Jesus on the cross is at the center of the Christian life and faith, but how often do we consider its meaning and significance in our faith life. Maybe it is because we see it everywhere - on signs and bumper stickers, tattoos, earrings and necklaces, in art, film, and television - with so many cross encounters we may forget what a powerful and troubling image the cross is.
But, the reality of the cross is that it was an instrument of death used on those who stood against the empire. The cross was considered a death of shame. The first followers of Jesus expected, even wanted, a God of power. Instead here is a Messiah who hangs on a cross. The Son of God on a cross! What is the picture of God now, if not a mighty warrior king as the expected? As they wanted? How can they speak of God in light of the cross? In reading the Bible we discover two important observations about the cross.
First no one expected God’s promised Messiah to die on a cross. The Messiah was to overthrow and destroy those who occupied Israel and bring about God’s eternal kingdom on the throne of David. The very fact that Jesus, the Messiah, dead on the cross is the way that God choose to be revealed to the world then they needed to rethink everything they thought they knew about God, the world, and their faith. In many ways the New Testament is an attempt to make sense of their scriptures (the Old Testament) in light of the cross of Christ.
Second, even as the cross was unexpected, even more so was the resurrection, so unexpected that no one in the four Gospels at first believed the message of Jesus’ resurrection. The news created fear, doubt, and questions, when they first heard it Jesus’ disciples didn’t believe it. Knowing this helps us be patient with ourselves as we try to makes sense of our own lives in the light of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
For the early Christians the cross shaped all of their thinking and conversations about God. Which can be challenging, as they (we) often think about God in terms of qualities that God must have. That is, we think of God as being omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), all just, all holy, etc. These qualities make sense because God bigger than anything we can imagine.
But when we see God only as all powerful, all knowing, so big, so just, so holy it becomes hard for us to imagine this God being involved with us, caring for us, being able to put up with us. God can become crushing and terrifying. That was Martin Luther’s struggle, God so terrified him it made him hate God causing him to hate himself. So Luther started to look at God through the person of Jesus, the one who came into the world, who taught and preached, healed and forgave, the one who died on the cross and rose again.
Thus in the cross we redefine all our attributes of God. What does all knowing look like when Jesus is afraid or uncertain in the garden of Gethsemane? What does all powerful look like when you see Jesus, whom we confess as God, hanging on the cross? How do we see God as life with Jesus on dead on the Cross or in the tomb? How does believing in Jesus Christ “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; He descended into hell. On the third day He arose again,” effect how we see God, one another, and the world?
With the cross in the center of his faith Martin Luther became convinced of two things. First, the God of attributes (all knowing, all holy, all just, etc.) can ultimately only terrify us because we will never measure up to such a God. It was this view enslaved Luther with shame and fear. Second, in the cross of Christ we see God truly revealed. This God is not only powerful but also vulnerable, just but also forgiving, all knowing but also loving. We need to redefine what we mean by words like power and justice in light of what we see God actually do in Jesus. All of our conversations about God needed to start at the cross. In this way the cross shapes all that we say, see, and think about God, revealing to us a God we probably would not expect but a God we desperately need. The God of the cross.
In Christ’s Love,