though we ourselves had died in reparation for our own sins. Our faith enables Christ's death to be counted as paying our debt for our sins. This being done, we are justified, that is, declared righteous by God.

So it is our faith that is the instrumental cause of our justification, but it is Christ's death that is the meritorious cause of our justification. Our own works do not have anything to do with our justification, as St. Paul constantly tells us. He says, "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose" (Galatians 2:21). That is, it is not my own good works, as prescribed by the law of God, that justify me, but rather it is Christ's death, for if I can justify myself by my own good works, then "Christ died to no purpose" (Galatians 2:21).

But in fact Christ's death was not in vain, for it is what merited my justification. It was not my good works that merited my justification, for we "know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified" (Galatians 2:16). Indeed, "no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law" (Romans 3:20). St. Paul's final conclusion is: "We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (Romans 3:28).

So we are justified by faith, not by our good works. Rather, our good works follow our justification. Good works are what a justified Christian does. Our justification motivates us to do good works, which cooperate with God's grace to cause our sanctification. But that which forgives us for our sins and declares and makes us righteous is not our good works, but it is Christ's death on the cross. His death, not my works, merit my justification. I am justified by faith, because my faith is my reception of the results of Christ's justifying death on the cross.

When we sin, we lose God's favor to some degree. If it is a grave sin - a mortal sin - we fall out of his favor and lose our justification. If we do not repent and seek to be justified again, we will lose our final salvation. So our evil works can destroy our justification and our ultimate salvation. But our good works keep us in God's favor and love and help us to grow daily in sanctification.

We will be happy if we remain in God's love by avoiding sin and doing good. But if we lose God's favor by sin and become alienated from him, we need to stop sinning, repent, renounce our sin, and put our faith in Christ again so that the merits of his death on the cross can once again make just and complete reparation for our sins and enable God to once again justify us, that is, declare us righteous by our faith and repentance, because of Christ's atoning death on the cross for our sins.

So once again it is Christ's death on the cross that pays our debt with God, because of our sins, because in his death by slow, painful crucifixion he suffers our just punishment for our sins.

Our repentance and reconciliation with God should be done within the sacrament of reconciliation (John 20:22-23), which mediates to us the merits of Christ's atoning death on the cross to pay for our sins.

So today we especially honor Christ's being lifted up on the cross for our justification and salvation. Today we look upon Christ lifted up above the earth for our salvation, and we come to him, remembering that he said, "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself" (John 12:32 NKJV).


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