“What Am I Supposed to Do with the Cross?”
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Romans 3: 21-26
The cross is Christianity’s central symbol. Like all powerful symbols, its meaning can not easily be captured in words, maybe not at all. So when we ask “What is the meaning of the cross of Christianity?” the answer is mutli-layered, complex and profound. The cross means lots of different things to many of us, including some meanings that are emotional and visceral and not able to be articulated easily.
There are some meanings of the cross that almost everybody can agree on. The cross is a symbol of courage and integrity. Jesus went to the cross rather than to deny his truth in the face of a church and state that wanted to silence him. Jesus was a brave and authentic teacher and truth-teller, and the cross is the sign of just how courageous and authentic he was. Even my Unitarian friends would agree with this understanding of the meaning of the cross.
The cross is a symbol of forgiveness. Jesus hangs on the cross and prays “Forgive them” about the very people who are crucifying him. On the cross Jesus shows us that forgiveness is a quality of divinity, and humanity shares in divinity when we forgive one another. Even my Buddhist friends would agree with this aspect of the cross’s meaning.
And there are interpretations of the cross that almost all of us who are Christians reject. I was studying interpretations of the meaning of the cross in the New Testament and was reading one of the most dramatic interpretations of the cross in Scripture – I Peter 2: 24 which says: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.” This is perhaps one of the clearest statements of what theologians call the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Jesus takes upon himself the punishment we deserve on the cross. I thought about using this as our Scripture text for the morning.
But, as I was studying it, I notice for the first time the context in which this verse appears. It is part of a paragraph that begins this way: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh…for to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you.” (I Peter 3: 18-21)
Two United Methodist clergywomen wrote a book several years ago that disturbed me deeply and continues to disturb me. Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock entitled their book: Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. They wrote the book from their experience of working with victims of domestic violence, and they came to the conclusion that the more religious women and youth were, the more likely they were to accept and stay in abusive situations. They were more likely to believe that the abuse they suffered was their cross. Rebecca and Rita say that Christian clergy often reinforce this idea in their counseling with abused women. They write: “At the center of Western Christianity is the story of the cross, which claims God the Father required the death of his Son to save the world. We believe this theological claim sanctions violence.”[i]
Whatever the meaning of the cross is, it clearly does not sanction violence. It does not sanction slavery. It does not sanction harshness. The cross should never be a reason for any of us to remain victims of abuse and violence when we have alternatives. Even my most biblically literal Christian friends would agree with this.
So we all pretty much agree that the cross is a symbol of courage and integrity. We all agree that Jesus’ forgiveness of his enemies from the cross is an example of divine-like love. We all agree that the cross can not be used to sanction violence or to keep people oppressed.
But most of us who are Christians want something more from the cross. We want more than a good example of humanity at its most divine-like. We feel as if the cross is more than object lesson. We feel that something substantial happened on the cross…that the meaning of the cross is more than revelatory, that it is metaphysical and ontological and cosmic…that something happened to change the relationship between humanity and God…that something happened that changed history…that something happened that changed my life.
So this is the question: What happened on the cross when Jesus died? How does it matter for me? And what am I supposed to do about it, if anything?
The New Testament and Christianity has many ways of talking about what happened metaphysically and ontologically on the cross.
One way, perhaps the most basic and elemental, is based on the metaphor of the ancient Judaic practice of sacrifice. This is implied in the reference in Scripture and in our hymns to Jesus as the lamb of God. “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” John the Baptist says when he first sees Jesus in the Gospel of John (John 1: 29). It is one of the church’s earliest creedal affirmations of faith.
A lamb was the animal sacrificed in the holiest Old Testament sacrificial ceremonies. In the sacrificial system described in Exodus, Numbers and Leviticus, lambs are sacrificed every day of Passover (Num 28: 16-17), the first day of each month (Num. 28: 11), during the Feast of Weeks (Num. 28: 26-6), during the Feast of Tabernacles (Num. 29: 13ff), and on the Day of Atonement (Num. 29: 7-8). Lambs were also used for sin offerings (Lev. 4: 32-35 and 5:6).[ii] My suspicion is that part of the reason lambs were used so often for sacrifices is because on those evenings there were lamb chops for dinner in the parsonage.
