The Cross- This has becomes one of the most recognized symbols in the modern world. I can remember when I was a child my mother taught me that if I ever got lost in an unfamiliar town I should look for a building with a cross on it. This meant it was a safe place to go. For others the cross has meant different things. It has been stitched on flags to lead people into battle where hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. It has been turned sideways as a symbol for violent regimes that seek the meaning of the cross in the form of “exterminating” the world of that which is different. The cross has also served as a symbol where more quiet and less noticeable violence has been wrought in the lives of innocent people. This has come in the form of rejection, abuse, scorn and shame. The cross has been a symbol branded as a source of prosperity. It is the brand symbol of the 7-step plan between you and a successful and happy life. Through it all I’m not really sure if we even understand the meaning of the cross anymore.
In a world where success is measured in dollars and possessions what does it mean to preach the Cross? What does it mean for the cross to be a symbol for the church when all too often we are most concerned about growth in numbers and money? Does the cross truly serve as an adequate symbol of those kinds of goals and aspirations? For this blog entry, I want to explore what we might infer as the meaning of the Cross as the symbol of Christ’s death.
1 Corinthians 1:23 says: but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (NRSV). I truly feel this verse speaks more to the modern world now than at any other point in human history. We can merely take out the “Jew” and “Gentile” reference and put in their place other groups. “A stumbling block to the poor and destitute and foolishness to the privileged”? How about “foolishness to the prosperity driven, possession consumed, profit motivated American culture?” Is that more direct and clear? You see, any way we slice this the Cross does not match up with any aspect of human life as many of us understand it.
So what do we do with it? Do we ignore the cross in favor of the happier Easter story? Well I’m not sure Easter means anything without the Cross. Do we explain it away so as to avoid the discomfort that comes from salvation in the form of a Cross? Many have tried this. Do we refer to the cross solely as a sign of the guilt of humanity and use it as the sharp edge of the sword we try to wield against those who don’t believe as we do? Again, many have tried this and they’re just fine with these implications.
I wonder if we can only begin to talk about what the Cross means once we acknowledge who God is. Is God the God who seeks to bludgeon us with guilt and shame? Is God some sort of blood thirsty God who craves violent sacrifice for human iniquity? Surely not on either account. But this does not deny that through the cross we can catch a glimpse at the peculiar nature of God. For some reason this God doesn’t care about fancy cars and nice homes. This God could care less about fads and pursuits of happiness. This God cares nothing about power and self-esteem. Rather, this God cares about radical love and relationship. The peculiar nature of this love is that it will love so much that it is willing to suffer in order to be close to us. So you can say the cross requires you to talk about human sin. It’s unavoidable. But, in our most honest moments, we might admit that the human condition and potential and enlightenment aren’t really what they’re cracked up to be. We aren’t as good as we want to think. We don’t love in some sort of generic way as easily as artists might sing about or poets might write about. People are both inherently good and bad. But we can’t begin to know or speak of human sin until we speak of the God who relentlessly pursues us in spite of our sin and shortcomings.
The cross teaches us that if love is to triumph over all it must be a divinely peculiar kind of love. It must be a love that is willing to suffer for the sake of others. It must be a love that is willing to lose everything so that it might gain more than it ever could imagine. And the Church must live out this kind of love. Fred Craddock reminds us of this when he says, “There’s something wrong with the logic that says the death of Jesus is the source of life for the world but the death of the Church is the end of the world.” The Church must live and preach and love with the peculiar kind of Cruciform love that would give itself unto death for the sake of world. As individual Christians we must live and love as though we might dare to give our lives for everyone around us. And we can’t do this because we want anything in return. We can’t fully do it unless we dare to stand in the shadow of that symbol that boldly states to the world that everything we know as gain is loss and everything we know as loss is, in the end, where we gain. This God specializes in that sort of bold living and dying. And we can’t give of ourselves for anyone until we know the God who gave of Himself for everyone.
The Cross calls into question everything we’ve likened with esteem and relevance in our lives-including warm and fuzzy Triumphalist Christianity. It stares back at us as the symbol of the utter reality that life truly is a mess. In it we are both terrified and met with the grace that is found in the fact that we are not God and that that which is God has come to us in the strangest and most loving fashion. And we’re left awestruck in the face of such a sign.
So maybe, just maybe, by God’s grace, we might catch a glimpse of a Cross that truly looks drastically different from any one we’ve seen before.
Below is an article about Brian McLauren’s new book “A New Kind of Christianity”
I must admit that I have been a skeptic of McLauren’s since he began gaining popularity. I am always leery of anyone who describes a Christianity with too much cultural relevancy. On the other hand, I must also admit that I am incredibly intrigued by this book. It begs questions I have wrestled with since I began seminary. Could we actually create an Evangelicalism that is not politically motivated, close-minded, exclusivist, self-righteous, etc., etc. etc. (you can tell I’ve struggled with this for awhile)?
I wonder if we can actually embody a faith in Jesus Christ as God Incarnate without damning people in the process? Can we create a notion of faith that seeks salvation in a holistic fashion (body, mind, soul, and circumstance)? Can we be a people of God who tries to expand our communities rather than seeking to define more bluntly the borders of our communities?
