wooden Christ

Sunday, March 24, 2013

TEXT:  Luke 19: 28-48 and Luke 22-23

Because we’ve compressed all of Holy Week into this one day, you may now be experiencing spiritual whiplash. We started meditatively in the 4:00 hour with the somber Stations of the Cross. Then this worship service began jubilantly with our Palm Sunday processional.  Now we are back at the cross, the darkest moment in the Christian year, the “crux” of the Christian story and faith.  But maybe the wildly veering emotions of Holy Week are best experienced in the liturgical equivalent of time-elapsed photography.  To move abruptly with Jesus from his triumphal entry in Jerusalem to his betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and death—to hear the cheers turn to jeers over the course of mere minutes—may allow us to fully appreciate the fleeting capacity for human devotion, the fearsome power of mob mentality, and the truest meaning of the cross.

I must say, however, that I would prefer not to preach about the cross. It has caused too much confusion and conflict.  I would prefer not to preach about the crucifixion. It is a horrific act that has sometimes been memorialized in ways that glorify violence. At times I feel about sermons on the crucifixion the way some people feel about the media attention given to mass murderers. The less said, the better.

But Holy Week is upon us. The cross demands that even progressive Christians like us answer for this dangerous symbol, acknowledge this dark event, and align ourselves with this crucified Jesus. The cross still has power. And we can contribute to either its harmful or its healing effects.  The cross is never neutral.

If you think the cross of Christ harmed only one man, Jesus, over 2000 years ago, then you have not seen the injurious way others continue to use it.  From the Crusader’s cross that led Christian soldiers onward to slay people of other faiths—to the KKK’s fiery crosses that terrorized people for their racial or religious differences, the cross has sometimes been used to sponsor and sanctify violence.  When women and minorities have been counseled to just accept injustice because “we all have our crosses to bear,” the cross of Christ has been used to silence and intimidate.

And in more subtle ways, the cross sometimes inadvertently promotes violence because our culture’s most popular Christian interpretation of the cross says it’s an instrument of God’s righteous anger. That’s a problem because as your God behaves, so you behave. For many, the cross teaches that God required innocent blood to be spilled to pay for the sins you and I have committed, sins for which the penalty is eternal punishment in hell.

It’s understandable that Jesus’s first followers immediately began trying to make sense of their beloved leader’s death, so various theologies developed early to construct meaning for Jesus’s undeserved death.  But the Church never settled on one theology of the cross.  Perhaps the most common explanation today for Jesus’s death is often called sacrificial or penal or substitutionary atonement theology, a branch of Christian soteriology which posits that the life of a completely innocent human was the price a just God required to forgive human sins.

Certainly this theology “preaches well.”[i]  The gruesome details of Jesus’s torture can evoke sympathy in all but the most heartless.  Add to that story the explanation that he endured all of that so that we could be spared eternal torture—and we are moved from compassion for this innocent man to guilty gratitude.   “He suffered for your sake,” the preacher accuses.  “Imagine that crown of thorns pressing into your brow.  Imagine those nails being driven into your hands and feet.” We proceed through the stations of the cross or a sermon about the cross wincing at each blow. There is power in such preaching. Power. Or manipulation.

That’s not a sermon I can preach. I cannot. The problem with that interpretation of the cross is that it describes a rigid God whose punishment for any and every sin is the death penalty, but who will allow an innocent to stand in for the guilty. The problem with substitutionary atonement is that God the Parent and God the Son are fractured into the punisher and the punished in ways that strain the unity of Trinitarian theology.  The problem with this theology is that the God Jesus served in order to usher in a kingdom of peace is a God who resorts to violence.

But the God we’ve seen Jesus pointing to, as we’ve been reading through Luke’s Gospel this year, is a God who blesses the peacemakers, who is pictured as a forgiving father of a prodigal son who welcomes home the lost one without any punishment, much to the consternation of the son who never strayed. Today’s reading similarly underscores Jesus’s rejection of violence, even as his enemies plot his death.  When the temple police come to arrest him and a disciple defends Jesus by cutting off the ear of a man in the arresting party, Jesus rebukes both those arresting him and his own disciples drawing swords to defend him.  “No more of this!” he cries (Luke 22:51).  No more of this cycle of violence, he says with his own death.  We cannot end violence with violence.

And as he hung from the cross, Jesus forgave and empathized with his torturers, realizing they did not know what they were doing (Luke 23:34).  If Jesus is the human face of God, then God is not interested in retributive justice.  God is interested in restorative justice that offers the possibility of restoring relationships and transforming lives.  Certainly there are consequences for sin, but if Jesus is our best revelation of God, then the Gospels completely contradict a theology that says Jesus had to pay for our sins with his life.  The cross is what humanity does.  Jesus’s forgiveness is what God does—and what we can do by God’s grace and Jesus’s example.

