“What About the Cross?’
Hebrews 10: 11-18
What are we to make of the cross? How are we, in the 21st century, modern and enlightened people that we are, to understand the crucifixion of Jesus in the 1st century? Is the cross nothing more than a vestige of blood-filled, primitive religion which is to be excised in our modern world?
Try as we might — and we do try — as Christians we cannot escape the cross. Crucifixion texts abound throughout the New Testament:
- The gospels focus on the crucifixion and resurrection as the apex of the life of Christ.
- For Paul, the most prolific author and thinker of early Christianity, the sacrificial death of Jesus upon the cross is the inescapable truth. Remember that great statement by Paul? “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.”
To be a Christian, a “Christ-follower,” is to be surrounded by the cross; no, it is to be centered upon the cross. We worship with virtual images of the cross burned into our psyche. Early sanctuaries reflected the shape of the cross in their very architecture. Many of us love to sing the hymns of the cross.
Yet, when we speak of our faith in and love for Jesus Christ today, I hear very few references to the cross. It is as if we really don’t know what to do with the cross, the bloody, wretched cross. The cross offends our sensibilities and sense of decorum. After all, we are really good, lovable and intelligent people — why would we need a Savior to die on a cross for us?
So often we speak of the love of God, forgiveness from sin, peace with God and eternal life as if these were philosophical entities available on their own. The nicer we become the less meaning the cross seems to have for us. The great theologian and ethicist, H. Richard Niebuhr stated the essence of our modern theology in his now-famous quote from the middle of the last century: “A God without wrath brought men (sic) without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Contrast this with the gospel witness, i.e., the essence of the earliest Christian preaching, that forgiveness for sin and eternal life are available only through the sacrificial death by crucifixion of one Jesus of Nazareth. These views are not fully compatible. Either the cross is central, or the cross is unimportant.
My observation has been that this move away from having the cross as central to our faith and life is devastating to our faith. Why? Simply put: the further we move from the cross, the “better” we look to ourselves and each other and the less we see ourselves as sinners in need of atonement. Jesus did not die for good people…Jesus died for sinners. When we forget that we are sinners, we lose the essence of the gospel. When we diminish the cross, we lose our sense of total dependency upon God and of the depth of love that we encounter in this at once incredible and horrible event. Why?
In the cross we are confronted by the face of sin and evil such as we cannot ignore.
Often people ask: “Why is there such evil and suffering in the world?” My answer has become very simple: “Because we humans are alive and well — and we are sinners, pure and simple.” To be a sinner we do not have to kill another, steal from another or cheat on our spouse. To be a sinner all we have to do is choose that which is not of God or God’s will for our lives. Sin is about selfishness, about an egotism which reigns at the heart of our lives. Sin is about wanting my way, being master of my own ship, of claiming my own destiny rather than allowing God in Christ to set the course. Even “nice people” are sinners, are they not?
What face do we imagine when we speak of the face of evil? Charles Manson? Osama bin Laden? Adolf Hitler? Do we ever think of taking a mirror and looking into it? Ours is the face of evil — for in our sin we partake of evil. This is quite difficult to imagine, is it not?
Now that Debby and I have 3 grandchildren our lives have been enriched in so many wonderful ways. However, I have also been reminded of how difficult it is to reason with a 2-3 year old. When they get their minds made up they can be virtually impossible to guide, much less control. As I watched my sons/daughters-in-law working with their children (and they are wonderfully patient parents) I thought, “How must God feel about us?” God wants to bless us, to lead us in the paths that are good and right — and we want to fight God at every step. We want to go our own way, thinking that somehow we know best. When we grow a bit older we can see that the paths we choose apart from God so often end in pain, suffering, and sorrow — without any sense of hope or God’s presence. The path of life in God may also have pain, suffering and tragedy, but it is such that in Christ we will be able to accept and move through it. Apart from Christ our paths end in these tragic consequences; in Christ they move through them into a deeper sense of life than we could ever imagine. Salvation is through Christ — and it goes through Calvary.
When we look at the cross we are reminded that the removal of sin and evil was neither simple nor painless — and is for our sin and our evil. Sin and evil are real — and they are removed only through the atoning death of Jesus our Lord.
In the cross we are confronted by the Holiness and Love of God.
