We have images of the cross everywhere. We wear the cross as jewelry. We sing “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross”. As Lutherans we talk about a theology of the cross. Yet, for all this attention to the cross, do we know what it really means for us?
Some say the cross represents the necessary sacrifice for our salvation. True, Christ gave himself completely for our sake; that is to say, he gave himself sacrificially. Yet, the Bible makes it clear that GOD does not demand sacrifices (1 Samuel 15:22, Psalms 40:6-8, 50:8-14, & 51:16-17, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:6-8).
Some say the cross of Christ represents payment for our sins. But I recall one of my seminary professors challenging us: "If the cross of Christ is payment, then who is receiving the payment?" It doesn’t make sense to say that God is paying Himself. And if God is God, above all else, then there is no one else that God needs to pay.
Some say the cross shows us how to “bear our cross” in humility, but this gets twisted in corrupt ways. Slave owners taught slaves to suffer patiently and obediently. Abused women are told to go back to their abuser and endure their suffering in humility. And in glaring hypocrisy, many proponents of “suffering in humility” then argue that they have “the right” to defend themselves. Suffering meekly becomes a convenient tool to manipulate and control others.
So then, what is the cross? Cynthia Moe-Lobeda is a professor and theologian at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. In her chapter contribution to the book Cross Examinations: Reflections on the Meaning of the Cross Today, she offers us an understanding of the cross of Christ that calls us to live more fully engaged with life in God’s good creation.
First, the cross reveals that we’re “curved in on ourselves” (Luther’s phrase). Jesus Christ comes into a broken world. Through Him sinners are forgiven; the sick are healed; the cursed become blessed; the hungry are fed; suffering is relieved; and death is transformed to life.
But healing what is broken means recognizing that things are broken. Jesus revealed not just the brokenness of individuals, but the brokenness of whole systems. Religious systems didn’t have a solution for sin. Religious rules labeled and excluded the sick and suffering, not heal them. The Roman Empire claimed to be source of all goodness and benefits, yet vast portions of society had no share. The systems are sin-sick and serve their own needs.
The difficult thing (not just back then but for all of us in every time) is that we can’t remove ourselves from sinful and broken systems that surround us. The systems are too vast, too complex, too interconnected. Most of the time we just “go along to get along”.
And the hope-filled message of the cross is that Jesus shows up even here, in our broken lives and broken systems. The light shines into the darkness. Remember, Jesus was present even for the Roman centurion who stood guard at the foot of the cross (Luke 23:47).
Second, the cross shows that we have God’s unfailing love. Yes, we are sinful and broken people, stuck in and participating in sinful and broken systems. And yet, at the same time, we are people saved by the grace, love, and mercy of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the love of God coming into the world for the world (John 3:16-17); and Jesus says he now “abides in” us (John 15:1-4). At the cross we see that God’s love in Jesus Christ will not stop. That unfailing, unstoppable love for the whole creation lives in us and makes us one in Him (John 17:11).
Third, the cross points forward to the resurrection. Sure, the cross looks like defeat. Sure, some days it seems like the sin and evil of the world are just too much for us. But the resurrection says that there is more to the story. There is reason to hope; there is life and new life on the other side of the cross. Jesus rises and calls his followers to keep living the faithful life; to cast our nets into the water one more time (John 21:5-6) and to go to Galilee and carry on the ministry that He started (Mark 16:7). Death is not the end.
Fourth, the cross reveals that Christ is present in all things. The Word becoming flesh does not simply mean that God has joined humans; the amazing thing is that the Creator stepped down into the creation. God is present in these living bodies of flesh and blood; and when Christ dies, God is present also in that which is dead. And in the resurrection, everything old has passed away; everything has become new! (2 Cor. 5:17). This new creation is everything (Gal 6:15). Martin Luther wrote, “Christ is around us and in us in all places… [He] is present in all creatures, and I might find him in stone, in fire, in water…” The Earth is the dwelling place of God. This hurting and broken world is now filled with hope, life, and new life by the grace of Jesus Christ. We, the body of Christ, are called to care for and steward this good earth where Christ abides.
Pastor Erick Swanson