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The Cross of Christ

 

(delivered at Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto, August 2000)

The Cross of Christ

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and
him crucified.”
1 Corinthians 2:2

 

“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”, the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth. “I’ve got only one sermon in my briefcase. It’s about the cross. If you don’t like it, too bad, because you won’t hear anything else from me.” Why did he tell them they’d hear about Christ crucified only as long as he had breath? Paul knew how prone the Corinthian Christians were to disdain the cross of Jesus, and having disdained their Lord’s cross to disregard their own cross and instead embrace the “glitzy”, the sensational, the showy, the self-indulgent. He knew that unless they were reacquainted with the cross their faith would erode (since faith is always faith in and faith quickened by the crucified himself). Unless they were reacquainted with the cross their understanding would unravel until it became no more than a caricature of Christian truth. Unless they were reacquainted with the cross their discipleship would cease to be cruciform as cross-bearing was forgotten and self-indulgent ease took over. The Christians in Corinth were undoubtedly Christians; Paul never denied that they were. He was also convinced, however, that their spiritual life had declined and was in danger of sinking even lower. Their faith was at risk; their understanding was at risk; their discipleship was at risk. Only the word of the cross could correct them. Then the word of the cross was the only word they were going to hear from him.

 

I: — If we are going to understand the cross as it is attested in scripture, then we must begin where scripture begins. Scripture begins with God’s holiness.

God’s holiness is God’s own Godness, that which constitutes him uniquely God. In the first place God is holy in that he is utterly distinct from his creation. God is not to be identified with any part of his creation or any aspect of it.

In the second place God’s holiness means that he can’t be measured or assessed by anything other than himself. God is the absolute standard of himself.

In the third place God’s holiness means that God’s character is without defect or deficiency. God’s character is free from taint of any sort. God’s love is free from sentimentality; God’s anger is free from ill temper; God’s judgement is free from arbitrariness; God’s patience is free from indifference; God’s sovereignty is free from tyranny.

In the fourth place God’s holiness means that all the aspects of God’s character just mentioned are gathered up into a unity. Just as every shade of the spectrum from infrared to ultra-violet is gathered up into what we call “light”, so every dimension of God’s character and God’s transcendence is gathered up into God’s holiness.

God’s holiness is what scripture is actually about from cover to cover. To be sure, scripture is also about the holiness of God’s people, but always about this derivatively, secondarily. Primarily scripture has to do with God’s resolute assertion of his uncompromised holiness.

 

This lattermost point is important, for in our era the cross isn’t seen to be about God’s holiness. In our era the cross is viewed simply as one more instance of human virtue. The world has never been without its martyrs, for instance, and the cross of Jesus bespeaks his martyrdom. The world has never been without those possessed of the courage of their convictions, and Jesus plainly possessed the courage of his convictions. The world has never been without those victimised by political and religious power brokers, and Jesus is one more victim.

But the apostles never speak like this of the cross of Jesus. John the Baptist was victim; John possessed the courage of his convictions; John was a martyr; yet the apostles never speak of the death of John as they do of the death of Jesus. The cross of Jesus has a force, a significance that the beheading of John doesn’t approach.

What’s more, the cross of Jesus is that one, singular event that looms over everything in scripture. While the public ministry of Jesus lasted up to three years, over 50% of the written gospels concerns one week only (the death-week) of Jesus. The apostles see that the older testament anticipates the cross on page after page, from the story of Abraham and Isaac to the pronouncements of the prophets. They insist, together with Paul, they will preach only “the word of the cross.” They understand the resurrection of Jesus to seal the sacrifice of the cross; they understand the Holy Spirit to vivify the preaching of the cross. Then what it is about the cross that renders it the event in human history, the event in the drama of salvation, the event in the life of God himself apart from which, say the apostles, there is no possibility of life eternal for us?

Here we return to the centrality of God’s holiness. In view of the centrality of God’s holiness, everything about him and us must be understood in terms of his holiness. Sin is our defiance of God’s holiness. God’s anger (his reaction to our sin) is the reaction of his holiness. God’s patience with us is the persistence of his holiness. And his love? God’s love is his holiness refusing to compromise itself even as it refuses to abandon us. If God’s holiness refuses to compromise itself even as it refuses to abandon us, where does it all come to expression? What is the outcome? It all comes to expression in the cross. And the cross, the outcome of it all, is the triumph of God’s holiness.

