“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” —Mark 10:32-34 Continue reading
(As we prepare for Holy Week I offer this sermon of mine from 2004, my last year (as it turned out) as pastor at First Church in Pittsfield. Mel Gibson’s controversial film Passion of the Christ had brought the issues of the cross into the public view, and provided an opportunity to address this (quite literally) “crucial” subject.)
“This year more than other years, there has been interest in the meaning of the passion of Christ because of the new Mel Gibson movie. I am not going to talk about the movie very much since I haven’t seen it. Seth Rogovoy from the Berkshire Eagle asked me to see it and be on a panel, but I said I wasn’t going to see it. But I had read the book!
I haven’t seen it for two reasons. The first is the same reason I have never seen Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. I’m a wimp. I experience film as a powerful medium, and I am emotionally effected by movie violence. Somehow I can deal with battles between hobbits and orcs, but the depiction of historical violence I find very disturbing.
The second reason I haven’t seen it is subtler, and perhaps harder to understand. It is my feeling that there are some things that shouldn’t be put on film, and I personally feel that the death of Jesus is one of them. That may seem hypocritical since I have a reproduction of Matthias Grünwald’s Crucifixion on the wall of my study. Artists have always depicted biblical events. Why not film artists? For me, it is the appearance of reality about film, that “You Were There” quality that makes it so powerful.
I know people who have loved this movie and people who have hated it, people who have felt their life changed by it and people who have walked out of it. I have spoken to people who felt the movie was anti-Semitic and people who didn’t. It seems the movie for some people has served as a kind of cinematic Rorschach test for beliefs people already hold.
However accurate the film is, there is at least one sense in which the movie is not quite biblical, and that is in its detailed depiction of the event. None of the Gospels really describe the crucifixion. There is a restraint about the Gospel accounts, a kind of modesty before the obscenity and horror of the event. Of course, the harsh truth is that none of the Evangelists needed to be told what a crucifixion was like. Whether they wanted to or not most of them had seen crucified slaves along the roads. Tens of thousands of the enemies of Rome, real or perceived, were crucified in the first century AD, so Jesus’ crucifixion was just another one of those.
When the movie came out the cover of Newsweek asked in boldface type: “Who really killed Jesus?” That question arises out of a long and shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism. The foundation of this anti-Semitism has been the attempt to attach historical blame for the crucifixion to the Jews. For centuries in Christian Europe violence toward Jews frequently took place on Good Friday.
We must acknowledge the sad truth that for Jews the cross has been an emblem of persecution just as for Islam it has been an emblem of the Crusades. To admit this is not to apologize for the cross, but it is to apologize for the reprehensible acts that have been done in its name.
The truth is that the responsibility for Jesus’ death lies at the feet of all humankind. That the characters in the Gospel accounts of the Passion were Romans or Jews is incidental to the significance of the cross. We must never forget that Jesus and all his followers were Jewish. Let us remember, too, that “Second Temple Judaism” was not monolithic, but had parties and factions, and some of them were hostile to Jesus.
We do know that crucifixion was never a Jewish method of execution; that would have been death by stoning. A cross was a Roman device, and his executioners were Roman soldiers. So from a strictly historical point of view it must be said that Jesus was the victim of a Roman state execution.
But to the question, “Who killed Jesus? The better answer must be, “I did. You did. We did.” Which is to say that it was human sin that killed Jesus. He not only died for our sins, he died because of our sins. That is expressed in the second verse of the hymn “Ah, holy Jesus,” which asks:
“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.”
And the second station of the cross in the Roman Catholic Church prays: “My Jesus, this cross should be mine, not Thine; my sins crucified Thee.”
How can this be? How can a man who died two thousand years ago in Jerusalem have anything to do with me? How can I be guilty? In much the same way church members have sometimes told me that they don’t feel like the confession of sin in our service relates to them. They don’t feel as if they have done any of the things we confess, such as being unjust to their neighbors, or fouling the environment, or what have you.
I try to explain to them that a general confession is just that, general. The prayer speaks for a broader constituency that any of us, or even all of us within the congregation. For when we come before God we don’t come merely as individuals, we come as part of the human family. And as part of the human family we participate in vast social, political and economic networks, many of them unjust and even evil.
Which is to say, that to some extent, we all have blood on our hands, although none of us likes to think about it. In Dostoevsky’s profound novel The Brothers Karamazov, he tells the story of “The Grand Inquisitor.” Christ comes back again to earth, and who he is and what he stands for are too threatening to the status quo for him to be allowed to live. The question is asked, “If Christ walked among us again, would we kill him again?”
