Making Sense of the Cross
March 24, 2012
“If you want to understand the cross, you have to stand under the cross.” The cross of Jesus Christ stands right at the centre of our Christian faith. If we want to get to the heart of God’s loving, saving purposes for the world it’s to the cross we must go. Today is Passion Sunday, we only a week away from Holy Week, when we remember the events of the last week of Jesus life, his suffering, death and rising again. So it’s is a good time to intensify our focus upon the cross of Jesus, to stand under it – literally, in our worship today – to pray before it, and to let it change us.
How do we understand the cross? It’s question that’s come up in our Re-connect group on Wednesday nights and a very good question too. The big story of the Christian faith is of a God who acts to redeem and save the world through Jesus. I think most of us get that. So then why does God’s saving plan have to include an event as violent and horrific as crucifixion? And if we’re talking fathers and sons here… of rather God the Father and God the Son – what kind of father sends his son to a brutal death, even out of the best of motives? And if the cross is about us being forgiven our sins… how does that work?
These aren’t academic questions, although plenty of academic answers have been written to them. As I’ve plied the theology books on my shelves this week it’s struck me how dry and abstract a lot of thinking and writing about the cross is. Some of the books I’ve read and websites I’ve looked out act as though the cross is a mathematical problem waiting to be solved, and if we just find the right formula, then we’re away.
That’s so much irrelevance. We come to the cross as people whose lives are complicated and messy. Some of us come to the cross as people who bear the scars of our upbringing, and are trying not to pass those same scars onto our own children. We come as people whose relationships haven’t always worked out, whose hopes have been dashed. Sin isn’t just about this wrong choice or that bad action, it’s about the whole gone-wrongness of the set of relationships within which we live our lives. we feel cut off from our deepest selves, from each other, from God. As we come to the cross of Jesus Christ we don’t need a neat formula for salvation, what we need is nothing less than the transforming love of God. Information is important, and we need an informed faith that feeds our minds and our intellect. Partial or misleading information about God can leave us very stuck, and prevent us from growing and moving on in faith as God want us to.
But the Christian faith isn’t about information, it’s about transformation, about letting God change us. You want to understand the cross? Then stand under the cross a while, and pray there. And I don’t mean the kind of prayer that’s about asking anything. You may know the story of the Catholic priest who noticed one of his congregation spending long periods sitting quietly in front of a crucifix in the little village church. The priest asked the man what he was doing. The man replied, “Nothing really. I just look at him, and he looks at me, and he loves me.”
When we’re thinking about the cross, I reckon there are some ground rules. And ground rule number one is: the grace and love of God are the context for all our thinking about him. God is gracious and God is loving. This is the witness of scripture and the experience of Christian people across the centuries. It’s my experience too. If our thinking about the cross takes in a direction that takes us away from an image of God as gracious and loving, then maybe we’re veering in the wrong direction.
Ground rule two: when we think about the cross, we need to do in the context of Jesus’s life, and of his resurrection. The Christian creeds tell us that God’s saving work is done through Jesus’s life and death and rising again, not through his death alone. I find films such as “The Passion” by Mel Gibson unhealthy in the way it treats Jesus’s death on the cross in a way that is disconnected from his life, and treats the resurrection as an afterthought. This kind of approach to the passion of Christ seems to be guilt-fuelled and guilt inducing.
When we come to the cross we do so in the knowledge that the suffering and death it tells of are not the end point. The joy of resurrection is the direction of travel. That’s where God want us to be: in the place of freedom and forgiveness, the place where all humanity, all creation is restored and reconciled and made whole in union with the God. Call it heaven if you like. That’s where the cross is taking us.
Alright then. Ground rules in place and away we go. How are we saved by the cross of Christ? How does it help us get out of our mess, and into the joy of God’s kingdom? The technical name for this is Christian thinking is atonement. Atonement means: thinking about how we are saved, healed, restored to life in Christ. Christian thinkers have drawn on the resources of the Bible to come up with different word pictures for how atonement happens. Here are three key ones: debt, punishment, sacrifice.
If you turn to hymn 520, which we just sang you’ll see each of these illustrated.
“What love is this that pays so dearly….. my debt he pays.”
In the middle ages, it was common for slaves/serfs to receive their freedom by the payment of a sum of money. In this context, people started thinking about the death of Jesus as being like the payment of a debt. It’s a helpful image in some ways, but not in others. To whom is the debt paid? Is it to God? We need to remind ourselves of ground rule one: that God is gracious. Grace is about generous self giving of God, giving abundantly, in excess of our needs. The picture of a God who with the cross is doing a deal over humanity’s sin, performing a transaction, receiving a cosmic lump sum payment, sits uneasily I think with what we know of God’s eternal grace.
This idea was developed in the time of the Reformation – the 16th Century – into word pictures based around the courts and the legal system. What was new in this context was an association of punishment with the death of Jesus. According to this word picture, God is like judge or prosecutor, sitting in court and pronouncing a sentence upon the sinner. Jesus, in his death on the cross takes the punishment in place of sinful humanity, acting as a kind of “substitute”. which is then accepted by God the Father as what’s called “satisfaction” or “propitiation” for human sinfulness. God’s righteous anger at human sin is thereby dealt with.
We can see echoes of this word picture in verse 1 of “My lord, what love is this”: “That I, the guilty one, may go free!” The picture is of the accused walking free out of the courtroom because Jesus has agreed to stand in the dock and take the sentence – a death sentence – in our place.
Now you won’t find this word picture in either the bible or the Creeds. It’s not essential to Christian belief. But many, though not all, evangelical Christians have found it a valuable insight into understanding the Cross. For them, it is an understanding that takes sin seriously and recognises the character of God as a God of justice and judgement.
Yet for other Christians – and I would count myself among them – this is a problematic way of understanding the cross of Jesus. It’s problematic because of its emphasis upon punishment, and could seem to suggest a God whose nature is vengeful and punitive. It risks running up against ground rule one: God is love. The heart of Jesus message – and I know I say this in practically every sermon – is forgiveness. The cross is about forgiveness. What does Jesus say about his death at the Last Supper? this is my bloodshed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Not for the punishment of sins, but for the forgiveness of sins.
Vengeance, the desire to hurt and punish when we are hurt is a thoroughly human trait. It was only hours after the September 11th attacks on the United State that was plans were being drawn up for a revenge attack upon Iraq. Yet surely God in Jesus is showing us a different way, a way of loving our enemies, of absorbing hurts without hurting back.
What I want to say to you about this “courtroom model” way of understanding the cross is: if it feeds your faiths your faith and helps you love God more, go with it. You’re in good company, along with Martin Luther, Bishop Tom Wright and lots of others! If however the courtroom model, doesn’t make sense for you, and is a stumbling block to faith, then leave it, because it’s not essential. There are other ways to understand the cross, and this is a theme to which we will return periodically over the coming months.
Jesus says in our gospel passage: “I tell you the truth: unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains only a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds.” As we stand under the cross of Jesus together today, seeking better to understand it, let us pray that his dying and rising may produce seeds in our lives, seeds of repentance, forgiveness and love, planted deep in the souls of our lives.