The cross has always been difficult for me. A strange thing to grapple with considering it is the central symbol of our faith – I’ve worn plenty of them around my neck; I have multiple crosses from different places as decorations in my home and office.
I’d like to share some of that with you today – because maybe you’re like me. My intent is not to give you a new speed bump, but I hope we all learn something by revisiting and asking questions of our faith and its symbols.
One of my first memories of my own seeking comes at youth camp. My first summer at camp I was an incredibly naïve, yet earnest, 6th grader (hard to believe, I’m sure). We drove down to Florida for some para-church organized camp – we stayed in a motel on the beach and had bible study and worship and swam. I don’t remember much else about that week, but I do remember the last night of camp. Like any good evangelical camp, the last night of camp was geared toward life-altering decision-making.
I was surrounded by hundreds of other youth – several were older girls in my own youth group I looked up to (probably way too much, but such is the life of a 12 year old). Many – if not most – of them were crying. Crying ugly tears. Feeling so awful about who they were and (I suppose) what they had done. To be honest, I’m not sure why they were so emotional; I never asked. It didn’t seem like much of my business. But I do remember how I felt. I felt isolated. I felt left out. I didn’t understand why they were crying, but they certainly seemed sorry about all these things they had done and they wanted to be forgiven – they wanted to be saved – or perhaps, worse, they were afraid of what might happen to them because of who they are or what they had done.
Me: I just wanted to fit in. I felt like I couldn’t fit in because I couldn’t muster up that emotion. Which left me wondering if I could be a Christian if I couldn’t pull together a dramatic conversion experience. I needed forgiveness, they said. I needed to repent, they said. I needed the cross, they said.
The thing is I never felt like a bad person. I never felt like I had screwed up to demand the 180-degree repentance that this narrative seemed to demand. I would hear stories when people gave their testimonies featuring drugs and alcohol and violence and sex and probably a little rock and roll and hear about how they “found Jesus”, turned their life around and made everything okay. It seemed at the very least understandable that people with a sordid past with sins that big might need redemption big enough to match.
But there I was a naïve blond haired pastor’s kid mostly afraid of my own shadow. What kinds of things was I supposed to confess in order to know for sure I was “saved.” Was I, too, supposed to experience a complete 180-degree turn?
I kept going back to camp. I loved church camp. I loved the friendships, I loved the Bible studies and songs and being able to stay up late. I even loved camp food. (I guess anything can feel exotic if it’s outside what you’re used to.) But I always dreaded the last night. I never quite knew how to feel, but looking around at everyone else’s tears I was sure I was supposed to feel something.
I would look to the cross and hear people say Jesus died for my sins and wonder if that really included me. Could that mean Jesus died for my sins if I successfully avoid drugs, sex, rock and roll? Maybe I needed to go out and find some sins so I could experience repentance and forgiveness?
It all seemed so confusing and distant.
I didn’t know what to do with the cross.
But I knew I wanted to follow Jesus. I knew I wanted to be a disciple.
So what am I supposed to do with the cross?
Don’t get me wrong. I know that I screw up. I know that I need forgiveness, and I know I have deep-seated brokenness. I am profoundly aware of ways I contribute to the brokenness of the world. I am confident in my own imperfection, and fully assured in my own ability – through things done and things left undone – to help make this world look less like the Kingdom of God.
But I also am confident in the promise that God made me, God knows me, and God loves me. I rest my faith on the claim that God created me – you – her – him – them in the image of God and that means something. That means that we are not despicable. That we are not worthy of the worst kind of punishment on earth. Not in God’s eyes at least.
And so, I still wrestle with the cross and the way we are so accustomed to talking about it.
I grew up surrounded by family members who love Jesus and love the church. We are a hymn-loving family. As my grandmother struggled in the hospice wing of a hospital in Georgia to let go of life, my extended family gathered around her bed and sang “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Hymns have been the common thread in our family that has allowed us to share our faith. I share this with my grandmother, my parents, my extended family, this shared language of hymns and faith. Hymns about the cross were no exception. She loved songs about Jesus and his cross. I adopted my grandmother’s hymns, but I had a really hard time finding my way to her language for the cross. Still do.
I sure do love the Old Rugged Cross, and Nothing But the Blood – but if I can be candid with you – it’s not the words I find so comforting – probably the opposite. And I realize that makes me a bit of an outlier in traditional Baptist circles.
And yet – I still love the cross. I love Jesus and I love my church.
So why is the cross difficult? Why did Jesus Have to Die?
Here’s the question that underlies our bigger question for today. When we ask the question “Did Jesus Have to Die?”, we sense an implicit affirmative answer. Which of course, begs the question “Why?”
For many of us the automatic response is that Jesus Died For Our Sins.
I continue to wrestle with this go-to answer because for me it begs other questions, still, about who God is and how God works.
So, why would Jesus need to die?
In one very familiar understanding, “God, Jesus’ Father, requires Jesus to die. God willfully subjects his son to torture and death in order to fulfill some kind of sin ransom that God’s own self requires.” The problem I have with this, quite honestly, is that God requires violence of any kind. That God would require violence to atone for all the violence we perpetuate.
The good news we continue to proclaim is that God is love. That God is in the business of forgiveness and grace and compassion and all of those things.
For me, it seems like the cruelest bait and switch that the end of the story is really about God’s anger and some cosmic need to assuage the punishment and retribution God would otherwise mete out to the entire world.
So what do we do with the cross?