John Thomas has written, “Our fingerprints on the nails are easy to overlook, but they are there. Holy Week presses us to see that we too, are violators. Some years ago,” he writes, “I watched a documentary on the Holocaust, titled “Shoah,” which included expected scenes of horror. But for me, the most disturbing portrait of evil was the benign face of an elderly man who had worked for the German state railroad. His job was to issue tickets to Jews forced into cattle cars for transport to the gas chambers. This bewildered-looking man couldn’t comprehend that his bureaucratic job had anything to do with the horror of the Holocaust. He didn’t shoot Jews or toss them in the ovens. He just issued tickets.” Thomas concludes, “You and I don’t flay the skin off Jesus. But we do issue tickets. Our complicity in evil is real and often profoundly undramatic. Until we face that reality, the Passion is little more than a tragic movie, and we will miss the truth of our own profound need for the redemption of Easter.” (United Church News, April 2004)
But at the foot of the cross we can be set free to recognize ourselves among the guilty. We can identify ourselves among the crowd, both on Palm Sunday when they cried, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and on Good Friday, when they shouted “Crucify him.” A disappointed angry mob is dangerous, probably not all that different from the crowd that mutilated the bodies of the slain American workers in Fallujah in Iraq this week. Such shameful acts of violence and horror take place all the time, not just in the past, not just “in history.” At the foot of the cross can we acknowledge that even the very best of us bears some resemblance to the worst of us? Can we recognize ourselves as sinners in need of redemption?
Can we put aside the tendency to blame “the other” for human sin and evil? Can we leave behind the need to point an accusing finger at those who are not like us, whether they are poor, or black, or Muslim or Jewish, so that we don’t have to confront our own sin?
This sounds like a grim exercise, but it is a necessary one. Because the Gospel is often bad news before it is able to be Good News. God’s judgment and mercy are two sides of the same coin. And so when we admit our sin, and the sin of the human family of which we are a part, we can then receive the forgiveness God wants for us. At the foot of the cross we can see that Jesus died not only because of our sins, but also for our sins, to take them away and free us for new life with him and for each other.
And this is only possible because Jesus’ death is not just any death. No, the incredible claim we make is that “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.” If Jesus had been just another man, even a very good man, then he is, at best, an example to us of the power of sacrifice, and, at worst, just another martyr to human violence. Then his death is merely a tragedy. Because suffering is never, in and of itself, redemptive. Just ask anyone who suffers. To believe otherwise is masochism.
But why is his death redemptive? Why is Jesus’ death different from all the other tragic deaths in history? Why is his death different from all the other men who ended up on Roman crosses? The answer is not that he suffered more. Others have suffered more, even at the hand of Christians.
So what is it that makes his death different, and makes his cross not a symbol of shame, but a symbol of faith? The full story will be told next Sunday on Easter. It is the resurrection that makes the difference. It is the resurrection that transforms the cross from an emblem of horror into an emblem of God’s wondrous love.
To the eyes of Easter faith the bitter cross is viewed as an act of Israel’s God, consistent with who God had been in the past, a God who rescues and saves, who liberates and reconciles. So the cross is transformed into an atoning, redeeming, reconciling divine act of grace. God in Jesus Christ gives up his life in humble obedience. He takes our sin and the judgment that goes with it and puts it to death on the cross with himself. That is how the cross becomes the symbol of Christian faith, not as a way to blame others for sin, but to admit our own sin and marvel at the lengths that God will go to take it away.
If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus, and him crucified! There you will see the very nature of God. As C. S. Dinsmore once wrote, “There was a cross in the heart of God before there was one planted on the green hill outside Jerusalem.”
The cross tells us that God’s grace is bigger than our sin. The extent of that love should humble us. As Isaac Watts penned, “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the prince of glory died, my richest gain, I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”
That is what the cross stands for, the vast love of God, and our humble contrition before it when we consider the weight of our now-forgiven sins. To turn the cross into a symbol of Christian triumphalism, or of a Crusade, or of persecution is to betray its meaning. To make the cross an emblem of hate like the twisted crosses of Nazism or the Ku Klux Klan is to crucify Christ all over again.
But to admit “I crucified Thee” is not an empty pious gesture. Nor is it mere breast-beating. It is an honest admission of our need to have our sins forgiven, and not only ours but the sins of the whole world, our need to be reconciled to God and to our neighbors. The Good News that we preach is that God has already accomplished this for us through the cross. We need only take what he gives us, and we will find that when we turn to him, he is already coming to meet us.