Let us be sure we understand something crucial. Because God is holy, he is jarred by our sin. Jarred? Sin does more than assault him; sin offends him. He is repulsed by it. He finds it loathsome, so very loathsome, in fact, that he can’t tolerate it. Since there’s no sin apart from sinners, God finds sinners loathsome and can’t tolerate them. Then he has only two choices: either he annihilates sinners, or he remedies their sinfulness. It’s plain that God has chosen not to annihilate sinners (for the time being, at least.)

To be sure, he has every right to annihilate us. For we are ungrateful, defiant, insolent people who owe him our existence and our every blessing, even as we persist in ignoring him, never thinking that our ignoring him is an insult to him as life-giver and a slander upon his goodness.

Our society assumes that to ignore the God whose holiness is his very Godness; our society assumes that to ignore him is merely an option, a preference, a taste. A few people seem to relish “religion”; most do not. But in any case there’s no disputing taste. Fools! To ignore the one to whom we owe our existence and our every blessing is colossal ingratitude, inexcusable ingratitude, as offensive as it is unreasonable. Such ingratitude, however, is never mere ingratitude; it is also contempt. Yet our contempt of God is also folly for us. To perpetuate such folly when God sustains us moment-by-moment, and sustains us despite our folly; this is more than folly; this is folly-induced blindness. In view of our ingratitude, insolence and self-willed blindness it shouldn’t surprise us that God finds us loathsome. Anything else would mean that his holiness had disappeared; which is to say, that he himself had ceased to be God.

Revulsion, we should note in this context, is an affective reaction to human sin: it’s how God feels about us. Anger, on the other hand, is a volitional response to sin: it’s what God does about us. What does he do? He debars us; he denies us access to him. He can’t pretend that we are glad, grateful, obedient sons and daughters when we aren’t. He can’t pretend that we are fit to enjoy his presence when we are no more fit for him than the tone-deaf person is fit to enjoy a concert or the person whose voice resembles a dial-tone is fit to be an opera singer. God’s holiness has brought us to this point: either in his holiness he has to banish us or he has to remedy us.

Because God’s love is holy love he is going to provide what the apostle John calls “the remedy for the defilement of our sin.” To say that God’s love is holy is to say that his love is neither sentimental nor petulant. Because his love isn’t sentimental his love won’t let us off; yet also because his love isn’t petulant his love won’t let us go. In other words, not only is God’s love righteous, it is also resolute. His holy love will provide the remedy for the defilement of our sin.

The reason that the cross dominates all of scripture is that in the cross God’s holy love absorbs his holy anger and his holy revulsion. In the cross the judgement of the holy God is enacted and displayed. In the cross of Jesus the judgement of the holy God is borne by the Son of God — which is to say, borne by the Father himself, for Father and Son are one in nature, one in judgement, one in the execution of that judgement, and one in its absorption. The cross is the triumph of God’s holiness in that God’s relentless opposition to sinners and his unending love for them; his revulsion before sinners and his patience with them; his authority over sinners and his self-willed humiliation beneath them; all of this is concentrated in the cross and finds pin-point expression there.

I have said that in the cross the judgement of God is seen to be operative: his face is set against sin, and sin must issue in alienation from him. Were there no judgement upon sin, God would cease to be holy. Were God to remain unaffected by our sin; were God to be aware of our sin but indifferent concerning it; were God to know of our sin yet not react to it, all the while remaining stolidly impassive, he would be possessed of the grossest character defect. Our sin provokes God’s wrath. His wrath in turn mobilises his judgement. Then in the face of our sin there has to be anger-fuelled judgement.

Yet if there were judgement only, the wrath of God would be fulfilled but the purpose of God would be frustrated, for now God would have given up that for which he made us in the first place, people dear to him who live for the praise of his glory. In the cross, however, God honours all that his holiness entails even as he fulfils his purpose in fashioning holy people who love him, obey him, serve him and lend glory to his name.