It is such a familiar symbol with a familiar story – but what happens when we listen to the narrative again, and take seriously its context?
The cross is a Roman instrument of torture and execution.
The cross is not God’s weapon. The cross is not God’s tool.
The cross was a symbol of political power and control. And it was at the hands of political and religious authorities that Jesus met his ultimate consequence – in torture, and execution. Jesus didn’t just die on the cross – Jesus was executed on the cross.
What if in understanding the story, in asking why the cross is so important to our faith, we shift the preposition – from Jesus died for your sins, to Jesus died because of your sins.
And what if we go a step further – let’s change the pronoun. Jesus didn’t die for my sins. Rather, Jesus died because of our sins.
What if instead of understanding the cross as God’s own instrument of death, we reframe it – and see it as the reaction of a sinful system to the presence of a holy God.
When we look a the cross we certainly ought to see sin – but not the weight of sin that God is punishing through one sacrificial God-Man. Rather, we see a painful and powerful and horrifying reminder of our own tendency toward fear, injustice, returning violence for violence, of turning our backs on love, transformation, compassion, inclusion.
I can’t quite reconcile the idea that violence is necessary to do away with violence.
Why would God’s grace and forgiveness be predicated on violence? Could God not have worked out salvation – offered forgiveness, grace and eternal life – could God not have ushered in the Kingdom of Heaven without violence, punishment and retribution?
The answer is yes. And God did do these things without violence.
It is our own stories that have turned it to God’s own doing. It’s our own assumptions about violence being woven into the nature of things – about the inevitability of violence in our society – that has helped give shape and order to this.
Walter Wink names this the myth of redemptive violence.
The myth of redemptive violence is found in the story and stories we keep on telling where victory is one over chaos by means of violence. It’s language of conquest and conquering.
We buy into it when we believe that violence is necessary to negate violence. We live in a world where religion and theology have, in fact, legitimated power and privilege.
Violence is entertaining. Violence is baptized. Our very theology requires it. Think about our moving ratings – think how much violence can be packed into a PG movie, that is otherwise devoid of vices – language, sex, drugs, etc.
Violence has become the solution to human conflict. This has become our narrative.
We believe it – and our heroes are born of this story. We live as though it is truth: might makes right. Wars can bring peace. Our superhero stories abide by this. The heroes are the good guys who defeat the bad guys. With similar strength, tactics, weapons, superpowers. In the end it comes down to a matter of strength and force.
But does it have to be this way?
The message of the cross is that it does not.
The message of the cross is that love sometimes looks like weakness, but perfect love is stronger than all fear, all brutality, all violence.
Because God’s first motive is not punishment but is love. And grace. God’s entire motive in sending Jesus – which is really in sending God’s own self to be among us – is to show us how loved and known we are. And how to love and know others.
One of my favorite movies is The Mission. The movie is about Father Gabriel, a Jesuit missionary in South America in the 18th century. He builds a mission in the jungle above Iguaçu Falls and ministers to the Guarani tribe. The movie tells the story of the political struggles between the institutional church, the Portuguese colonizers and the priests who have given their lives to the indigenous people.
The end of the story is not a happy one. The mission is attacked by Portuguese and Spanish armies, while Father Gabriel performs the mass. In one of the final exchanges in the film, the priest remarks, “if might makes right, then love has no place in the world.”
The message of the cross is that love has a place in this world. And not just a place in the world, but the place in the world.
Jesus did not come to the earth, I believe, to die for our sins. Rather, he came because God so loved the world. Jesus came and lived and dwelt and died among us to make the reign of God visible – to make God’s love visible.
In many ways Jesus and his death on the cross is a story of consequences and not a summary of his mission. Jesus came and lived with us – suffered alongside us – and because of us – and now we know, we believe, we proclaim, that nothing separates us from the love of God.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God because love was made flesh, was born, lived and died. God who is love personified came to us and found us where we are.
Even though the earthly consequence of Jesus’ life culminated in execution, we know that in he also gave us the Holy Spirit as God’s continued presence with us.
There is good news – and hard struggle in the cross. Sara Miles puts it this way: We must acknowledge today – Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday – all the ways we try to kill our God. In this story, Jesus faces and absorbs “the hard truths of human violence and pride and weakness,” and his response is all love and all forgiveness. The story of the cross, the point of the cross is that sin and death have been robbed of their power.
What we do with the cross I believe, is recognize the depth of love demonstrated. When the world is a broken place – when our sin is what prevents justice, mercy, compassion from characterizing the world, and instead it is marked by jealousy, hatred, punishment, violence – God comes to us still. God dwells among us. God suffers alongside of us. God’s love is what does this.
And God’s love is what is more powerful.
The assumption of those watching all these things unfold – the crowd, Pilate, the religious authorities, is that the power of God would be displayed in forceful rescue of Jesus from the cross.
But that’s not what happens. That’s not what happens at all. Rather, “the power of God is most dramatically operative at the point where human imagination assumes its absence – the brutal death of the unresurrected Jesus.”
The message is that God is always working to bring newness – to bring to life – in places unexpected – even unto death, torture, violence, abandonment.
But you’re just going to have to wait until Easter to hear the Good News made Good.
 Joanna Harader, sermon, 4.6.14 http://spaciousfaith.com/sermons-etc/new-testament-texts/john-1931-37/
 Sara Miles, “Stop Pretending: From Lenten Ash to Easter Light,” http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20110411JJ.shtml
 Cameron Murchison, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew vol. 2, Matthew 27.45-54, 346.