So let us come to his table today in humility and contrition as those who need forgiveness, as those who need God’s grace. And let us find in him, whose body was broken for us, and whose blood was shed for us, both bread for the journey and food for eternal life. Amen.
(I preached this sermon on Palm/Passion Sunday, April 4, 2004 at First Church of Christ, Congregational in Pittsfield, Massachusetts)
(Painting: “Crucifixion” by Matthias Grunewald)
Is the cross of Jesus Christ implicated in the violence of our world? More specifically, does the church’s theology of the cross, expressed in its various views of atonement, contribute to fostering violence?
The English word “atonement” was made up by the pioneering translator, William Tyndale, when he translated the Bible into English. It was retained by the King James Bible translators and has made its way into common usage. It literally means “at-one-ment,” the bringing together of that which was separated. It translates several Hebrew and Greek words that are also often translated as “reconciliation,” depending on the context. And that which was separated and needed to be brought together was twofold, the estrangement of enemies needed to be reconciled, and the estrangement of the holy God with the sinful and broken world. The way the cross functions to effect these reconciliations is the Christian idea of atonement.
But do ideas of the atonement foster violence? It is a question that arises out of my own experience in the church. In 1995 when I was living in St Andrews, Scotland, and working on what would later become my book on the atonement, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross:” Reflections on the Atonement, I wrote an essay on some of the objections to the idea of substitutionary atonement. At the end of the chapter I made note that there were some critics who felt that the cross itself was an emblem of violence, but I didn’t really address this view in depth, because frankly, I thought it was a fringe view without much merit. I still do.
But the view that the cross itself is a cause of violence has been gaining traction in the last decade or so. There have been a spate of books addressing the issue, and in recent years I am hearing ordinands and new ministers repeating these views to the effect that the cross is not, as the church has always claimed, “good news,” but is instead “bad news.”
Let me share a couple of anecdotes. The first was at an ecclesiastical council a few years ago. The candidate told us that she didn’t believe in substitutionary atonement. “Fair enough,” I replied, since there have been some dubious ideas under that banner. “But what do you then make of the death of Christ?” “Christ’s death,” she said, “was the price he paid at the hands of the powerful for his advocacy of an inclusive community.” Admitting that it is at least that, I asked, “Then does the cross have any meaning for salvation?” “No!” she said.
My second anecdote took place in a seminar on the atonement I gave several years ago to United Church of Christ (USA) ministers. During the Q and A time it became clear to me that many of the ministers were uncomfortable with talk of the cross, and some found it offensive. One young man, a bright newly-minted UCC minister said, with some passion, “No good thing came from the cross.”
This rejection of the cross is not new; there have always been critics of the cross as far back as the New Testament. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthian 1:23)
But what is troubling to me is that the attacks on the cross in recent years come from within the church. It comes from seminary professors, and increasingly from pastors. This should concern us, as such teaching and preaching against the cross confuses the faithful and saps the church of the vital nerve center of the faith that is so needed to meet the challenges of our age, including the problem of violence.
That violence has been done in the name of the cross cannot be denied. It isn’t hard to conjure up images of the misuse of the cross as a symbol of violence: the crusaders’ cross on the tunics of invading soldiers in the Middle Ages, the Good Friday pogroms of Eastern Europe and Russia where mobs of Christians would periodically terrorize Jewish neighborhoods, or the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan in the American South.
These and other examples would seem to implicate the cross in the world’s violence, and in racism, anti-Semitism, and imperialism.
But the whole argument against the cross hinges on the important distinction between whether the cross, in and of itself, is a cause of violence, or whether when violence is done in the name of the cross, it is a betrayal of the cross’s true meaning.
I will be arguing for the latter, that where the cross is used to justify or induce violence it is a betrayal of the cross, which is the very center of God’s story of redeeming love to humankind.
Jesus’ crucifixion itself is, of course, a horrific act of violence, but Christian faith, from its early days, has interpreted it as a divine act of reconciliation. My own view, influenced by my St Andrew’s tutor Richard Bauckham, is that the first Christians understood Jesus’ death from the very beginning as an atoning, sacrificial death, and that was expressed in the earliest church’s pre-Markan proclamation that then shaped the written Gospels we have today. This view runs counter to the often-received line that Paul hijacked the faith and created a theology of the cross that was missing from the church’s earliest proclamation.
I argued in my atonement book that ideas of sacrifice and substitution are both biblical and necessary to fully express the radical nature of this divine act of love. Now there are various nuanced and sophisticated discussions about the precise nature of the atonement, and for that I would refer you to my book. My more focused mission when I speak in congregations has been as a witness to the cross in the mainline church, where the crucial center of the Christian story is in danger of being lost.
