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The Significance of the Cross

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Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. -Luke 9:23

The church—and Christians—doesn’t talk about the cross as much as it used to. You used to hear Christians talk about “bearing their cross” usually nothing more than an inconvenience. Perhaps there was a neighbor who wasn’t neighborly or a teenage daughter who was rebellious. “It’s just a cross I have to bear,” the complacent saint would say. This isn’t anything like what Jesus meant when he spoke to would-be followers.

To first-century disciples, the cross represented public torture and execution. It was reserved for the most heinous crimes against Rome. It is possibly the most cruel and violent form of execution ever devised, designed to kill slowly and tortuously and very publicly. The condemned were typically made to carry their own cross to the place of execution, so when Jesus says his follower must “take up his cross daily,” he has in mind only one destination: death.

Jesus tells his followers they must embrace their own death every day. In this way, they will always be prepared to die if need be for what they believe. For the way of Jesus’ followers is the way of love. They are to be like Jesus, offering themselves up to torture and death to secure life and liberty for others. They are not to use violence or try to force people to comply with their demands. They can persuade. They can reason. They can do good works. They can pray for their enemies. But they cannot curse. They cannot bribe. They cannot use force or coercion. At times, when the church has been politically ascendant, this command has been forgotten, and Christians have even tortured and killed other Christians in the name of Christ.

There is nothing Christlike about the use of force. Jesus never compelled; he invited. He spoke out harshly against the oppressors, especially when they pretended to speak for God, but he did not attack them physically*, and he did not resist when they attacked him. He expects his followers to behave as he did. He urges his followers to make a point of daily facing their own death and assures them that death is not final. This attitude of love with nothing to lose is what has made the church uniquely powerful in the world. It is a power not of force or violence but of totally committed people who will speak out against injustice and let themselves suffer and die for what is right.

* Of course there is an incident where Jesus confronted moneylenders in the temple with a makeshift whip of knotted cords. He was, however, severely provoked, not as some think by the greed and dishonesty of the moneylenders themselves, but by the tacit understanding that certain people could be excluded from God’s presence. The moneylenders set up their tables in the court of the Gentiles, the only portion of the temple open to foreigners, women, and invalids. The authorities did not arrest Jesus because he had exposed a policy they themselves knew to be wrong.
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All the Saints

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I went to church this morning in Peachtree City, Georgia. The pastor spoke from Ephesians 6 where Paul writes about engaging in a battle against spiritual forces and encourages his readers to stand firm. The sermon contained nothing new. But I noticed something I hadn’t before that got me thinking. Paul concludes his description of the “full armor of God” with an injunction:

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

While it’s true that the huge fault lines created by the Great Schism and the Reformation had not yet appeared in the church, still there were divisions. Even from the very beginning there were Grecian Jews who complained that their own widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6). Culture divided the church between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. Yet Paul’s vision was of a church somehow still united, a church so devoted to following Jesus that it would pray for all the saints.

In our own day the church looks more divided than ever. Not only are there various denominations (and groups refusing to become denominations), the church is also divided between Democrats and Republicans, black and white, those who favor gun control and those who oppose it, pro-gay and pro-marriage, pro-abortion and anti-abortion. All the diversity found in our nation appears also in the church.

Some want to exclude those who differ in matters of politics or social policy by refusing to acknowledge that they are really brothers or sisters. Some want to deny that God’s grace might save a man without making him pro-gay or might deliver a woman without making her anti-abortion. But Paul makes it clear that all the divisions that separate us are nothing compared to the faith that unites us, faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God.

I certainly don’t want to pretend that the issues that divide the church are unimportant. They are not. However, we don’t have to let those divisions keep us from enjoying our unity in Christ. That enjoyment will present a powerful testimony to the world and open our own eyes to the possibility that each of us might be in some measure wrong. We can disagree. We can urge one another to see different points of view. But in all our interactions we must treat each other with love and respect. There should not be any name-calling or sarcastic put-downs. We ought not to mock or deride one another. We gain nothing by regarding one another as wicked or insane.

I confess, I have been guilty. I have joined with those who vilify fellow Christians for religious or political differences. Forgive me. With God’s help I will do so no longer. Instead, I will pray for all the saints.

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Them

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Read and comment on my blog.

Every group has its insider language, its set of assumptions about what insiders know and outsiders do not. For some groups the distinction between insider and outsider is so important that the groups incorporate secret rituals to ensure that outsiders don’t penetrate into the inside without first becoming insiders. Other groups require specialized knowledge, but they make no secret of it, and it is effectively available to all who take an interest in learning it. A few groups, however, actively recruit new members and claim a universal appeal. Such groups require a highly permeable perimeter where the distinction between insider and outsider, between us and them, is essentially fuzzy. The New Testament church is such a group.

In the New Testament, exclusive language occurs almost always in the context of describing heretics or apostates. These are not people who have never been welcomed into the Christian faith; they are people who were welcomed in but turned out to be pursuing their own agenda. They might be the Judaizers  of Paul’s letter to the Galatians or the proto-Gnostics of John’s letters. In nearly every case, though, they are former insiders who left or were forced out because their beliefs or teachings did not match those of the apostles.

Apart from these few, the New Testament church is very inclusive. Paul claims that the Christian faith encompasses every social and economic class and every ethnicity. “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” What characterizes a Christian is not circumstances of birth or station in life but rather virtues that Jesus himself embodied: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, forbearance, peace, and love. These are characteristics that are universally admired but not so universally practiced. (In fact, one of the great conundrums of life, effectively answered in Christ, is why people so much admire virtues they themselves do not practice, even to the point of pretending to themselves that they do practice them.*)

Every unbeliever is potentially a believer, and every believer is potentially a fraud. Since we do not know people’s hearts, we need to treat everyone alike with dignity and respect, just as God treats us. He keeps providing opportunities to trust him even to those who have never yet trusted him. We need to rid ourselves of the smug superiority so common among evangelical Christians; it is offensive to everyone. We are none of us so righteous we cannot fall nor so wicked we are past redemption. If we want to persuade anyone that Jesus Christ is worth living for, we must treat everyone with genuine love and kindness, not considering ourselves better but only as recipients of an undeserved pardon. On earth the kingdom of God includes everyone, even those who persecute it. Just ask Paul.

*For more information, see the works of C. S. Lewis, especially The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity.

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