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Concerning the Cross: Are We Perverse or Profound?

 

“For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Mark 10:45

Not so long ago the New York Times newspaper published an article concerning a man and his peculiar hobby. The man lives in New Jersey , and his hobby is collecting items connected with state prisons and executions. “Here is the horsewhip with which unruly prisoners used to be flogged,” he announces dramatically. “And here are the manacles by which violent convicts were cuffed to the floor. And here is the noose that circled the neck of fourteen men and two women as they dropped to their death.” Government authorities in New Jersey wish the fellow would find another hobby. They look upon him as perverse. He’s an embarrassment. But the fellow refuses to find another hobby. He relishes bringing sightseers to the climax of his display: an electric chair where dozens of convicts were executed.

Are we Christians any less perverse? Every Lent we speak of the suffering of Jesus: the cruelty of his abandonment as the worst of his friends betrayed him and the best of his friends deserted him. Every Lent we recall the injustice meted out to him, the blows he received at the hands of judicial authorities, the cold contempt of soldiers, the whipping, the crown of thorns. And of course the climax of our annual rehearsing all this is the instrument of execution itself: the cross.

We are repelled by the man in New Jersey who polishes up his electric chair and then invites people to see it even as they pay him to lecture them about it. But don’t we polish up our cross (the church custodian does this)? Don’t we invite people to contemplate it even as we pay someone (the minister) to speak to them about it? Then what’s different about us? Is the church’s preoccupation with the cross as ghoulish as the fellow whose life revolves around his execution devices?

Everyone in this room finds any instrument of execution repugnant. We aren’t the first to feel this way, for in the ancient world everyone found the instrument of execution repugnant. The cross was repugnant to Romans, Greeks and Jews alike, albeit for different reasons.

The Romans viewed the cross with loathing. No Roman citizen could be crucified – for any reason. Then who could? Only subject peoples could be crucified, and in Roman eyes subject peoples were scarcely human in any case. Subject peoples who happened to be terrorists or military deserters or rapists: they could be crucified. Terrorists, deserters, rapists: the scum of the earth, Romans thought: loathsome.

The Greeks viewed the cross with loathing as well. The Greeks sought wisdom in philosophy. Philosophy dealt with notions that have universal validity: truth, goodness, freedom. Then Christians came along and insisted that truth and goodness and freedom were found not in universal ideas but in a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, who wasn’t even a philosopher. Greeks regarded all of this as ridiculous to the point of repugnant.

Jewish people viewed the cross with loathing as well. After all, they deemed Jesus to be a Messianic pretender. Since Jesus had been a victim of cruelty when the real Messiah was to eradicate cruelty, Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah. What’s more, any Jewish person who knew the sacred scriptures, especially the book of Deuteronomy, knew that anyone impaled on a stake was under God’s curse. The book of Deuteronomy said so in black and white.

The ancient world, whether Roman, Greek or Jewish, regarded the cross as every bit as repugnant as we regard electric chair or noose repugnant. Then why do we Christians feature the cross in every place of worship and announce it in every service of worship? Are we any different from the man in New Jersey ?

Yes, we are different. Unlike him we don’t regard the cross – unquestionably a means of execution – as entertainment. And like the apostles before us, we don’t trade on the physical horrors of the cross (even as they were no more horrible for Jesus than for the two men who died on either side of him.) More profoundly, like the apostles before us we glory in the cross because we know that here something was done for us we could never do for ourselves; here something was done for us that has the profoundest consequences for our life now and our life to come. In speaking of the cross week in and week out we aren’t perversely prattling on about something ghoulish. We are praising God for our salvation. Strictly speaking, in recalling the cross we aren’t recalling any execution, as if it made no difference who was executed. In recalling the cross we are seizing afresh the crucified one himself; in recalling the cross we are embracing as ardently as we can the one who died there for us, now lives among us, yet lives among us forever bearing the wounds of the cross. For while we can embrace our Lord Jesus today only because he’s been raised, he’s been raised with the signs of his crucifixion upon him still.

