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.