For we need to keep the whole Christain story in view when we look at any part of it, and I think that is one of the problems that some of the critics of the cross have, in that they focus on the cross, wrenched out of its larger narrative.
So while I am interested in theories of atonement, and want stronger rather than weaker arguments around the “what” of the cross, I want always to view it within the larger Christian story. In that story Jesus Christ, who died on the cross “for us and for all humanity,” must be seen as the One who is “the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow,” and who, as the divine Word, was at the beginning of creation, and will be at the end, on the Day he comes to judge the living and the dead.
But let us be clear that the cross is not just any part of the Christian story, but the very center and climax. And by the cross I mean more than just Golgotha, but, like Paul, I use “the cross” as a kind of theological shorthand to describe the whole saving center of the story as shown in the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
In that story I see an act of God, who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, saving us from sin and death. Therefore, my view is that the work of Christ on the cross is constitutive for salvation and not merely illustrative of it. And it is this high view, with its lineage back to St. Anselm, which is particularly under attack from the critics of the cross.
So let me briefly share with you the views of those who consider the cross bad news, then let me to tell you why I think that they are wrong, and finally let me tell you why the word of the cross is good news indeed.
Why some critics of the cross consider it to be “bad news”.
As I have said, I believe that those who do violence in the name of the cross misunderstand and betray it’s true meaning. But I also consider the critics of the cross to misunderstand its true meaning as described in scripture and tradition.
The chief criticism is that the cross is an act of violence against Jesus by God. One of the chief proponents of that view is Professor Dolores Williams of Union Theological Seminary in New York. She has argued that the church should replace the cross with the mustard seed as the primary Christian symbol, because she views the cross as a symbol of violence, especially violence against woman and children.
Mennonite theologian Denny Weaver, another critic of the cross, sums this view up it like this: “The motif of Jesus as the substitute object of punishment, which assumes the principle of retribution, is the particular image that feminists and womanists have found very offensive. It portrays God as the chief exacter of retribution. God punishes — abuses — one of God’s children for the sake of the others. And the Jesus of this motif models passive submission to innocent and unjust suffering for the sake of others.” (Weaver, Violence)
The objection here, so the argument goes, is that Jesus’ obedience to God the Father in accepting the cross demonstrates passivity and submission, and in so doing encourages the acceptance of violence against women by men.
A related charge made by some liberation theologians, such as James Cone, link substitutionary atonement specifically to defenses of slavery and colonial oppression, using ideas of submission, passivity and sacrifice to keep oppressed people in their place.
“Delores Williams calls the Jesus of substitutionary atonement, the “ultimate surrogate figure.” After depicting numerous ways in which black women were forced into a variety of surrogacy roles for white men and women and black men, Williams says that to accept satisfaction or substitutionary atonement and the image of Jesus that it supplies is to validate all the unjust surrogacy to which black women have been and still are submitted. ”
“Such examples show that atonement theology that models innocent, passive suffering does have specific negative impact in the contemporary context.” (Weaver, Violence)
Why the critics are wrong
These views seem to me to say more about the suspicions of the writers than the actual biblical narrative and the atonement theories that are their conceptual representations. After all, if you are looking in the wrong end of the telescope, everything will look small. They are looking at the social consequences of the misuse of Biblical and theological texts, but they are not looking at the texts themselves.
So what I think is needed is a theological interpretation of the cross that takes seriously the complexity of the scriptures. To do that there are some features that are necessary that I find missing or inadequate in the views of the critics of the cross. I have identified 7.
1. Many of the critics do not have a robust view of sin. It was human sin that caused Jesus’ death and Jesus himself “became sin” to save us from sin. That is, he who was sinless died a sinner’s death by the law of his own people, for according to Deuteronomy 21:23 “cursed be the one who hangs from a tree,” a verse Paul quotes in Galatians 3:13.
So it was human sin that killed Jesus, the same sin that we all know in our own lives. Condemned by the twin pillars of the highest civilization of the time, Roman law and Jewish religion, Jesus was crucified by humanity, not at its worst, but at its best.
So the crucifixion wasn’t an aberration, but the kind of event that happens routinely in our fallen sinful world. And this is why the endless debate over who killed Jesus misses the point of the narrative, for when the fingers get pointed, the great Lenten chorale Herzleibster Jesu has it just right, “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”
Lest you think this is a gloomy view let me be quick to say that I believe that God’s grace is greater than our sin, but that is no excuse to pretend that sin is not real or powerful. Many pastors have had to defend the prayer of confession in their liturgy against those who say, “I don’t feel I am a sinner.”
