We have travelled with Jesus to Jerusalem during the days of Lent. Today we stand before the cross. We want to understand its meaning. Why have we journeyed so far from Galilee? Was it simply for the death and defeat of our Lord?
Our reflections on the cross have a context. There are three influences with which I want to deal. The first is the trivialization of the cross. Some people wear the cross as an ornament or a good luck charm. Perhaps there is something vague about the adornment that seems religious in a comforting way. But the meaning does not go very deep or very far.
Second, there seems to be a new generation of rigid fundamentalists in every church network. They have a tendency to reduce the meaning of the cross to theologies of penal substitutionary sacrifice. The portrayal is of a divine judge that demands punishment for sin. Jesus steps forward and dies in our place. God’s anger is satisfied. I think this theology gets close to one of the meanings of the cross found in the New Testament. But it also fails because, in the words of St. Paul, God was in Christ not counting our evil against us.
Third, to our shame, the cross has been a symbol associated with colonialism, exclusion, and violence. It was carried by crusaders into battles against Moslems. The Spanish colonizers came to America with the cross and the sword. The Klux Clan burned crosses on the lawns of African Americans in the US. In Canada the cross was prominent in residential schools. Churches with crosses were places of death in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Kenya. Churches with crosses were places of killing rather than places of sanctuary. We need to rescue the cross from its association with abuses of power.
The gospel passage is brutal. The Romans knew how to inflict death on a cross. Rome handled the threat of political and social agitation by public crucifixion. The two men that die with Jesus are not so much petty thieves as political bandits who probably robbed from the elite and shared with the poor. Once condemned, victims were beaten, humiliated, and then forced to carry the implement of death to the killing place. The charge against them could be placed above their heads. In the case of Jesus, it read: “The King of the Jews.” The chief priests and the teachers of the law gathered at Golgotha to mock him. They were the ones who had incited the crowd to demand his crucifixion. There is nothing pretty in this scene. It is the brutal display of the power of leaders who plotted and of the Empire that handled dissent with force.
The cross of Jesus is central to our faith. Paul the apostle wrote: “we preach Christ crucified.” He went on to say this message could seem like foolishness and be a stumbling block to faith. How could people find God in the death of an alleged agitator against Rome? Centuries later we find that the cross is still central to our faith as Christians. We cannot explain our faith apart from the cross and, of course, the resurrection. Our historic Christian faith rest on the life of Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection.
I want to share six different meanings of the cross. We will draw on scriptures and we will think of our lives and our world.
First, the cross is a symbol of the evil and perverse use of power. A life is taken. Jesus and his movement was seen as a threat. The high priestly families, appointed by Rome, lived in luxurious villas above the temple. They saw Jesus as a dangerous radical. He had caused a disruption in the temple. He told people that it stood under God’s judgement. He challenged the teachers of the law with a new way of reading the scriptures that replaced the purity code with justice, mercy, and faith. He had proclaimed the rule of God in social locations that Rome claimed to rule. The entry to Jerusalem had been provocative for those who wished to maintain social order.
The story of violence against the prophets was well known in the time of Jesus. We see it today in our world. Power is used to crush people that long for dignity and freedom. Power is used against minority groups because they are vulnerable.
I remember walking through a church in the community of Ntarama in Rwanda. The year was 1999, five year after the genocide. About 500 bodies still lay in the church where they had been killed with bullets and machetes. The army had sent buses of killers to Ntarama. One woman had survived. She had been wounded and left for dead. She guided us into the church. We followed her stepping from bench to bench over the bodies to the front of the church. The experience was horrific.
I went outside, sat on the grass, and wept. There were no words. There are still no words. These victims did not chose death. They fled to the church, huddled under the cross of Christ, hoping for safety. Their bodies in that church were yet more evidence of the perverse use of power in our world. The only consolation was that God understood the pain of survivors of organized violence. His son, Jesus, died at the hands of the empire’s soldiers. A life taken. God experienced the pain, the weakness, the insults, the hatred, because Jesus bore them on the cross.
Second, the cross is a symbol of a life given. Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem with the warning that the holy city would be the scene of his violent death. The cross did not catch him by surprise. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that no one will take his life. He has chosen to lay it down. Later, he speaks of the love of the person who lays down his life for his friends. Jesus stands with those who have deliberately, thoughtfully, and prayerfully faced death for the purposes of God’s kingdom. We know we are loved because Jesus chose to die for his people.
Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Catholic priest. He had been a missionary in China and India. When his health broke down, he returned to Poland. He suffered the Nazi invasion of Poland at the beginning of World War II. He used the monastery to hide around 2,000 Jewish people. In February 1941 the monastery was closed by the German army and Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo. In May of 1941 he was transferred to Auschwitz. There he suffered beatings, whippings and the deprivations of the Jewish victims of Nazi violence. When three prisoners escaped from Auschwitz, the commander picked ten men to die by starvation. Kolbe stepped forward to take the place of one of the men who was a father. After two weeks, deprived of food and water, only Kolbe was still alive. He was finally killed with a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He had saved a man’s life, at least temporarily, by giving up his own life.
A choice made. A life given. Jesus gave his life for his friends on the cross. Jesus gave his life for future generations of those who chose to follow him. We know we are loved by God because Jesus gave his life for us.