Gathering it all up we can say that Jesus Christ stands among us as the one whose cross-shaped wounds continue to call us to him. What can we say about him and his cross?

I: — The first thing we must say is that in his cross he has identified himself with sinners. To be sure, prior to the cross, throughout his earthly ministry, he identified with sinners.

Sinners, by definition, are those who aren’t “at home” with God. Jesus knew what it is not to be “at home.” He was born in a stable since there was no room for him in the inn. He didn’t belong. Subsequently he said he had nowhere to lay his head. A wanderer. Homeless. Misunderstood by family. Abandoned by friends. Isolated. He tasted the full taste of what it is not be “at home” anywhere.

It’s a favourite theme with novelists. It’s a major motif in existentialist philosophy. Humankind is rootless, alienated, wandering, homeless; lost in the cosmos.

The problem with the analysis which novelists and philosophers supply is that it isn’t nearly profound enough. They don’t get to the bottom of problem. They don’t understand the real problem is that we feel we’re not at home just because we aren’t at home; we aren’t at home with God. And the reason we aren’t at home with God is that we’ve been driven from intimacy with God on account of our sin. God’s judgement upon our sin has driven us from him. We don’t feel “at home” in the cosmos? What do we expect? We’re never going to feel “at home” in life when God’s judgement upon us has rendered us homeless as surely as Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden they called “home.”

When the cross loomed in front of Jesus he said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with.” But hadn’t he already been baptized? Yes, he had. He went to the Jordan where his cousin John was baptizing startled people who were newly horrified at their sinnership and were confessing it and repenting it. When John saw Jesus he said, “What are you doing here? You’ve nothing to confess.” “Baptize me just the same,” said Jesus, “for I am confessing on behalf of all men and women everywhere; I’m confessing on behalf of those who have just begun (but only begun) to see how twisted their heart is and on behalf as well of those who have yet to see it. I’m repenting on behalf of those who think their repentance is as deep as their sin (it isn’t) and also on behalf of those who are still spiritually asleep. I’m identifying myself with sinners; that is, with every last human being who has ever lived or ever will.”

Having identified himself with us in his baptism; having identified himself with us in his being nowhere “at home” throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ now identifies himself with us to the uttermost in his Father’s judgement upon us sinners. Unquestionably sinners are under the judgement of God. God’s judgement means condemnation. When Jesus cries “Why have you forsaken me?” he is identifying himself with us in his Father’s judgement on sinners. “Why have you forsaken me?” This is the cry of a man who feels the anguish of not being “at home” with his Father and knows precisely why, even as men and women everywhere feel themselves to be not “at home” but don’t know why.

But of course to look at the cross, to apprehend the cross, is to know why. To apprehend the cross is finally to have our sinnership made plain to us. To understand the cross is finally to understand just why we’ve never felt “at home”; namely, we haven’t been “at home” – with God – and none of this we knew until Jesus our Lord identified himself with us in his ministry, in his baptism, and pre-eminently in the “baptism” of the cross. Our situation before God has finally been disclosed to us.

II: — Sobered as we are at the disclosure of our situation before God, we nevertheless rejoice in the disclosure and thank God for it. For the revelation of our predicament is simultaneously the revelation of God’s provision for us. Certainly the cross acquaints us with the bad news about ourselves. But the cross acquaints us with the bad news only in acquainting us with the good news. For the good news is good just because the cross highlights our sin for us only in the course of bearing it and bearing it away. The cross acquaints us with the disease only in the course of providing us the cure. The cross informs us of our condemnation only in the course of telling us that someone else has borne that condemnation for us.

A minute ago I spoke of the man in New Jersey who won’t stop talking about his execution museum pieces. We think he’s unbalanced, since his prison artefacts announce only death. We Christians too won’t stop talking about the cross – but for an entirely different reason. We keep talking about the cross (admittedly an instrument of execution) just because the cross announces life. And knowing now that the cross announces life, we now understand how it is Jesus insisted from the first day of his earthly ministry to his last that the cross was the purpose of his coming. “The Son of Man,” Jesus said of himself, “came to give his life a ransom for many.” “And I, if I be lifted up (i.e., crucified) will draw all manner of men and women to me.” “This hour is my glory. Father, glorify yourself in me.” Unquestionably Jesus regards the cross as the purpose of his coming and the glue that integrates everything he does in his life leading up to the cross.