Toward the end of my ministry I started replying to that, “Well, then the Gospel is a solution for a problem you don’t believe you have.” In much the same way, many of the critics of the cross see only evil structures and systems, but they do not see the human sin in all of us that is complicit in them. So God’s act of redeeming love on the cross to save us from sin and death is a solution to a problem they don’t recognize.
2. The critics often conflate violence with evil. A good deal of the world’s violence is evil, and I agree that it would be a better world if we tried non-violent solutions to most problems. I ceased to be a pacifist many years ago as Max will attest, but I still have what I call “a preferential option for the non-violent.”
But as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us, there are times and places when only force will stay the hand of evil against the innocent victim. For example, in 1995 if the 400 armed Dutch UN peacekeepers in the so called “safe zone” at Srebrenica had been authorized to use force against the Serb ethnic cleansers, the genocidal murder of 8000 Bosnian men and boys might well have been prevented. Which reminds us that sometimes even non-violence can be complicit with evil.
3. In a similar vein many of the critics of the cross romanticize non-violence. Denny Weaver, author of The Non-violent Cross, raises non-violence to such an exalted place in his theology that it becomes, in Willis Elliott’s phrase, “Salvation by non-violence.” Here the principle of non-violence is used to judge even God’s behavior, so that the violence of Jesus’ cross rules it out as a loving act of God.
This romanticism of non-violence is utopian. It doesn’t take account of the facts on the ground, which is the power of sin and death. God’s victory doesn’t come cheap. God defeated sin and death on the cross at great cost to himself. The horrific violence of Jesus’ cross reflects the real world we live in. In a utopian world, a letter to The New York Times might have fixed it. But in our world, it took considerably more.
4. The critics don’t take Jesus’ Jewishness seriously enough. When we look at the cross theologically we must keep before us that it is Christ who died for our sins, not just any man, but the Jewish messiah. We need to be reminded that Christ is not Jesus’ last name, but the title given him by his followers, a title previously reserved for the figure of God’s anointed, the messiah.
The pre-Markan proclamation that lies behind the New Testament is a thoroughly Jewish interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is why the New Testament has so many echoes from the Old Testament.
Why is Jesus’ cross different? Crucifixions were a commonplace in the ancient Roman world, but the significance of this particular cross was the claim that it was God’s anointed who suffered and died. It was their own traditions that allowed these Jews to understand Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrificial death. For example, one of our earliest passages in the New Testament is 1 Cor. 15: 3ff where Paul rehearses the gospel that had been handed down to him that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.”
And the reason it could be understood thus was because the Hebrew scriptures contained stories such as the binding of Isaac in Gen. 22, the description of a suffering servant in the Servant Psalms in Isaiah, especially Isaiah 53, and passages like Psalm 22, which is the source of Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Without this Jewish context the cross is hard to understand properly.
5. The critics don’t take the Trinity seriously. Doctrines are “conceptual redescriptions of the biblical narrative” (Frei). The doctrine of the Trinity understands the whole Christ event within the inter–dependence of the divine persons. Jesus’ very human experience of being abandoned by the God he called Father, in which he endures the condition of the sinner before God, can be viewed as arising from a Trinitarian act in history, an act to which the Father intentionally sent him and which in obedience Jesus accepted. The cross is, therefore, a Trinitarian act of mutual consent in love between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.
This goes a long way to countering the charge that the cross is a symbol of violence, exploitation or even child abuse. If you start with a big G god and a human Jesus you have a nnitarian god. But Christians do not know such a god without Jesus. And such a unitarian God, one who requires the sacrifice of the human Jesus is problematic, to say the least. But if we understand the obedient death of the Son as in some real sense a loving act in which it is God who dies for us, we move away from these problems.
The critics also say that substitutionary atonement means God is punishing Jesus. P. T. Forsyth made an important distinction here. He says the cross is penal, in that Jesus, though innocent, voluntarily takes on the sentence that we deserve. But though the cross is penal, it is not punishment, since Jesus is innocent. “For what would the Father punish him? And how could the Father punish the Son, with whom he is always well pleased.”? (Forsyth)
6. The critics have too limited a canon. Like Marcion, the second century heretic who made up his own canon, Luke is their favorite Gospel. Marcion had one Gospel and ten letters of Paul, and no Old Testament, since he believed the God of the Old Testament was a different (and not very nice) God.