I am a clergyman in The United Church of Canada. Which is to say, I serve in a denomination whose moderator, Rev. William Phipps, has denied the fact and significance of the incarnation not once but many times, not inadvertently but knowingly, not in isolation but supported in his denial by officials and dignitaries throughout the denomination. What Phipps and his supporters appear not to understand is this: the incarnation is essential to the cross, to the atonement. We can be made “at one” with God only as God the judge does two things: one, as God the judge exercises his judgement on sin and the penalty (alienation from him) is enforced; two, as God the judge absorbs that judgement in himself. Without the first, God’s character would degenerate and he would cease to be holy; without the second, God would remain holy but our predicament would remain hopeless. God can condemn sin and absorb that condemnation himself only if the human bearer of that judgement is also the divine bearer. Apart from the incarnation the cross is nothing less than monumental injustice: Jesus is punished undeservingly by a God who is simply unfair. Apart from the incarnation the cross has nothing more to do with our destiny and our future than has the death of John the Baptist. In the light of the incarnation, however, the just judge whose holiness will not permit him to wink at sin is also the loving father whose absorbing his judgement in himself creates a future and a hope we should otherwise never have. This is the point Phipps never gets.

In the cross God’s judgement is unmitigated, as our Lord’s cry of dereliction makes plain. In the cross too God’s love is undiminished, for how much more could he love us than to submit himself to humiliation, torment, and self-alienation in the Son?

To deny the incarnation isn’t to get rid of excess baggage, an intellectual encumbrance in the 20th century. To deny the incarnation, rather, is to cut the nerve of faith, for the only God there is to believe in is the one whose holiness can’t be compromised; and the only future we sinners can have depends on the God who in the Son incarnate bore his own judgement on us and bore it away. No incarnation, no atonement; no atonement, nothing but condemnation for humankind without hope of reprieve.

The atonement, the cross, is the triumph of God’s holiness in the face of human sin as God’s character is unimpugned and his truth is unaltered and yet his purpose is fulfilled and his people are recovered to be and remain the apple of his eye.

In biblical Hebrew there is no word for “doubt.” There is no word for “doubt” just because God’s inescapable holy presence, charged with his power and purpose, renders doubt groundless. In Hebrew thought God is the omnipresent, inescapable, immeasurably weighty reality. Doubt here, however understandable in terms of human psychology, is in reality as unsubstantial, groundless, as doubt of the presence of air, doubt of the fact and significance of breathing, when all the while the “doubter”, so called, is breathing air. While there is no word in biblical Hebrew for “doubt” there are, however, many words in biblical Hebrew for “wonder.” There are many words for “wonder” just because God’s inescapable holy presence, charged with his power and purpose, calls forth no end of wonder.

We hear such adoring wonder in the hymn, “How Great Thou Art”:

And when I think
That God, his Son not sparing,
Sent him to die,
I scarce can take it in.

And in a hymn older still Isaac Watts exclaims, “When I survey the wondrous cross” only to conclude,

Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

God’s holy love is brought to effectual focus in the cross. The cross in turn is the triumph of God’s holy love over sin and ingratitude and unbelief. Then the one thing we must do is suspend our unbelief. We should suspend our unbelief, especially since unbelief is as groundless, as unsubstantial, as the psychotic person’s raving about an imaginary world that doesn’t exist. More to the point, we should suspend our unbelief since God hasn’t suspended his mercy but rather prolongs the day of grace.

Faith is our grateful surrender to God’s holiness, therein to be rendered holy ourselves and made fit to glorify him and enjoy him forever.

 

II: — Yet it isn’t enough to be possessed of that faith which glorifies him and enjoys him. Faith always seeks understanding, and therefore we who are the beneficiaries of the cross must have our understanding refined in the crucible of the cross, for then our understanding will be purified as dross is melted out and discarded.

Think, for instance, of how we understand power. In my 1st year SystematicTheology class I always ask the students about the Christian meaning of such words as “power” or “almighty” or “sovereignty.” I always ask the students, “In Calvin’s Institutes, the 2000-page magnum opus that is Calvin’s single largest work, how many times does the expression ‘the sovereignty of God’ occur?” The answer is “none.” Nowhere in the Institutes does Calvin speak of God “the sovereignty of God.” Since the post-Calvin Calvinist tradition has virtually identified Calvin with this expression, the fact that he doesn’t use the expression ought to make those of us who love him pause and think.

Now I am not denying that Calvin believed in the sovereignty of God. Of course he did, as all Christians do. The crucial point here, rather, is what is meant by God’s sovereignty? How is that sovereignty exercised? Next I tell my students that since the cross dominates scripture, we must understand sovereignty in the light of the cross.