I fear there are many people today who think that Jesus came for some other purpose, any other purpose. I keep running into people, for instance, who think that Jesus came among us primarily to be a teacher, came among us to inform us wherever we might happen to lack information. The truth is, when it comes to his teaching, Jesus said very little that others didn’t say before him. There is very, very little in the teaching of Jesus that is unique to him. He is, after all, a son of Israel ; most of his teaching is simply a carrying-forward of what he learned from the spiritually learned people around him. For instance Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” But the rabbis in Israel had already said, “Where two or three are gathered around the Torah, around the Word of God, there the presence of God shines forth gloriously.” What our Lord is saying is so close to what he learned at school that we can’t acclaim him a startlingly novel teacher. But of course the Son of God who is also the Son of Man tells us himself that he came not to be a teacher primarily; he came to give himself a ransom for us. He came to be that provision which sinners need. He came to be that provision whereby the cure for our sin discloses the fact and nature of our sin. He came to be that remedy for our defilement by which we’d understand ourselves defiled. He came to be that salvation in the light of which we’d know we need saving. For it’s only the saved, isn’t it, who now know they must have needed saving.

Several times today I’ve quoted the text where Jesus says he came to give himself a ransom. The word “ransom” is always used in scripture to speak of release or deliverance. There were two kinds of people who were customarily ransomed: slaves and prisoners of war (in other words, those who are in bondage and those who are in the power of the enemy.) Jesus uses the analogy for one reason: it fits. Our sinnership binds us as firmly as if we were slaves or prisoners of an alien power. In point of fact there’s no “as if” about it: our sinnership is something from which we can’t deliver ourselves.

Still, there is deliverance as we receive, cherish and praise God for the provision he has made for us. If anyone says, “What’s all this talk about provision? Doesn’t God love us? Hasn’t he always loved us? What ‘provision’ has to be made?” – anyone who says this doesn’t understand the difference between love and mercy. To be sure God has always loved us, since he is love. Still, even while he loves us he can’t deny his judgement upon us. Since he can’t deny his judgement upon us, when his love and our sin meet – which is to say, when his love and his judgement meet – his love takes the form of mercy. Mercy is love absorbing the judgement we merit.

Then there is deliverance as we refuse to trifle with God’s mercy but instead welcome his provision whereby his loved poured over us, his judgment insisted on the truth about us, and his mercy brought it all together and provided our release from condemnation. There is deliverance as we embrace the One who is, in himself, all of this for us.

From time to time people tell me that the Christian faith is complicated. I hope they don’t think I make it appear complicated. In fact the Christian faith is simple. It’s gathered up most pithily in a statement Paul announced to the church in Corinth when the church there was on the point of misrepresenting the gospel. The statement: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who knew no sin, was made sin for us in order that we might be made the righteousness of God.” (2nd Corinthians. 5:20) In other words, Jesus Christ is God’s provision for us amidst our sin, and the provision that he is tells us the truth about ourselves. Is the truth about us the truth that we are sinners? The truth about us is that we are forgiven sinners. Remember, only the cure discloses the disease. Only the provision discloses the predicament. Only the remedy for the problem acquaints us with the problem. The truth of the cross is that we are forgiven sinners, thanks to the one who identified himself with us in all respects, thanks to him in whose company we can be “at home” with God and know it.

In truth aren’t at all like the odd-ball fellow in New Jersey . In fact strictly speaking we aren’t preoccupied with the cross; we are preoccupied with him whose cross it is; we are preoccupied with our Lord Jesus Christ, who comes to us in grace and wants only to bind us to him in faith.

He came to give himself a ransom. He came to clothe himself in our sin in order then to clothe us in his righteousness. Therefore we are glad to exclaim with the hymn writer, “In the cross of Christ I glory.”

Victor Shepherd
Good Friday 2004