The cross of Christ is what life is all about. What Jesus did on that Friday afternoon is the most important act anyone ever did.
To help us get into this scene let’s look at an eye-witness account in John’s Gospel, chapter 19, beginning with verse 16.
Take a long look at that scene, and then consider the second most famous death in history.
As sundown approaches, Socrates must drink the hemlock. The beloved sage of the Athenians has been condemned by the officials for corrupting the minds of youth with new ideas. Meanwhile friends drop by, and Socrates leads a discussion about the nature of the soul. He then spins an elaborate myth about the shape of the earth. As the sun sinks below the horizon, in a touching scene described by Plato, Socrates says. “I think it better that I have [a bath] to save the women the trouble of washing the corpse.” So he bathes, drinks the poison, and scolds his friends for weeping.
Then Socrates lies down and continues teaching as the numbness works its way up his legs and finally to his heart, and the great man slips away in what can only be described as a noble—perhaps beautiful—death.
Don’t you wish Jesus had died as did Socrates?
By all accounts, crucifixion was the most hideous means of dying ever devised by humans. One fact says it all: No one who ever saw a crucifixion ever drew a picture of Jesus on a cross. Rembrandt never saw a crucifixion, and no one who did see one ever could bring him or herself to draw Jesus on a cross—so says historian Thomas Cahill. That means if you visit Rome today and take the tour down into the catacombs where Christians were hiding in the first century, when people were being crucified, on the walls you would see a lot of art. There are sketches of Jesus and Mary, Jesus the Good Shepherd, Jesus healing people.
However, the first known discovery of a small drawing of Jesus on the cross wasn’t made until the fifth century, in the basilica of Santa Sabina. That’s 100 years after the Romans stopped crucifying people. No one who actually saw a crucifixion could portray Jesus on a cross. What does that tell you about the horror of crucifixion?
If you’d been there, you might have fainted, yet bystanders heard Him praying, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” Then when Jesus rose, we’re told He first appeared to a woman. I don’t know about you, but I would have first appeared to Pontius Pilate and said, “I’m back!” a la Arnold.
Physical pain was only a small part of Jesus’ agony. The cross fractured the Trinity in some mysterious way beyond our knowledge in the abandonment of the Son by the Father. So, He cried, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” The best I’ve ever seen it portrayed is in The Passion of the Christ, in which a single tear falls from heaven and hits with such force it rips open the earth.
Oh, don’t you wish Jesus had died as peacefully as Socrates?
It’s that old rugged cross that is so ugly—so ugly that at times the church has sought an alternative. So, I can offer you a choice and ask: Which cross will it be for you—old rugged or new plastic? It’s a decision every Christian has to make sooner or later, choosing between the two.
The New Plastic Cross
I mean it when I say there are real advantages to the new plastic cross. For one thing, it’s portable. It’s collapsible, folds up and moves out when you need it to, especially to avoid awkward moments. It has wheels, this new plastic cross.
Next week is Palm Sunday, which I’ve learned through the years has some kind of tricky chemistry. The following Sunday is Easter, celebrating the resurrection. So, a certain logic suggests Palm Sunday is the Sunday to talk about the crucifixion. Through the years, though, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Vic, on a Sunday when we have all these children and their parents, so many visitors, and are in such a happy mood, why do you focus on the negative?”
That’s what’s so great about the portable plastic cross! Away it goes—poof—any time it seems…inappropriate. There is no yuck factor. However, that old rugged cross—oh, my—it just plants itself imperiously at the center of the church and will not budge one inch.
It’s the rugged cross we discover in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in God the Father almighty…and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried…”
We go from born to suffered, from Christmas to Calvary. What about Jesus’ life? The Sermon on the Mount? His teachings? His miracles? What about all the cool stuff on the Discovery Channel—was Jesus married? Where did He spend those hidden years between age 13 and 30? Was He studying with the Essenes in Qumran? How tall was He?
All these tantalizing mysteries…Why doesn’t God tell us the answers? Because they don’t amount to a hill of beans next to the one thing that does matter: Jesus came to die—to be born of the Virgin Mary, suffer under Pontius Pilate, and be crucified, dead and buried. Did you know that more than 50 percent of the written gospels cover only the one last week of Jesus’ life? That old rugged cross just will not go away.