Now to be sure the cross means ever so much. (Part of the meaning of the cross we have already examined tonight.) Yet it can never be denied that the cross means too that there is no limit to God’s vulnerability. God’s wrestling with Israel throughout Israel’s history highlighted God’s vulnerability again and again. God is Israel’s creator and sustainer yet is treated as if he were an intruder. God is Israel’s judge yet is mirthfully dismissed. God is Israel’s lover yet his love is thrown back in his face, wrapped in insult and ingratitude. God stands by Israel when Israel is assaulted, yet Israel doesn’t stand by God when God is affronted. The history of God’s engagement with Israel is God’s self-exposure to contempt and ridicule and abandonment. Yet in all of this God’s vulnerability hasn’t reached its zenith. His vulnerability will expose him ultimately to a cross. The cross means there is no limit to God’s vulnerability.

And the resurrection? The resurrection means there is no limit to the effectiveness of God’s vulnerability. (And here is where I pick up again those 1st year students who had given up on me, thinking, no doubt, that their beloved professor of theology didn’t believe in God’s sovereignty.) God’s sovereignty is the triumph of his vulnerability. God’s sovereignty is his vulnerability rendered everywhere victorious.

We must never think that because God has given himself into the hands of evil men and women he has given himself over to them. We must never think that because God is willing to suffer for those he loves, and suffer immeasurably, God is therefore useless. On the contrary, just because his suffering is effective his suffering can save us.

Most Christians, I have found, look upon the cross as an episode in Christ’s life, an episode he put behind him in much the same way that he put his infancy behind him and then his childhood and then his adolescence. His public ministry, another episode, was unfolding (not without difficulty) when one day (a Friday, it so happened) he had a bad day, a really bad day, the worst day he’d ever had. But never mind, he got over it as Easter Sunday followed; things have been looking up ever since.

But the cross of Christ isn’t an episode in his life. It isn’t a bad day that he put behind him as things took a turn for the better. Let us never forget that the crucified one is raised wounded. Our Lord is not raised healed; he is raised wounded. Let us never forget that the ascended Christ suffers yet. Scripture is perfectly clear on this matter. The hymn writer knew whereof he spoke when he wrote, “Rich wounds, yet visible above.”

Since the ascended, glorified, omnipotent Lord suffers yet, it’s plain that his rulership of the cosmos is a rule he exercises from the throne of his cross.

No one grasped all of this better than Martin Luther. Over and over in his writings Luther speaks of the “theology of the cross”, theologia crucis.

When the world beholds the crucified it sees only shame. The apostle John, however, rightly discerned the cross to be the “hour” of Christ’s glory.

The world sees the cross as weakness so weak it couldn’t be weaker. The apostle Paul, however, knew the cross to be God’s strength, a strength so effective it couldn’t be stronger.

The world sees the cross as nothing more than folly. (Imagine the folly of someone who identifies himself so thoroughly with condemned men and women that their condemnation spills over onto him.) Yet the church knows the cross to be that wisdom of God which only the Spirit-illumined can recognize as wisdom.

The world sees the cross as that hideous moment when death gloats. Disciples know that the cross yields life, life eternal.

Luther knew that the cross is the crucible of all Christian understanding. For this reason Luther knew that in the crucible of the cross the world’s understanding is transmogrified as the resurrection renders the cross victorious and therein renders Christian understanding truth.

Luther knew that while the world regards the cross as proof of God’s uselessness, the cross in fact is the venue not only of God’s mightiest work but also of his characteristic work.

 

III: — Did I say “characteristic work?” I did. But if the cross is where God acts most effectively because most characteristically, then our discipleship is characteristically Christian and therefore effective only if it is cruciform. Then vulnerability for the sake of Christ’s kingdom has to characterise our discipleship. And such vulnerability will always be invigorated with the selfsame resurrection that rendered our Lord’s vulnerability victorious.

I want you to form in your mind’s eye the following picture of an old man.

He is age 81.
He has been trudging from door to door for four consecutive days, begging money.
It is wintertime, and as he tells us himself, his feet have been immersed from morning
to night in ice-cold slush.
He stops begging at the end of the fourth day inasmuch as he has been overtaken by
what he calls a “violent flux.” (Today we should say “uncontrollable diarrhoea.”)
By this time he has garnered 200 pounds wherewith to purchase food, clothing and
coal for poor people who are very dear to him.
He is not a stupid man. In fact he has written 35 tomes, including a textbook on logic.
Let me say it again: he is not a stupid man. In addition to his native English he knows
thoroughly eight other languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, German, Dutch,
Italian, and Spanish. In fact he knows these eight languages so very thoroughly that
he has written a grammar in seven of them. He reads comfortably in more languages
than Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Joseph Butler or Immanuel Kant.  Still, in his
transparent humility he will undergo any humiliation and endure any suffering for
the sake of a cruciform ministry modelled after the cruciform ministry of his Lord.
His name is John Wesley.