I am both encouraged and inspired by the possibilities of this book. I am encouraged that a name like McLauren being attached to a new brand of evangelicalism will give this movement of evangelical culture a mainline presence. I am inspired that the work many are doing to blend the current poles of Christianity into a Jesus-centered, justice-seeking, and culturally defining faith seems to be gaining traction. Hopefully the day will come when the Religious Right has no voice. And on that day maybe, just maybe, those who see faith a matter of separation and exclusion instead of inclusion and transformation will no longer have a say in what the Gospel of Jesus Christ means for the world. At least that’s my hope…
This article is absolutely amazing. Stanley Hauerwas articulate both the shortcoming of the Church in America as the “American Church” and not always the Church of Jesus Christ. But then he also offers some hope of the direction the church can go in our contemporary times that might actually lead to being a more faithful church. This is a must read! (Big thanks to Brad East for the link)
So I can honestly say that I haven’t really been a fan of the United Methodist Church’s ad campaign “ReThink Church” since it began. There is just something about these sleek and professional ads that make me leery of the fact that such ads are supposed to represent the denomination I am a part of. Have any of you seen these ads:
Now before I continue let me offer a few words to preface my feelings about these ads. First, I think there is something to be said about church being a verb. That’s a great notion and one that should inspire the United Methodist Church to become more socially active. Second, I probably chose their worst ad to display here. But there are many and they might be judged a little better. I chose this to help better clarify a greater point. So now that I’ve said that…
Do you notice something missing from these ads for the United Methodist Church? Maybe God??? It feels like a little bait-and-switch to advertise yourself as this inclusive social club only to surprise folks at the door when they realize it’s a church they are going to. Please note my sarcasm there. I also have a problem with this strange notion that the UMC thinks people are naive enough to come to a Sunday morning worship based on some quaint ad about how church is really like a basketball game.
I also would like to ask higher-uppers in the UMC if they think disguising church as something ordinary will actually inspire people to get involved. If church were just another basketball game then why should I get up at such an irrational time on a Sunday morning to be a part of it? Can’t I just stay with the things already a part of my life that let me sleep in on Sundays? In other words, if church were actually like everything else in my life or on TV then why come?
Why can’t the church just offer, well, God? Why do we have to trust modern technology and sleek ad campaigns to do our job as God’s witnesses in the world? Church is different. So what? We in the church might be surprised how many people are actually looking for something different these days.
Don’t get me wrong. The United Methodist Church needs a jump start in expressing our voice for social concerns. But I don’t really think we will EVER do that with any kind of theological integrity through ads like Rethink Church. In a world where people suffer from so many social ills I have a hard time believing that being a part of a basketball game or a daycare center can offer people real hope or salvation. They can be means by which God’s message is better conveyed. But they can’t EVER be a substitute for what the Church is about at its core. We dare to worship a peculiar God who chose to reveal God’s self through a peculiar man from Nazareth. And this man died on a cross for people who were too busy to leave the ordinary aspects of their life to join his social revolution. And this man rose from the dead for people who for the most part were too busy with activities to notice. And our hope is in that cross and empty tomb. And yes, such hope is lived out when church becomes a verb and when it is at it’s most inclusive state. But we can’t forget what makes us unique in the first place as the Church. So forgive me if I don’t think quaint activities like basketball games and daycares could ever to fully articulate the meaning of Church.
Here is a thought provoking Lenten blog entry by Bishop Will Willimon on what it means to preach the Cross:
A robust theology of the cross is a reminder to us preachers that there is no eloquent, rhetorically savvy way by which our congregations can ascend to God. All of our attempts to climb up to God are our pitiful efforts at self-salvation. The gospel is not a story about how we are seeking God, but how God in Christ seeks us. God descends to our level by climbing on a cross, opening up his arms, and dying for us, because of us, with us. Paul’s thoughts on the foolishness of preaching that avoids “lofty words of wisdom” suggests that Christian rhetoric tends to be simple, restrained, and direct – much like the parables of Jesus. The Puritans developed what they called the “plain style” of preaching out of a conviction that Christian speech ought not to embellish, ought not to mislead hearers into thinking they there was some way for a sermon to work in the hearts and minds of the hearers apart from the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes sermons work.
Christian theology has always affirmed that the cross is not only a window through which we see the true nature of God as the embodiment of suffering love but also the truthful mirror in which we see ourselves. Cruciform preaching can’t help but speak of our sin. Jesus was nailed to the wood on the basis of a whole host of otherwise noble human ideals and aspirations like law and order, biblical fidelity, and national security. Preaching offers the grace of God along with a good dose of honesty about the human condition, honesty that we would not have had without the cross. After Calvary we could no longer argue that we are, down deep, basically good people who are making progress once we get ourselves organized and enlightened. The cross is also a reminder that Jesus’ preaching was brutally rejected and if our preaching is about Jesus, then it will often be rejected as well. There is no way to talk about gospel foolishness without risking rejection. Preachers therefore ought to be more surprised when a congregation gratefully understands, receives, and inculcates our message rather than when it misunderstands, rejects, and ignores our message. “We are fools for the sake of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:10).
Because of the cross, preaching Jesus can be a perilous vocation. One of the first great Christian sermons was that of Stephen who, for his homiletical efforts, was stoned to death (Acts 7-8). Christian preachers not only talk like Jesus but sometimes suffer and die like Jesus. Jesus was upfront in saying that the cross is not optional equipment for discipleship: “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). When this episode is reported by Luke (Lk. 9:18-26) Jesus goes on to relate cross bearing to “me and my words” (v. 26). Sometimes, the particular, peculiar cruciform burden that preachers must bear is the words of Jesus. The cross is not some chronic illness, not some annoying person. The cross is that which is laid upon us because we are following a crucified savior and, for us preachers, having to proclaim the words of this savior can be quite a burden. For Paul, the cross is not only something that God does to and for the world, unmasking the world’s gods, exposing our sin, forgiving our sin through suffering love, but also the cross is the pattern for Christian life. He could say, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20, as translated in the NRSV footnote). And yet, the good news is that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, which is to say as burdensome and difficult as Jesus and his words can be, they are less burdensome and more fun than most of the other burdens the world tries to lay on our backs. Of this I am a witness.