We don’t hear much about the holiness of God anymore. We tend to stress the love of God. However if we would understand the God of Holy Scripture, then we must see God as both holy and loving. These central attributes of God go together. To say that God is holy is to say that God is morally pure and perfect, i.e., that God is without sin. It is also to say that God is opposed to sin, to all that harms and destroys God’s creation. To say that God is loving is to say that God puts all creation, including humanity, before God’s self. When we say “God is love” we are saying that God desires with each and all of us an intimate relationship wherein we know and are known, fully and completely. These attributes of God, properly understood, are inseparable. Thomas Oden put it this way:
“God would not be as holy as God is without being incomparably loving. God would not be as loving as God is without being incomparably holy. God’s holiness without God’s love would be unbearable. God’s love without God’s holiness would be unjust. God’s wisdom found a way to bring them congruently together. It involved a cross.”
When I think of God’s holiness, I think of God’s fierce opposition to that which hurts us, i.e., to sin. God’s opposition to sin is not based in God wanting to hurt or punish us — God loves us. God wants the best for us — so when God says, “Don’t eat of the fruit of that tree or you will sure die,” God knows what God is talking about. For God love is not permissive — it is focused on guiding us into what is best for us. Adam and Eve believed the lie of Satan that God only wanted to keep them under God’s thumb, controlled and “imprisoned” as it were. What they discovered is that life as God designed was true freedom and joy, not the life that they chose. In the cross we find God’s holiness and love coming together to remove the presence of sin and evil from our lives.
In the cross we find the best image of God’s grace.
So often we throw around words like grace and forgiveness as if they were easy, peasy, nothing to it. As an agnostic philosopher once said, “Humans love to sin, God loves to forgive sin; ergo, this is the best of all possible worlds.” Yet, quite frankly, this is not true — at least this is not the true Christian message. Grace, the forgiveness by God of our sin, came at the highest price — the death of Jesus the Son of God upon an ugly and cruel cross.
To understand concepts such as grace, sin and forgiveness we must use some metaphors to help us comprehend the atonement, what Christ accomplished on the cross. None of these metaphors is perfect, but each can and does have an aspect through which we can better grasp God’s accomplishment in and through the cross of Christ Jesus.
One common metaphor is to see human existence separated from God by a vast and massive, impassable, sin-caused chasm: we cannot cross it by human means. God’s holiness (God’s refusal to be in the presence of sin) means that we cannot come fully into the presence of God. This is the reason why there are times when we “feel separated” from God. Apart from Christ we feel not the presence but rather the absence of God; we have a deep, deep longing for God and we cannot, on our own, cross that chasm. In the crucifixion/resurrection of Christ we have God bridging the chasm as only God can do, in Jesus the Christ.
Another metaphor is that of paying a legal debt/penalty we owe for our sin. The idea is that through our sin we are indebted to God; we must pay for our sin to be removed. Unfortunately, we cannot “pay our own way,” so to speak. God has already provided the payment in the form of Jesus Christ, for God pays the penalty for our sin, not us. It is as if God steps down from God’s place as judge and pays the penalty for us.
A sacrificial offering for our sin is a final commonly used metaphor. Judaism (and many other religions) practiced the blood sacrifice of animals as an offering for their sin. In our Hebrew’s texts the writer, an anonymous Christian who was probably a former Jewish priest, uses sacrificial imagery to portray Jesus as both the priest who offers the sacrifice and as the sacrificial offering himself. Because of the uniqueness of Christ — the Son of God who dies in our stead — no other sacrificial offering is necessary. The sacrifice for sin has been accomplished, once for all, in the death of Jesus.
While each of these metaphors has its limits, each is valuable in helping us to understand the centrality of the cross to atonement and therefore to Christianity. There is no atonement without the cross; there is no Christianity without atonement. Hence, there is no Christianity without the cross.
One of my homiletical mentors, John Killinger, introduced me to the short film “The Bridge.” I don’t know if you have ever seen that movie, but the ending is quite difficult.
It is the story of a fine young couple who have a son. They are very happy together, and the boy is trying to grow up to be just like his father. Then the film shows the father going off to work. He is the switchman for a railroad line that carries people on holiday from one place to another. Part of the line lies over a river, where it must be drawn back most of the time for boats to pass. It is his job to wait until the last moment, then pull the switch that swings the bridge into place before the thundering approach of the train. We, the viewers of the film, see what the father does not see: His little son has followed him to the river and is coming across the bridge. As the train whistle sounds to signal the approach of the speeding train the father sees the boy. If he closes the track, the boy will die. We watch the agony on his face. He loves the boy better than anything in his life. But finally he pulls the lever and locks the bridge into place. We see the people on the train laughing and having a good time as the train races across the bridge. They do not how narrowly they have averted disaster, or what it has cost the switchman.
This is what the cross is all about…and this is why we can never, ever omit the cross. Thanks be to God.
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d.
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262
November 15, 2015