Discipleship is always cruciform. Take the simple matter of forgiveness. It is a simple matter. Simple, I said; I didn’t say easy. Forgiveness is never easy. Is a cross ever easy? Remember, what we forgive is precisely what can never be excused. Most people confuse these two matters. Most people, I have found, assume that to forgive is to find an excuse for something or accept an excuse for something. In any case, they think that to forgive is to excuse. But in fact forgiving and excusing are mutually exclusive. We excuse the excusable. We forgive, on the other hand, what is inexcusable, utterly inexcusable. We forgive precisely what can never be excused. It can only be forgiven. But will it be forgiven? Only those people forgive who have been seared and stamped with the cross. Forgiveness entails vulnerability before an offender when this offender has wounded us more than she will ever know.

All discipleship is cruciform. All Christian service is cruciform. I was a pastor for 30 years. I know how difficult, understandably difficult, it is to have people commit themselves to arduous tasks of major inconvenience over a long time. Long before I became a pastor I learned that my late father, during the 11 years our family lived in Edmonton (where I was born); my late father visited Fort Saskatchewan Penitentiary every Sunday afternoon for 11 years. As soon as we moved to Winnipeg my father began spending Sunday afternoons (he was in his own church Sunday morning and evening) at the Stony Mountain Penitentiary. He visited penitentiaries weekly to befriend and conduct worship for convicts who were as dear to him as the poor were to Wesley.

Let’s come back to Luther. Luther said that the Christian never lives in himself. The Christian lives in another. He lives in Christ by faith, and he lives in the neighbour by love. Living in the neighbour by love: what does this entail? How much love is love? What does it cost?

In the first place, said Luther, we live in our neighbour by sharing her need. This is not especially difficult. Out of our abundance we share our goods with our neighbour in her scarcity.

In the second place we live in our neighbour by sharing her suffering. This is considerably more difficult, since proximity to another person’s pain is itself painful for us. (Here love has been “notched up”, as we like to say today.) At the same time, we feel rather good about sharing our neighbour’s suffering because we feel somewhat heroic, virtuous; we feel even better if we are recognized and commended for this.

The cost of love can be “notched up” still more, we should note soberly. In the third place, said Luther, we live in our neighbour by sharing her disgrace. Now no one commends us for it. In fact people despise us for it. They whisper that we’ve compromised our standards. They wag their heads all-knowingly and repeat the supposed, self-evident truth that those who lie down with dogs get up with fleas. They remind us that you can always tell a person by the company she keeps.

Have they lost sight of the one who was numbered among the transgressors? Yes, they have. Was he a transgressor himself? No, he was not. He who knew no sin was made to be sin in order that inexcusable sinners like you and me yet might be forgiven and therein be rendered the righteousness of God.

But those people of shrivelled heart and acidulated spirit; they don’t grasp the logic of a love that finds us living not in ourselves but in the neighbour for the sake of the neighbour. Not grasping the nature of such a love, they also fail to grasp the cost of a love that becomes ever costlier as we move from sharing the neighbour’s need to sharing her suffering to sharing her disgrace.

All discipleship is cruciform.

 

IV: — The apostle Paul told the Corinthian Christians that the one sermon they were going to hear from him concerned Jesus Christ crucified. Just because the cross — sin-absorbing mercy — preoccupies prophet and apostle alike, the cross must preoccupy us as well.

For the cross is that event in which the holiness of God is recognized even as the wrath of God is averted and the love of God is visited upon disobedient men and women.

The cross is the crucible in which our understanding is transmogrified so as to reflect the truth and reality of him who acts most effectively and most characteristically precisely where he is most derided as useless.

The cross is the pattern of our discipleship, for no servant is ever going to be greater than his master, just as no one who now bears her own cross in the light of the master’s will ever fail to be crowned.

The cross is, and ever will be, that act of God whereby his holiness remains uncompromised and his love unimpeded, as holy love fashions

a people that is the apple of his eye,
a people that lives for the praise of his glory,
a people that reflects his goodness.

This people, as stark as it is strong, is a city set on a hill. It may be harangued; it may be harried; it may be harassed; but in any case it can never be hid.

 

Victor Shepherd    August 2000