Third, the cross is a symbol of victory over death.
This doctrinal assertion has a strange irony. The worst that evil and sin can do is to inflict is death. Yet the cross was the place where death and evil were conquered when Jesus gave his life. As he faced the prospect of the cross Jesus had said: “Now is the time of judgment on this world. Now the prince of this world will be driven out.” From the cross he shouted, “It is finished!”
Most of us will face death in a relatively peaceful and more natural manner. Yet whether by violence, accident, disease, or age, death remains a painful reality for ourselves and our loved ones. For those who follow Jesus, death will not be the final word. The cross stands for the defeat of death. The author of the book of Hebrews wrote:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil, – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
We remember the words of Jesus. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” The faith of the church is that the cross and resurrection of Jesus lead to eternal life. We believe in the communion of the saints – past and present. We believe in the great crowd of witnesses. We believe in the image of the great banquet in the kingdom of God. We believe in the new creation that is rooted in the world but waits for fulfillment. The victory of God over death was present in the cross of Jesus.
Fourth, the cross is a symbol of sacrifice for sin.
The most solemn day in the Jewish calendar was the Day of Atonement. The High Priest entered the most holy part of the temple. The use of incense and the sacrifice of a goat together represented that God was reaching out to his people to forgive their sins. Forgiveness was celebrated on The Day of Atonement.
Paul the apostle wrote: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. … God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement (expiation) through the shedding of blood – to be received by faith.” There is no sense in the New Testament that God was angry and needed to be appeased. God was acting on the cross to demonstrate his embrace and forgiveness in a world of evil. The New Testament states: “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
The cross is a place where we make a good confession of the evil in our hearts and actions. We confess the evil of the world in which we participate. We rise from our knees celebrating forgiveness. The death of Jesus on the cross stands for your atonement, your forgiveness. .
Fifth, the cross is a symbol of reconciliation
Reconciliation is necessary when two people or groups are alienated. There is some form of enmity. There may have been a record of past atrocities, prejudices, or apathy. There needs to be a break in the wall that separates people. In the parables of Jesus we have the story of the prodigal son. He has insulted and humiliated his father by claiming his inheritance while his father still lives. He squanders it in a far country and now returns home hoping to be treated as a laborer on his father’s farm. The father runs out to meet him on the road. He has been waiting for him. He has a ring and a robe. He calls for a party to celebrate his return. This is a story of reconciliation in which the Father takes the initiative. His love is deep and exuberant.
Paul the apostle wrote: “ … he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him….in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” The New Testament book of Colossians says “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” Finally, I want to return to John’s Gospel. We have the statement of Jesus: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people* to myself.” The evangelist adds his comment: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” The emphasis here is on all people.
The place where the cross enters the earth is a meeting place for reconciliation. The cross is where the broken relationship of people with God is healed. The cross is where broken human relationships are healed. Jesus draws all people to himself through his death.
We confess that there is a human tendency to live selfishly and to protect ourselves and our in-group. God confronts us with the dark side of our lives that we would prefer to hide. He points us to the cross and tells us that we are loved and forgiven. He then sends us on a mission of healing and reconciliation. The cross helps us to understand the two dimensions of our mission. We work for the vertical reconciliation of others with God and the horizontal reconciliation of people and social groups.
Sixth, the cross is a symbol that we are called to a new way of living.
Before departing from Galilee for Jerusalem, Jesus told his followers: “Those who would be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross daily, and follow me.” The cross becomes a symbol of a dissident way of living in the world. The symbol of the cross reminds us that faith is a daily decision to live by gospel values.
What does it mean to carry a cross? We can make some observations. The cross is a voluntary decision we make in the midst of the circumstances of our lives. Second, some form of self-denial is required to carry the cross. Third, Jesus asks us to follow him.
I think there are two main ways through which we follow Jesus carrying a cross;
- First, we nurture an inner life of reflection and contemplation. We pattern our prayers on the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples. We open our hearts to the teaching of the gospels.
- Second, we live under the double love command. We understand that love of God and love of neighbor go together. We take on the difficult task of building community. We welcome little children. We care for the broken. We believe in the forgiveness of sin. We seek the path of loving our enemies. We orient our lives toward the values of justice, mercy, and faith. We work with God for the healing of the world.
We have six ways of approaching the cross. We can find meaning in the symbol of:
- A life taken by violence.
- A life laid down by choice.
- The victory over death.
- The sacrifice that takes away sin.
- The place of reconciliation.
- The dissident lifestyle of prayer and action.
What is the Spirit whispering into your heart? Perhaps one of these dimensions of the cross speaks to something very personal. I advise you to dwell with this meaning over the next days. Pray with this symbol in your mind and heart.
Questions for Reflection:
- Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
- Which meaning of the cross captures your attention today? What might God be saying to you through this way of approaching the cross of Jesus?
- What grace do you seek from God over the period of Easter 2017?
 2 Cor. 5.19.
 1 Cor. 1.23.
 John 10.18.
 John 15.13.
 John 12.31; 16.33; 19.30.
 Hebrew 2.14-15
 John 12.24.
 Romans 3.23,25.
 1 John 4.10
 2 Cor 5.18-19
 Col 1.21-22
 John 12.32-33.
 Luke 9.23.