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Keynote Sermon

Via de Cristo Annual Meeting

July 25, 1996

Dallas, Texas

Preacher: (Rev.) C. Peter Setzer, D.D.

TEXT: MARK 15:22, 24, 27, 30 & 32: "Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of the skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.... 'Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross so that we may see and believe.' Those who were crucified with him also taunted him."

"Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord, Jesus Christ." Amen. That's the biblical, universal greeting. Now the more colorful one, "DE COLORES!" ("De Colores," the congregation responded). Again, with feeling! DE COLORES! (Loud response). Ah, that moves my spirit! What a joy to be here! Welcome to all of you, delegates from many different states, visitors from many different parts of the country, our hosts from Texas, thank you for coming! And my own sister, I haven't seen in a year. What a joy to be with her!

I have a special reason for loving this state of Texas and I feel like I'm again on holy ground. Back in 1958, I worked on a ranch about 30 miles north of here, owned by Ed Marcus, Vice President of the Nieman-Marcus store in Dallas. I was planning to become a ranch veterinarian at that time. I was getting good experience there. The next summer, I got a job on Happy Shahan's 35,000-acre spread north of Bracketteville, Texas. There I worked as a cowpuncher for the summer. It was while working on that ranch that I received the Call to make a major shift in my career and go into the ministry (uproarious laughter). It had nothing to do with the Texas weather, I loved that job! There was this cloud in the sky that formed three letters, G P C. I said, "Lord, Go Punch Cattle, that's exactly what I'm doing!" And, I got the word, "No, it means Go Preach Christ!" Well, not really. I borrowed that from another story I heard about someone who was having trouble figuring out God's signs. He saw the GPC letters in the clouds, and decided that they meant "Go preach Christ." So he went to seminary. No one else thought he belonged there, but he did. After graduating, he went to his first church, for his first sermon. He stood up in the pulpit and explained why he had become a preacher. Then, he proceeded to preach in a way that put everyone to sleep. When it was over and worshippers were walking out the front door, one of the wonderfully honest lay folk said, "Pastor, I'm afraid you made a mistake. That GPC didn't stand for 'Go preach Christ,' but 'Go Plow Corn!'"

Well, what happened on the Shahan ranch was a longer story, but I was convinced that God told me to leave my career plans behind; he had other plans for me, go enter the Gospel ministry. So anytime I get back on Texas soil, I feel like I'm on holy ground. Actually, ALL of us are called to the Gospel ministry. Think for a moment WHO we are: "Via de Christo." Do you know how we got that name? Years ago, we ran into copyright problems. Roman Catholic leaders were worried that we were using the name of Cursillo and allowing non-Lutherans to participate. A broad ecumenical invitation was important to us. Even though we used the Cursillo method; we were bound by prior ecumenical agreement to limit participants to our own denomination. Not wanting to operate with the limitation, we made the name change to "VIA DE CRISTO." It's Spanish - a reminder of our origins in Cursillo. It means: "The WAY of Christ!"

"THE WAY:" Long before Christians were called "Christians," they were called, "People of THE WAY." Six times we find it in the Book of Acts, in connection with the life of St. Paul. Before his dramatic conversion experience on the Road to Damascus, he had gone to Damascus to find anyone "belonging to The Way, that he might arrest them, bind them and bring them to Jerusalem." I like that phrase: "People of The Way." It reminds me that Christianity is not just a system of beliefs to which we give intellectual assent; it is a whole way of life. It suggests that life is a JOURNEY, a pilgrimage; we are ON THE WAY somewhere. Going where? With Whom? Jesus said, "I am THE WAY,....the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me." The Way we are on is the way of Christ, and our destination is THE FATHER in Heaven. There may be other ways, and other destinations, to other "gods." But there is only ONE WAY to the Father in Heaven, and that Way is CHRIST. That is THE TRUTH. And in this WAY is found Eternal Life with the Father.