Yet let’s not give up hope. There’s another advantage to the new plastic cross. It blends with any décor. It is so conveniently beige. It does not upset anybody.
Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr once said that people today want to hear about a “God without wrath who brings people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.” That’s decaf Christianity—Jesus lite.
Truth be told, the new plastic cross isn’t really new. It goes back to the 12th century A.D. to a monk named Peter Abelard who came up with a neat new understanding of the cross: Jesus died to be our example. The cross is for us the supreme demonstration of unconditional love. Once we see Jesus’ example, it is so powerful that it triggers in us sinners an automatic response in the same way a smile brings a smile. You treat others nicely and they’ll treat you nicely. Jesus’ love brings out our love toward others from within us.
Do you see any potential problems here? Is the power of sin so weak in my life that I can see an example of love, and now start living in a loving way? Are humans such virtuous creatures that they will see the wonder of what Jesus did on the cross and say, “Oh, now I get it,” and then all rush to clean up their acts? That hasn’t happened yet. This is what is called the Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement, and it turns Jesus into one more awe-inspiring martyr who brings tears to our eyes; but that’s where it ends, with no more power than a plastic cross.
The Old Rugged Cross
On the other hand, the old rugged cross offends us with all it says about our lostness, our blindness. It says we were so hopelessly far gone that God had to resort to something unspeakably reprehensible to save us—the death of His Son on an instrument of torture. We thought all we had to do was brush up on our people skills, recycle and save energy, drive our Prius to Pilates. This rugged cross tells me that what is wrong with me is so intractable it takes a staggering supernatural mystery to save me. That rugged cross brings bitter and unwelcome self-knowledge.
I once read an autobiography of a famous preacher in which he told of an incident between him and his wife. They were having an argument as he was dashing for the airport to catch a plane for a big speaking engagement. As he was leaving and they were going at each other, she said, “You’re not doing this out of love for God.”
This famous preacher said, “Well, if you’re so smart, you tell me why I do what I do.”
She said, “Because you are vain, selfish, arrogant and egotistical.”
He slammed the door, went to the airport and got on the plane. On his way to Denver, this man broke down and wept. When he got to Denver, he called his wife and said, “Elizabeth, you’re right.”
Under God’s eyes, or those of a spouse, we discover who we really are. Because we’re so messed up, we need the messy cross.
If you’ve ever gone through a divorce, you know it was messy. Have you ever gone through a birth? (That’s all of us, actually.) Have you ever given birth or witnessed a birth? Wasn’t that messy? Are you raising children? Ah, now that’s messy! When you lost a dear, precious loved one, you were a mess with all those tears. Globally, things are getting messier by the day.
It takes that messy cross to heal this messed-up world.
So, whenever you feel the urge coming on you to pretty up the cross, don’t do it. When you take away the awful horror of the cross, you drain the awesome power from the cross.
Oh, yes, there is a method in the madness of God’s messiness.
The Method in God’s Messiness
The answer to, “Why the cross?” comes down to three words. The first is atonement. Just break it down: at-one-ment. When Jesus died, there was an amazing scene in the Temple, where the veil covered the Holy of Holies. As the King James Version says, it was “rent in twain,” ripped in two. Matthew adds, “beginning from the top.” God Himself removed the barrier between us and Him; so today, on this side of the cross, God says, “Y’all come. We have at-one-ment between us. Have no fear. Draw near.”
Yet we do fear, don’t we? God has much to overcome in our fears. We see it in children. I told the story a year ago Christmas Eve about my grandson James and the drama in the family regarding his terror of the Chick-fil-A cow. We were on our way to the Highlands a year ago last summer; unbeknownst to me, a couple months earlier at our annual Peachtree Easter egg hunt at Chastain Park, then-2-year-old James almost had collided with the Chick-fil-A cow. Lost in his own world, he happened to meander over near the Chick-fil-A cow—and looked up—which to him was the equivalent of peering into the face of Satan. He began having nightmares.
I had no idea of his cow issues. I hadn’t heard this story yet on the day we were headed up to Highlands. Passing through Clayton, there was Chick-fil-A. My daughter told me to drive on due to James’ fear. I said, “James, have no fear. Papa is with you. You’re safe.”