The modern critics of the cross often share Marcion’s love for Luke, but not for Paul, who (after God the Father) is their chief villain, for Paul’s cross-centered Gospel. We all have favorite Gospels, and I love Luke as much as the next person, but the thickness of the biblical story is partly a result of the richness and complexity of the canon.
7. Finally, the critics have an inadequate eschatology of the cross. Again we must understand the cross within the framework of Second Temple Jewish monotheism, with its energetic eschatological expectations for a future return of God and his messiah.
The God of Israel was expected to act in the future. Second Isaiah, for example, expects a new exodus, which will show decisively God’s identity as creator and ruler of all things. The first Christians, who had experienced this new exodus in Jesus, understood that God was continuing the story, and “a new narrative of God’s acts becomes definitive for his identity.” (Bauckham, p 71.) The God who acted in the Exodus had now acted again in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
When the church included Jesus, a human being, humiliated and exalted, into the identity of God, they were saying something radically new about the identity of God. In the dying and rising of Jesus, God had done a new thing that could only be adequately described in the language of Old Testament eschatology. It was the restoration from exile, the new creation, the healing of the rift between God and Israel and more. The sign that Pilate put over Jesus’ head on the cross read, “King of the Jews.” Who could the king of the Jews be other than the messiah of God? Meant by Pilate as a joke, the church could see the truth of it in light of their new faith that in Jesus Christ God had once again acted decisively as expected.
Why the cross is “good news”
1. The cross is the death of ideology. It provides the critical principle which de–centers our preoccupation with both individual and corporate concerns. It calls into question any ideology that would use the Gospel to further its own ends.
The cross provides the church with a anti-ideological bias that protects the Gospel from being blown about by any number of contemporary cultural winds, or co–opted by any number of alternative faiths, religious and secular. The cross also protects the church from both utopianism and cynicism, because it keeps in view that the resurrected one remains the crucified one.
Likewise, the cross helps the church to understand its life and discipleship in other ways than by the canons of success and power that the world so values. It teaches the church to recognize its true hope in the God who raised the dead from the illusory hopes the world holds out for both individuals in the face of death and for human history in the face of futility.
So the church is able to live in real hope only because the cross has taught it where properly to look for hope. Christian hope lies beyond all human endeavors and accomplishments and beyond all possibilities inherent in the natural world. Christians love the world God made and for which his Son gave his life, and we work and pray to make it more like the kingdom to come. At the same time, we know that our true hope lies only in the God who raised the crucified, who is the God who raises the dead. Such hope transcends both personal death and cosmic futility.
2. The cross shows God’s solidarity with all human suffering including suffering caused by human violence. On the cross Jesus suffers an agonizing death, but perhaps more than his physical suffering was the anguish he experienced by the total abandonment of the One he called Father, which he expresses when he cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46))
In this experience of abandonment Jesus knows solidarity with all human suffering, and if we take his divine nature seriously then God knows this, too, and in some sense experienced it on our behalf, and by doing so redeemed it, which we can only see in Easter hindsight. So not only did Jesus suffer (which is what passion means) but his suffering and death are not incidental to the glorious story of divine atonement and human redemption but quite literally crucial.
Now some of the critics charge that the cross exalts human suffering, and encourages people to accept it. We must admit that suffering, in and of itself, is not redemptive, and so we should be careful not to romanticize suffering. But suffering is such a universal feature of the human condition that surely it must be good news to know that our God understands our suffering, and in Jesus, was himself “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53)
3. The cross models forgiveness. From the cross Jesus prays, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” and in doing so embodies the loving mercy of God.
This radical forgiveness is the only power that can break the cycles of revenge and retribution that fuel so much of our world’s violence. One of the most powerful moments of Christian witness in my lifetime was when Pope John Paul the Second forgave the man who had shot him, Mehmet Ali Agca. The Pope was shot and seriously wounded in 1981. In 1983 he visited his assailant in prison and spoke privately with him for about 20 minutes. He later said, “What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust.”
How ironic it seems to me that the word of the cross is being accused of causing violence, when its message judges and condemns violence
4. The cross is all about God’s love. When we look at the passages in Scripture that speak of God’s love, they more often than not reference the cross as the chief evidence. For example, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Or Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Or Romans 8:31, 32: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
And not just in Scripture, but in our traditions, too, we see a cross-centered understanding of God’s love. So the Heidelberg Catechisms beloved first question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” is answered thus: “That I belong– body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself, but to my faithful Savior, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins…so that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation… he also assures me of eternal life….”
Far from being the cause of violence the word of the cross is God’s love at work, and only that love offers healing and wholeness to our broken world.