One of the most moving moments from our Annual Meeting last year at Augustana College took place in the context of our deliberations about the proposed revised Group Reunion Card. The proposed card was before us. I had printed it on green paper because green is the color of growing things and the group reunion is an aid to growing in Grace. Then Dr. Richard Dow stood and offered an additional interpretation. He said, "In Texas, where I am from, there are many people who carry what is called 'a green card.' They are from Mexico, or from countries farther south, and are working in the United States. To legally reside here they must get from the U.S. Immigration Service a Green Card. That gives them permission. It means, 'Legally we belong in this country, but this is not our TRUE HOME.'"

That is the case with us Christians. By virtue at our Baptism, this world in which we are living and working is where we belong for now. But in the deepest sense, this earth is not our true Home. Richard's story won immediate applause. The card would be GREEN! The story has stuck. We are people of THE WAY, PILGRIMS, traveling through, on our way to Heaven. And the Way we travel, the life we live, is Via de Cristo: "The Way of Christ." I wanted to spend a couple of minutes thinking about the name of this movement because it relates to the THEME selected for this Annual Meeting. A theme you'll hear repeated over and over in the next three days. "LIFT HIGH THE CROSS!" This worship service began with a grand processional, a joyful faith parade, preceded by the Crucifer, bearing the processional CROSS. Literally, he "LIFTS HIGH THE CROSS" on the end of a long pole, so we can all see and be lifted by it. We sing, "Lift high the cross, the love of God proclaim, till all the world adore His sacred name."

The cross is such an important symbol for us, because it describes what kind of CHRIST we have. The Way of Christ...is the way of the CROSS! We follow the Cross-bearing Christ! We follow the Cross-conquering Christ! As St. Paul says, the Christ we proclaim is Christ crucified and resurrected. The CROSS is THE INCREDIBLE WAY that Jesus made to get us sinners to the Holy Father. There was no other way to get there! The three communion service sermons to follow daily carry out the full range of this theme. Tomorrow the sermon title: "The cross -- borne" (carried), a Lent message; Saturday the sermon title: "The cross -- conquered," an Easter message; Sunday, our climactic service: "The cross -- Proclaimed!" a Pentecost message!

It is instructive to note that in the Apostles' Creed we say every Sunday, there is no mention of the teachings of Jesus, his famous parables, or his amazing miracles. That was not an over-sight. The omission was intentional. These were important parts of his ministry, but not the CRUCIAL part. The crucial part, that makes all the difference, that redeems our life from destruction and opens to us the gates of everlasting life is this part: "He suffered under Pontius Pilate; he was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again!"

That cross-event is the wondrous act of God that turned the world upside down, saved the human race and brought the Church into being. The cross-event creates faith in each of us. It is the only power on earth strong enough to transform the sinful human heart and render it righteous before a holy God. Because of Christ's resurrection, we walk not alone on the pilgrim Way. No longer are we helpless before the demonic powers that would drive us from God. We walk with Christ Himself. On the confusing, difficult, dangerous way he is our Guide, our Protector, our Comforter. Christ says, "Don't be afraid; just stick close and I'll get you there." We stick close to Christ by "Lifting high the Cross!" The cross reminds us not only what God has done for us, but also who we are, where we are going, how we're getting there, and that Christ is with us, loving us along every step of the way!

The CROSS is the premier symbol of the Christian faith. Recently a research project was conducted all across the world to learn what SYMBOL was best known to the peoples of the world. Citizens in every country were shown many symbols, both religious and secular, to determine which had the most universal recognition. There was a symbol for every major religion and many others. Do you know which were the three most widely recognized symbols? The McDonald's arches came in first! The five rings of the Olympic games came in second. The cross of Christ came in third!

Thank God, at least the cross came in THIRD, but how tragic, that in this three-way race, McDonald's won the gold! It would take a pretty desperate man to say he was "saved by a hamburger!" Our members may eat at McDonald's, but they worship at church, and over every altar is a CROSS. We lift it high in our worship.

At St. Mark's, where I serve, we have a tall bell tower beside the sanctuary, 85 feet tall. Way up on the tip top of that tower, there stands a silver cross, another 12 or 15 feet. Every Easter morning, we hold our sunrise service at the foot of that tower. It has been for me a glorious sight, sitting there on the lawn, hearing again the Easter message, and looking up there at the cross, called "The Resurrection Cross." It has metal rays of light streaming forth from each corner formed by the intersection of the vertical and horizontal bars. Christians erect crosses on church towers and steeples all over the world because it points us to what God has done, who we are, and where we're going. In Easter faith, we sing, "In the Cross of Christ I glory, TOWERING O'ER THE WRECKS of time." Time goes by. Generations are born and die. Kingdoms of this world rise and fall. But the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ, shall reign forever and ever!