This metaphor based on Old Testament images of sacrifice is also the source of the references in Scripture and Christian hymnology to blood. It often makes us uncomfortable – it does me – but there are lots of references to blood in New Testament discussions about the meaning of the cross, and in our hymnology.
There are lots of references to blood in biblical discussions about the cross. It seems to us primitive, mythological, not intellectual, unsophisticated.
Decades ago when I was young I liked the comedy team of Burns and Shriver. I bought an album they’d recorded. They did a routine on the album in which a Jewish man comes to a radio evangelist for healing. The evangelist asks the man if he believes in Jesus Christ. The man answers “Lately.”. The evangelist asks the man, “Have you been washed in the blood of the lamb?” There is a long silence. Finally the man says: “I can’t even imagine such a thing.” The evangelist says, “Well, don’t worry about it; it is not something we actually do.”
Here’s the assumption behind the idea of blood sacrifice which I think is still relevant: there is a cost and consequence of sin. Sin kills. It is not harmless or innocuous. Sin causes death. It takes away life.
Racism is not innocuous. We can’t just say that racism was a mistake of the past, but everything is better now. Racism causes death. It takes away life. Its consequence will harm our children and children’s children for generations. The Bible talks about the consequences of iniquity lasting for three or four generations (Num 14:18) and sometimes for 10 generations (Deut. 23:3). Ten generations is 300 or 400 years. Racism is a bloody business. Sexism is a bloody business. Sexism kills. Our sexist jokes are bloody things. I made a joke this week that when I thought about it, I realized it was sexist, and I been asking myself “where did that come from within me?” Heterosexism and homophobia are bloody. Classism and abled-body-ism and xenophobia of every kind – the consequences of these are death. Physical death and spiritual death.
are all a part of these systems of oppression and suffering. We all
participate in causing death and diminution. The Cuban American theologian
Miquel de la Torres, in his book Reading
the Bible From the Margins says that we all are oppressors and we all are
oppressed. He says that, as a Cuban American, when he is in
what Paul says about the meaning of the cross in Romans: “All have sinned and
fall short of the glory of God” [we are all involved in death and
diminution]…but we “are now justified [accepted by God]…through the
redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of
atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (
In the cross God becomes part of the bloody mess we have made of the world. God mixes God’s own blood with the blood of our struggle. God takes on God’s own self the consequences of our sin. God gives up God’s own safety and security and distance to engage with us in the struggles for community and decency and love. God dies as God to bear our sin and shame.
That’s the elemental and primal story of the cross. God gives up God’s glory to enter into the bloody mess of the human struggle, and this is the meaning of love: for us to give up our distance and aloofness and enter into the struggle of our world. This is what it means to take up our crosses and follow Jesus.
thinking about race in
our sin – racism and homophobia and sexism and hatred of every kind – is really
a sin against our own blood. The children in danger of starving in the
And God has shed God’s own blood in Jesus for our sins, for our redemption, so that we might be reconciled with one another.
Ephesians 2: 14-22 says this: “For he is our peace; in his flesh [by his blood] he has made both groups [who used to hate each other] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has…create[d] in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and reconcile[d] both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.… So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
That’s the real deal. In the midst of the struggle for inclusion and justice we find Christ on the cross. If you are looking for Christ today, find a cross of injustice. Christ will be there. God will be there, in the midst of it, working with us to turn our sin into justice and new life.
[i] Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Proverbs of Ashes : Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Beacon Press, 2002), 8.
[ii] B. D. Napier, “Lamb,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Vol. 3 (Abingdon, 1962), 58-9.
[iii] Miguel de la Torres, Reading the Bible from the Margins (Orbis Books, 2002), 21-2.