It is true that the word of the cross is not a word everyone will hear. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:23ff)
(Note: This address was given at the First Congregational Church UCC in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on Palm/Passion Sunday, April 1, 2012. It is essentially a re-working of my paper “The Cross and Violence: Is the Word of the Cross Good News, or is it Bad News?” delivered at the 25th Craigville Theological Colloquy, July 2008. I have shortened it and edited it for a lay audience, eliminating most citations and footnotes. The original can be found here.
(The photo is of the burnt wooden cross at Coventry Cathedral after it was burned by bombing in WWII)
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday many who looked to him to overthrow the Roman oppressor. His entry not on a charger but on a donkey was a living parable that here was a different kind of power. And those who shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday were quick to shout “Crucify him!” on Good Friday when he didn’t show the kind of power that the world understands all too well.
Christ’s cross confronts us still as the place where divine power and human sin collide. He took our sin to that cross, and it died there along with him. It is no accident that the cross is the symbol of our faith. Paul tells the Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11. NRSV)
Let us be very clear what is claimed here: that it is the fact of Jesus’s death as a slave that makes him Lord, his death as a nobody that makes him exalted at the right hand of God. And if God, the Father Almighty, who created the heavens and the earth, and Jesus, the man of Nazareth, share a divine identity, what does the cross tell us of the identity of God?
It tells us first of all that what the world values is not what God values. The Roman Empire that crucified Jesus was constructed on power, violence, and might, all delivered with ruthless efficiency, and the cross was the supreme instrument of Roman values. The cross was a slave’s death, designed to dispose of the nobodies of the world, and put fear into the hearts of other nobodies so they wouldn’t challenge Rome’s power.
But the crucifixion puts God squarely on the side of the nobodies. The cross condemns the brutal social arrangements then and now that trample the poor, that put the concerns of the powerful ahead of the nobodies of the world. The cross condemns every injustice that treats people as expendable; every cynical deal that seeks gain at the expense of others.
The cross says God has different values, seeks a different way, a way of servanthood and humility, a way that seeks the good of others, a way that rejects violence and injustice, a way in which everybody is somebody. In God’s values there aren’t any nobodies, for God’s own son was once regarded as a nobody and died a nobody’s death, forgiving those who killed him even as he cried out in utter forsakenness.
This is the Christian God, the crucified God, who turns the world’s values upside down. If you want to know about this God take a good look at Jesus. Notice how he befriends the poor, touches lepers, eats with sinners. There weren’t any nobodies in Jesus’s book. Only sinners to be saved, broken people to be made whole, dying people to be given new life, sorrowful people to be made glad, remorseful people to be forgiven.
Look to Jesus: that is where the Christian finds identity and purpose, from Jesus Christ and him crucified. And not just for our personal spiritual life, but for the whole world. For his cross redeems our sins, but also our politics, our marriages and families, our business practices, our churches and everything else about our world. George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, once wrote,
I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek . . .at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about.
People have asked me why my theology is so centered on the cross of Jesus. Why should somebody as generally cheerful as I am want to focus on such a gloomy subject? The story of my coming to the cross is a story of coming to know God in a whole new way. Although I was raised in the church as a child, I decided to be a Christian as an adult, because the cross of Christ rang true for me, as an answer equal to the world’s harsh truths. My mother died when I was eighteen, and my sunny childhood faith was tested and found wanting. We live in a world where people we love can get sick and die, where injustice is often done, where bad things happen to good people as well as bad, but in my young life I had never known this and I had a lot of trouble accepting it. At this vulnerable time in my life, the time when I was leaving home, my world was turned upside down, and I found myself in a darkness I had never known.
Some of you, probably most of you, have known such darkness, because the world brings it to us in time. There is, in such times, no light, no hope, no word of comfort. Nicholas Wolterstorff, who teaches theology at Yale, writes about such a time, when his son died suddenly at the age of twenty-five. Wolterstorff write this about his time of darkness:
I am at an impasse, and you, O God, have brought me here. From my earliest days I heard of you. From my earliest days I believed in you. I shared in the life of your people: in their prayers, in their work, in their songs, in their listening for your speech and in their watching for your presence. For me your yoke was easy. On me your presence smiled.
Noon has darkened. As fast as she could say, “He’s dead,” the light dimmed. And where are you in the darkness? I learned to spy you in the light. Here in this darkness I cannot find you. If I had never looked for you, or looked but never found, I would not feel this pain of your absence. Or is it not your absence but your elusive troubling presence?