The cross must have a prominent place in Via de Cristo, if we are to be faithful to our Lord. I ask each of you to take a few minutes now to reflect on this question:

"What part does the CROSS play in the Via de Cristo weekend?"

"How is it used as a visual?"

"How is attention drawn to it?"

"How is it integrated into the messages of the weekend?"

"What did it mean to you when you made your first weekend?"

Please pair up with someone next to you (triads are OK to prevent someone being alone). Write down a list if you would, that you can turn in as you leave. Work together to create a list; name as many as you can, then spend some time reflecting on how they are used. (Ten minutes.)

Welcome back! I'm sure your discussion reminded you that the CROSS, as a visual object, has a prominent place in the weekend and in the fourth day community. The CROSS, as the main message, has a prominent place in the process of the weekend. Years ago, I remember hearing the story that took place on a battlefield of WWII. In a certain infantry platoon, there was a brash young soldier who quickly distinguished himself for his blunt put-downs of Christianity, and his belittling of the chaplain assigned to the unit. Yet he wore a cross around his neck with his dogtag. One day, they were in their trenches when enemy howitzers began lobbing shells their way. For the first time, this brash young soldier experienced real battle. He felt sheer terror. A shell burst near him, immediately killing his buddy. Suddenly panicked, he went running toward the foxhole where the chaplain was. Dodging enemy fire, he leaped down into the hole, grabbed his cross and shouted to the chaplain, "Chappy, quick, please, tell me how to make this thing work!"

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. Perhaps not, but carrying a cross around one's neck does not guarantee that the wearer knows how it works, or is effected by it at all. Madonna wears crosses, in defiance. She MOCKS the cross and flaunts the fact that it does not work for her. We can surround ourselves and our Via de Cristo weekends with crosses, but that does not guarantee that they will WORK upon us the transformation God intends. During his lifetime, Martin Luther wrote 54 large volumes to explain Holy Scripture and Christian theology. (That means he didn't spend a lot of time watching T.V.!) The most important thing he wrote were detailed, deep, profound explanations of the "The Theology of the Cross." He contrasts the Theology of the Cross with the Theology of GLORY."

The Theology of the Cross is the theology of the New Testament, most clearly explained by Paul. The Theology of GLORY is the theology of all other religions of the world, including the classic religions, new age religion. It defines the way people in general, automatically think about themselves and God. A few months back, I read in my city's newspaper, THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, about a man in Texas who was walking along the side of the highway. Suddenly, he was bitten on the ankle by a terribly poisonous coral snake. What did the Texan do? He grabbed that snake and bit off its head! Then he skinned it, and used the skin to make a tourniquet for his leg. He then calmly walked to the next town to the hospital emergency room where they gave him the needed anecdote. He's just fine! Reading about it, I thought, "Now that is TOUGH that defines Texans. I sure am glad we're having the annual meeting here in Dallas, because if I'm bit by a poisonous snake, I've got Texas pilgrims all around me who'll grab that sucker and bite off its head!

Now you know why Texans don't go to church. They don't need God! They aren't scared of the devil! Snakes run from them! The devil better run too! Whatever Christianity offers, they don't want any, because they can handle any trouble just fine all by themselves! They figure if God had done it right in the first place, and created Adam and Eve Texans, they'd still be running nude in the apple orchard. They'd have skinned alive that conniving serpent and nailed his hide to the tree right there in the middle of the Garden of Eden!

Now, I jest, of course. There are real Christians in Texas! Some of them are right here today making us feel welcome.....and safe! But this image of self-sufficiency and toughness, that I myself pursued half my lifetime is symptomatic of our basic human problem. OVERWEENING PRIDE. And when we pick a religion, naturally we want one that's going to make us look good, feel good, stroking our pride. We like the self-image of being an admirable example for others to follow. Known for being just and kind and loving and fearless, always helping rescue other people, all very humbly of course. We secretly admire our good works and imagine that Jesus himself must be standing around noticing, and smiling to himself, saying, "Now, that's a real Christian! He's on the church council of the Lutheran Church, goes to reunion group every week, worships regularly. If only all the others were like that too!"

