For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18, NIV)
I had the most interesting conversation with a pastor friend of mine a few weeks ago. The conversation centered on the challenges of preaching to modern congregations while being true to an authentic representation of the Gospel. His frustrations were summed up in his statement, “Jesus don’t preach no more.” He talked about how (while he cannot compromise on the message of the Gospel), preaching Jesus, and him crucified, no longer seems to move people as it once did. This claim is often been explored by theologians, preachers and scholars alike, and the truth is that the central story of the crucifixion and resurrection is no longer received in the same way by congregations.
This conversation gave me pause as to why the current age needing someone preach the cross. The real question is “why I need to preach the cross?” In answering that question, I have to come to grips with the meaning of the cross in the Christian faith and more directly in my life. The cross of Christ is the real crux of Christianity (pun intended). The birth, life and death of Christ is recorded because of the cross. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that the cross is the reason for the gospels, the mission and the entire Christian faith. It is the middle move, or “new beginning” in the story of God’s plan for humanity’s redemption.
The cross however, had a more pragmatic meaning in the worldview of the gospels. The cross was a means of corporal punishment and execution. It served a macabre function in the society of first century Palestine. Convicted criminals were hung from its branches until they died and were left in the view of travelers along the road until their bodies rotted. It was used as a deterrent against criminal behavior and was extensively used for the poor and not rich in society. The cross was a place of gore and horrific human carnage. The irony is that Christianity celebrates this object of death and destruction as the means through which God acts on behalf of humanity. How can God use such a clearly horrific human construction as God’s instrument in salvation?
The truth of the matter is that we will never know why God chose the cross; that is indeed the mystery of the faith. Many preachers and theologians make claims of knowing, but I prefer to live with the uneasy mystery of the paradox of the cross: its history as an object of death and its symbol as an emblem for life. We have to live in the knowledge of the bloody history of the cross, yet that is not the end of the story. Since the cross is just a station on the road to salvation, it must be put in its proper place. The cross is the agent of Jesus’ death. Those facts are unavoidable if we believe the witness of the Gospels. The cross serves a function in executing Jesus, and if you believe he had to die as a part of that function, then its purpose has to be seen as part of the larger narrative.
The cross must be preached because of the inherent contradictions it conveys. Because the cross is not the end of the narrative, neither is death in the larger story of salvation. Recognizing that death has a place as the cross has a role, means you put the cross in context in the narrative. God through Jesus Christ dies on a cross and in so doing, the God in Christ identifies with the suffering of humanity and the systems of suffering that are part of human existence. Yet, because we believe there is a continuation to the story, we preach the ending as well; and it ends with an empty tomb. We can never get to that empty tomb without going through that ‘old rugged cross’. Through the cross, Jesus identifies and takes on our suffering and the horror of human domination and oppression. He claims it as His own though he didn’t have to. This act of love changes the meaning of the cross for Christians from not just being a place of punishment, but ironically, also of triumph. Through the light of the tomb, the cross is no longer a place of punishment, but instead a place that reminds us of perpetual victory.
Many of us seek a cross-less tomb that avoids the convicting and horrifying judgment that the cross forces us to confront. This theology is reflected in the Sunday celebrations without the “Good Friday mourning.” But in this day and age of prosperity and an oft watered down Gospel, the message of the cross has been lost on the present generation in the church. Triumph is real and available for those of us under the banner of the cross, but we need to always remember what it took to have the victory over sin, death and the grave. Remember that we have victory over the systems of dominance, oppression and violence. The empty cross constantly reminds us that we have the power to be better than what we are.
It wasn’t just a cross that paved the way for us, but there was a life and a model for living in a new kingdom in Jesus Christ. The signs of that kingdom are all around us if we choose to see them. Love is available for all of us living this life, so let’s live like we have not just encountered Jesus, but also encountered a cross along the way. For I believe that is the only way to get to an empty tomb.
This Lenten season, a vision of truth includes a recognition that abundant life had a price, and it was paid on hill far away, on an old rugged cross.