Will my eyes adjust to this darkness? Will I find you in the dark—not in the streaks of light which remain, but in the darkness? Has anyone ever found you there? Did they love what they saw? Did they see love? And are there songs for singing when the light has gone dim? The songs I learned were all of praise and thanksgiving and repentance. Or in the dark, is it best to wait in silence?” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, Eerdmans, 1987)
Wolterstorff asks whether anyone has anyone ever found God in the darkness? I did. It took time, and not a little waiting in silence. But as I look back at it I would say that it wasn’t me that found God so much as God who found me. Found me in the darkness! And the God who found me was not a stranger to darkness. Here was a God who knew what I knew, who experienced what I had experienced. Who knew sorrow and was acquainted with grief.
And in this solidarity of suffering I recognized something I had never expected to know in the dark. I knew I was loved, loved by the crucified God, the God who,by some mystery, fully and passionately entered into human life to redeem and transfigure it. And not human life at its best, but human life at its very worst, at a state execution, where a man was beaten half to death and nailed to a tree to die a slow humiliating and painful death. “It was now about noon,” Luke writes of the crucifixion, “and darkness came over the land.”
In my time of darkness I finally realized that I didn’t have the resources to fix the world, much less my own life. I couldn’t even heal the deep grief and loss I felt. But I knew, believed, trusted, the presence of God in all my troubles and trials. Knew and believed in God’s power to transform renew, heal and restore the broken suffering world.
And forty years later I still believe it. And when I look at the world today, in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, or even on North Street in Pittsfield, I see a world that cannot save itself and needs the redemptive power of God which is demonstrated in the cross.
And I try never to forget what I know, that the Risen Christ of Easter is the crucified Jesus of Good Friday. The Risen Christ of Easter still bears the marks of the nails that killed him. Because when I am happy and healthy and well fed, I want a God without a cross, a God who will prop up my life and maintain the things I want, and not cause me too much a trouble, a nice God who dwells in sunlight and doesn’t trouble my conscience or demand too much of me. No elusive troubling presence, thank you, just God in his place.
And God’s place, it is sad to say, is often the church, for even the church tries to domesticate God. Even the church tries to sell God like so much snake oil as a nostrum for being healthy and happy, but, if the truth be told, faith should come with a warning label. Maybe that is what the cross is, a warning label! Because those who look to Jesus Christ and his cross for their identity will find that they will invariably share his passion for this world, and his vocation to be the love of God for a fallen world, and like him go out to embody God whatever the cost. “Take up your cross,” he says, “and follow me!”
That doesn’t make life easy, but it makes it interesting, and in the end deeply satisfying in a way that others can not know. For by some strange Gospel equation only the empty know what it is like to be filled, only the humble know what it is to be exalted, only those who have wept can know what real joy is, and only those who in some very real way have lost their lives will find the true life that comes from God. The Christian may start out as a consumer of religion, but will soon be called to be a servant, “just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give up his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus gave up the form of God to take the form of a slave, even unto a slave’s death on a cross. But now the slave is master, whom we call Lord! Now the humbled one is the exalted One who sits at the right hand of God the Father! Now by his cross we, nobodies in the eyes of the world and, too often in our own eyes as well, are raised up to new life in him and with him.
And someday, in the fullness of time, in God’s good hour, the whole world will see and know Jesus as he is, no longer in darkness but in unspeakable light! They’ll no longer view him as an executed slave, a loser and a nobody, dead on a cross, but as the Lord of time and eternity; the Lord before whom every knee should bend, and every tongue confess that he is Lord. And when they do they’ll see that the risen Christ is still the crucified Christ, that the glorified Lord still bears the visible wounds on his hands and feet and side. Because the only way to really know Jesus, is to know him in his cross!
He died upon the lonely tree
forsaken by his God.
and yet his death means all to me
and saves me by his blood.
The world will never know his worth
the wise will never see,
But those forsaken, broken, bowed,
will recognize that tree.
And know that there God’s love does reign
and conquers sin and death;
Thwarts hate and evil, comforts pain,
gives hope while there is breath.
The nations grasp at wealth and power
while wars like tempests toss,
But finally in God’s good hour,
they’ll know him in his cross
Then wars will cease and weapons fall,
and fear will melt away.
For Christ will be their all in all,
from day to endless day.
© 2001 Richard L. Floyd
( I preached this sermon at The First Church of Christ in Pittsfield. It was included in the Festscrift for my teacher and friend Gabriel Fackre, Story Lines. Edited by Skye Fackre Gibson. Eerdmans, 2002. The concluding poem is a hymn text I wrote in 2001. The picture is John The Baptist pointing to the Crucified Jesus from the Isenheim altarpeice by Matthias Gruenwald.)