March 2015 archive

The Meaning of the Cross

Picture from liftjesuscross.com

Picture from liftjesuscross.com

Did you know that, more in the place and time that Jesus of Nazareth lived, it was actually very common for someone to come forth every few years, claim that he was the Messiah, gain a huge following, and then be crucified for his message? This chain of events is not unique to Jesus. In fact, there is an incident in the book of Acts that alludes to this historical fact. Peter and other apostles are called before the Sanhedrin (the full assembly of the elders of Israel) because they have been preaching the gospel, the message that “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead–whom you have killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those whom obey him” (Acts 5:30-32). The Pharisees are furious when they hear Peter say these things and want to kill him and the apostles. But one Pharisee, named Gamaliel, stands up and addresses the Sanhedrin, saying this:

Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He, too, was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God. ~Acts 5:36-39

Jesus, the leader of an entire movement, had died. He was crucified on the Cross. And yet his movement did not die out, as was the pattern of the day. It grew to even larger numbers and greater strength than it had when he was alive. And two thousand years later, the message of Jesus Christ is still spread and embraced around the world. Miraculous works are still being done in His name. Lives are still being transformed. What Peter wrote to the first century church still holds true today: Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy -1 Peter 8.

How is this possible?

I would propose a few things. First of all, that Jesus Christ truly is the Word who became flesh, God who, out of his immense love for creation, humbled himself and came to live on earth. Second, that on the third day, He did rise again and that His resurrection was witnessed by many. Third, that He did ascend to Heaven and is seated on the throne, constantly working to bring restoration to this world and His creation now. And this whole chain of events starts with the Cross.

The Cross is, I submit, the most powerful moment of all history because of what happened in the spiritual realm as Jesus died. I believe that effects of that spiritual battle caused those who witnessed the crucifixion to realize that something greater was happening, signs that caused the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus to exclaim, “Surely he was the Son of God!” ~Matthew 27:54. But I also believe that most of what was happening on the Cross, the reason the Cross is seen as victory in the Christian faith, was not seen by the human eye.

The Cross and Jesus’ subsequent resurrection are the cornerstones of our faith, but if we do not understand them, or do not understand them well, we could be left with a skewed picture of God. In my next two posts, I will present the two most common understandings of the Cross, Penal Substitution and Christus Victor. I don’t think the Cross can be narrowed down to just one meaning or one explanation, and it will always be surrounded with a certain sense of mystery and wonder. However, I hope that by using Scripture, we can uncover more of the beauty and victory of the Cross and more of God’s character. The Cross was an ugly symbol of death that Jesus transformed into one of triumph because of his love for us. And that is an amazing thing.

I hope you stick around for these next two posts and we can discover the meaning of the Cross together.

Note: In my previous post, Selma and the Cross, I briefly discussed another perspective on the Cross, which I think is also very important. That perspective comes from Liberation Christology. Here is an excerpt from that post and, if you’re interested, I suggest you read the full post:

“The significance of Jesus’ crucifixion is deeper and more beautiful and mysterious than we can ever know, but I am confident that a part of its significance is to show that the Lord Jesus suffered and died in solidarity with the countless women and men who have, throughout history, been strung up on trees, been beaten and mocked, been scorned and objectified, been made to feel as though they are forsaken by God.”

Selma and the Cross

Photo by Spider Martin

Last night I had the privilege of seeing the movie Selma for the second time, generic and today is the 50 year anniversary of Bloody Sunday, discount rx when over 600 marchers were brutally attacked on the Edmund Petus Bridge in their attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery.

It’s incredible to think that 50 years ago, generic Black women and men were fighting to gain the right to vote and today, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, our African-American president addresses the nation from the Edmund Petus Bridge.

It is also striking to watch the movie to realize how true it is that Selma is now, and to sit with the realization that Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, delivered from Alabama’s capital 50 years ago, is just as poignant and relevant today.

A few weeks before the march from Selma, Alabama, black activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by a state trooper. And today, young black men and women continue to be shot and killed without consequences for those who kill them. While watching Selma, the absolute disregard for the value of black lives by the police force, government officials, and white U.S. citizens becomes apparent. And yet today we still have to continuously proclaim Black Lives Matter because it is still clear that they don’t to many policemen, government officials, and white U.S. citizens.

In the movie, Dr. King speaks with Cager Lee, Jimmie’s grandfather, after the death of his grandson. Dr. King says to him, “There are no words to soothe you. But I know one thing for certain: God was the first to cry.” Mr. Lee responds, “I believe that,” and as followers of Jesus, we need to believe that, too.

The Cross is the most horrible, powerful, and beautiful moment of history and cannot be contained within a single meaning. The significance of Jesus’ crucifixion is deeper and more beautiful and mysterious than we can ever know, but I am confident that a part of its significance is to show that the Lord Jesus suffered and died in solidarity with the countless women and men who have, throughout history, been strung up on trees, been beaten and mocked, been scorned and objectified, been made to feel as though they are forsaken by God.

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” –which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”…And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and rocks split…When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” -Matthew 27:45-46, 50-51, 54

The darkness, the tearing of the temple, the earthquake…I believe that is how God cried, how He mourned the loss of His son who had died feeling utterly forsaken by his Father. And I believe He still responds this way when His sons and daughters are murdered and beaten. We have a Savior who joins us in suffering and sides with those who are persecuted. While the Cross gives us the comfort that Jesus is not outside of our suffering but that he suffered in solidarity with those, like Jimmie Lee Jackson, who are abused and killed, the Resurrection gives us the hope that restoration is coming because no lie can live forever.

Dr. King knew that the Cross is the most powerful moment of history where love for enemies and non-violence converged to utterly destroy evil. He knew that hate and fear are agents of destruction and that love has the power to overcome both.

And so as we go away this afternoon, let us go away more than ever before committed to this struggle and committed to nonviolence. I must admit to you that there are still some difficult days ahead. We are still in for a season of suffering in many of the black belt counties of Alabama, many areas of Mississippi, many areas of Louisiana. I must admit to you that there are still jail cells waiting for us, and dark and difficult moments. But if we will go on with the faith that nonviolence and its power can transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, we will be able to change all of these conditions.

And so I plead with you this afternoon as we go ahead: remain committed to nonviolence. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.

Today as we remember Selma and the countless Black and White lives that were lost in the struggle for civil rights and human dignity, let us also remember that our fight is not over. As followers of Christ it is our responsibility to continue with this struggle, to continue loving our enemies, to continue calling out the image of God in everyone we encounter, and to continue to fight for race-equality in our nations.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord! Our God is marching on! Glory, Hallelujah! Glory, Hallelujah! Glory, Hallelujah! Glory, Hallelujah! His truth is marching on!