But, of course, you and I know that this is a description of the Theology of Glory, where humans earn favor with God by their good works. According to this way of thinking, God's main job is to keep score and reward the good person in the end. The "glory" in the "Theology of Glory" is given to the religious human! This is a very appealing theology. Who doesn't yearn for GLORY! What do you think gets 10,000 athletes to the Olympics? What drives the dream team to excel - GLORY! Personal glory. Groups that preach that message don't have to advertise to fill their house of worship. People flock in. Every major religion of the world teaches it. Different forms, different doctrines, different rituals, but the same basic plot. They teach that our religious task in life is to climb up the ladder that reaches from earth to heaven. Each rung is another good deed. And our goal is to climb to the top before we die. Cheer us on! "We can do it!"

The Theology of the Cross is a SHOCKING REVERSAL in this direction. It recognizes that the ladder goes nowhere. It is like climbing the World Trade Center with a 3-foot stepladder. It can't be done! There is no way our good deeds, or even the faith we may muster up from within ourselves can accomplish that task! In fact, it is sheer proud delusion to think that we can. It insults God; offends his righteousness and dooms us to death.

But God, amazingly rich in mercy and love for his proud and fallen creatures, acts in our behalf to save us. He sends His Son down that ladder to die on the ground for us. He dies our death; and rises victor over it. Our only hope is to die with Him, and so also rise with Him. In that process, he takes our sin and we take his righteousness in a "happy exchange." His free gift! Smitten in heart by this dying and rising God, we forsake our own pride, cast it aside like a sack of poisonous snakes, to receive in trust this Gift of Grace and embrace the loving God who has done it all FOR US. The Apostle Paul summarized it this way: "For by Grace, you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God -- not the result of works, so that no one may boast." That is the Theology of the Cross. Grace Alone - through the Cross of Christ alone. We can bring NOTHING to help with our salvation. Not good works; not love; not toughness; not even self-made faith. "Nothing in my hands I bring....simply to the CROSS I cling."

So we ask, "Does the theology of the Cross have no place for good works?" Of course. St. Paul continues, "For we are what he (God) has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works....

(Ephesians 2:10). The difference is that now we do good works, not SO THAT we will be saved, but because we have already been saved! For fourteen years, I have been hearing rollos of team members for weekends, critiquing them for theological correctness, as our policy requires. The most common error I find is this. When the speakers refer to what God does, they usually express the theology of the Cross. But when they get around to speaking of our response, they slip into the Theology of Glory. It's very easy to do, without realizing it and the process robs Christ of his glory and holds it out for humans to try and achieve.

The issue is, not what are we going to do, but what is God wanting to do for us, to transform us, and then through us to minister to others (witness and service). As a movement, we in Via de Cristo need to be very clear and consistent about what we teach on a weekend and in the fourth day. Let us LIFT HIGH THE CROSS, consistently, in every talk, and give no support to the false doctrine of our modern age that claims man can solve his own problems if he'll just be tough enough and good enough and determined enough, "religious" enough.

People all around us in our society sing the siren songs of human sufficiency, (1) anthropology without sin, (2) religion without the cross, (3) commitment without sacrifice, (4) faith without suffering. We in the Church offer another way. Via de Cristo. The Way of Christ. The Way of the Cross.

One day a little girl who lived out in the country was taking a long walk and got terribly lost. Everything looked strange. The barns, the fields, the houses were alien. A farm woman found her crying hysterically. "Where do you live?" she asked. "I don't know!" she wailed. "How do you get there from here?" "I don't know! I'm lost!" Then her face lit up as she suddenly had an inspired idea. "If you can take me to the church that has the cross on top, I can find my way home from there!" The woman drove the girl to such a church and she led them home from there.

And so can we all! A lost world needs to find the way to the eternal home. Our mission: Help them find their way. The Way of Christ. So, "Lift High the Cross!"

Amen.

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