We pulled in, and—I kid you not—it happened to be the one day of the year known as Cow Appreciation Day: If you show up in a cow outfit, you get a free lunch. There were lines of busses from summer camps and kids piling out in cow outfits. Maybe we should try a Taco Bell? “No. Big papa is here. Those are little cows.” We walked in, and instead of holding my hand, he had his arm around my thigh with his little finger nails digging into my flesh. He already was sniffling when we walked through the door. I said, “James, don’t worry. Those are little cows, and you’re with Big Papa.” I said, “Let’s us go sit down and let your momma pick up our order.”
Well, we sat down, and a minute later, suddenly from around the corner came the professional Chick-fil-A cow. He must have been the offensive lineman of the year at Clayton High School—6’4″ if he was an inch—and on top of that was the massive cow head and shoulders!
James let out a blood-curdling scream. Every head in the place jerked around. This huge cow froze, spun around and ran out into the parking lot—and stayed out there the whole time we were there. Of course we weren’t very popular with all the other kids who were saying, “Where’s the cow?” This being Chick-fil-A, instantly a counselor appeared at James’ side with puzzles. She pulled out a little stuffed cow and explained to James he had nothing to fear.
God has the same problem as the Chick-fil-A cow. He is big and scary to a lot of people. Hidden in the carnage and cruelty of the cross is a highway into the heart of God’s presence, our at-one-ment with Him.
The second word is substitutionary. His was a substitutionary atonement. What we cannot do for ourselves God has done for us in Christ. In the cross, Jesus carries us—just as we are, warts and all—through the Holy of Holies into the Presence of the Father.
Well, if God so loves us, why can’t God just accept us as we are? Why do we need a cross? Why do we need the blood of Christ?
A while ago, I made the mistake of sending my wife a dozen long-stemmed red roses at her place of work. Imagine my surprise when Becky called me and said, “Vic, Honey, I appreciate the thought of sending me these flowers; but please, Honey, don’t ever do this again. Everybody on the floor assumed those flowers were sent as an apology for having done something awful. People kept coming by saying, ‘What did he do?’ When they saw the size of the bouquet, they said, ‘It must have been really bad.’”
Hypothetically, what if I had done something awful—committed adultery? What if I said, “Becky, you better sit down. There’s something I’ve got to tell you. Becky, I’ve…I’ve committed adultery.”
Suppose Becky looked at me and said, “Oh, hey, Vic, for a minute you had me scared. I thought you’d done something serious. I thought maybe you’d lost our iPad or wrecked the car. Hey, you’re only human. It’s no problem. Don’t give it another thought.”
If Becky said that, I’d wonder how much she valued our marriage. I’d have good reason to doubt the depth of her love for me if forgiveness came so easily.
OK, reality time. If I really had committed adultery, you’d be looking at one dead puppy. Seriously, it nearly would kill Becky. She loves me so much that she would bear the brunt and shame of what I had done, and only out of her heartbreak and anguish would come my forgiveness and the healing of our relationship. Hers is the finest human love I’ve ever known.
However, God loves me with an infinite love. He knows me and loves me more than I know and love myself. When I hurt Him, I betray the throbbing heart of love at the center of the universe. Yet God bled and bore our unfaithfulness out of love for us there on the tree of Golgotha. That is substitutionary at-one-ment.
The third word is sacrificial.
On Aug. 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines flight 225 crashed just after taking off from the Detroit airport, killing 155 people. There was only one survivor, a 4-year-old from Tempe, Ariz., named Cecelia. News reports said that when rescuers found Cecelia, they did not believe she had been on the plane. When investigators found her alive, they first assumed she had to have been in one of the cars the plane crashed into on the highway. Yet when the flight manifest was checked, there was Cecelia’s name.
She survived because even as the plane was falling, Cecelia’s mother, Paula Chican, unbuckled her own seat belt, got down on her knees in front of her daughter, wrapped her arms and body around Cecelia, and would not let her go.
Nothing could separate that child from her mother’s love—neither tragedy nor disaster, neither the fall nor the flames that followed, neither height nor depth, neither life nor death.
Like that child caught in the middle of the disaster, so we have been trapped by our own sin, spiraling down to an inevitable doom; but our God loved us so much that He left heaven, met us on our level, and covered us with the sacrifice of His own body so we might be saved from the consequences of the fall.