I cannot preach a message of the cross that Christ suffered in my stead.  In fact, I agree with Charles Hefling that “it is the other way around. [Jesus] accepted [the cross] because we have to.  His was a cross that had always been ours, the one way open to us, in a skewed world, for putting a stop to the consequences of our own malice without adding to them—an appeal for us to follow him by willingly taking up whatever crosses the world imposes” and “forgiving.”  By the power of God’s Loving Spirit still at work for peace in this world, we can reject retaliation.  We can follow Jesus’s third way—which is neither the way of violence nor the way of passive acceptance of injustice but instead is the way of creative, transformative nonviolence.[ii]  Sometimes that way does lead to a physical death. Always it leads to a dying of false values and a false self and the rebirth of a truer self in union with Christ.

The cross is how God in Christ Jesus entered into our human suffering, so the cross also draws us into solidarity with all others who suffer.  It is a terrible calling—to stand with those who suffer.  But it is how we are saved—from our own egos, our isolated little lives, our sense that we are the center of the universe.

The cross can save the world.  It shouts to us that violence can never end violence, and our world will never be safe until we learn that.  The cross instructs us in forgiveness, in compassion for neighbor and for creation.  It widens the door to the kingdom of peace, our saving hope.  It shows that God is all-sufficient. To misread the cross and turn it into a symbol of divine violence is dangerous theology.  Preaching against sacrificial atonement theology is, I believe, an important corrective to popular Christianity.

Nearly two years ago we began, with Todd’s excellent leadership, a process to create Open Table’s logo. I initially hoped we would not use a cross in our logo because of the bad theology that often gets associated with that most traditional symbol of Christianity.  It’s just so hard to say, with a silent symbol, that we view the cross differently. But the stylized, modernized, subtle cross in our logo mitigates against associations with “The Old Rugged Cross.” And the truth is, even progressive congregations that don’t hang out a literal cross or don’t use it prominently must still grapple with the theology of the cross.

Oddly enough, you may have noticed that Open Table’s logo has been fading away from the front page of our worship bulletins.  And oddly enough, it’s the cross that is no longer visible.  I promise this has not been my intent.  I’m trying to find a way to correct my technical problem with our logo’s jpg image.  But it’s an unintended irony that I’m speaking today about the primary Christian symbol at a time when it has disappeared from our worship bulletins. To paraphrase Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a cross.”

You know, I’m a little envious of the symbols of other world religions.  Other folks went with images of beauty and light:  a 6-pointed star for Judaism, a crescent moon for Islam, a lotus for Buddhism. Christianity’s symbol?  An instrument of death.[iii] Who was in charge of our marketing 2000 years ago? There have been other Christian symbols over the centuries—like earliest symbol, the ichthus (fish). The cross didn’t gain prominence for several centuries.  New Christian symbols may emerge in the future.

Maybe we should gather some focus groups and hire Todd to create a new logo for all of Christianity and do a rebranding. This symbol has been taken too literally, has stirred up vengefulness when its purpose was the opposite, has been appropriated for some bad stuff. This image is at cross purposes with its intent.

The cross’s beneficence, of course, can’t be rightly judged on this side of Easter.  On this side of Easter, it may seem, for now, the cross produces only death.

But Jesus bet everything on that cross, maintaining faith in God’s nonviolent love.  Recent translations of Paul’s epistles suggest we’ve perhaps not only misunderstood the meaning of the cross but also a key phrase in Christian theology.  Verses like Romans 3:22 have traditionally been translated to say that we are saved by having faith IN Jesus. But the preposition “in,” implicit in the original Greek phrase, can as easily be translated to mean we are saved by having the faith OF Jesus.  Many scholars now believe Paul was talking about living faithfully, as did Jesus, who trusted absolutely in God’s nonviolent love.  The cross saves if it strengthens our faithfulness to God’s loving ways.

As our service concludes tonight, we’ll extinguish the Christ candle, another fitting symbol since Jesus is the Light of the World.  We’ll extinguish the candle not because we believe Christ’s presence is absent from us, not because our faith has dimmed, but because we’re recalling a dark time in human history when it perhaps seemed that love had been conquered by hate.

The cross seemed to have obliterated all that was good.  But it’s too early to know if the cross was ultimately salvific—for you, for me.  It’s too early in the history of humanity, too early in the liturgical year, to know if the kingdom of peace has a chance. But come back next Sunday.  Maybe by the dawning of Easter light we’ll see the cross marking a moment that is not about pay back but about paying it forward.  Maybe Easter will tell us the rest of the story.


[i] Hefling, Charles.  “Why the Cross? God’s At-one-ment with Humanity”The Christian Century (11 March 2013).www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-02/why-cross.

[ii] This idea of Jesus’s third way is from Wink, Walter.  The Powers That Be.New York: Doubleday, 1998.

[iii] Buechner, Frederick.  “Cross” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. 21.

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