First published 24 April 2015
The cross is the primary symbol of all branches of the Christian church throughout the last 2,000 years. It is referenced throughout the world in many different ways. Some Christians wear it as a badge to quietly let people know their affiliation. Some Christians make the gesture of the cross at times of prayer. For some it is merely a pretty piece of jewellery. And for some it has taken on a superstitious quality – vampires flee from crosses, exorcisms in popular films involve crosses, and some just wear crosses to ‘get God on their side’ when they need Him.
But I wonder how many of us think about what the cross is, or what it was when the church was formed.
Shiny gold, silver or steel crosses certainly have a certain beauty, or at least an engaging symmetry. Wooden crosses also have an attractive simplicity.
But we can only see them in that way because of the passage of time, and the progress of civilisation since the Roman empire. In reality the cross was an instrument of death, gruesome, tortuous, painful and barbaric. Crucifixion was the Roman death penalty for criminals.
In today’s world we would worry about a religion whose symbol was the electric chair, the gas chamber, the firing squad, the lethal injection, the gallows or the guillotine. It would shock us.
I wonder how Jesus would have been put to death in today’s world. Even American death penalty methods are more humane than Roman crucifixion. And yet if the Christian symbol was an electric chair there would be either shock and horror or derision.
Our central symbol reminds us, and tells others, that at the centre of our faith is someone who was deserted, pushed around, flogged, derided, dragged out to a hill, nailed through his hands and feet and hung there bleeding until he died.
But do we have that symbol merely to galvanise us as his followers to carry on the ministry of love, and his teaching of righteousness, that were cut short by death? Are we just a group committing ourselves to his cause because we’re impressed by his example and teaching, and his willingness to die without compromising it? I venture that whilst those kinds of groups do exist, they don’t survive or grow in the way that Christianity has over the last 2000 years. No, there is more to it.
And that’s part of the reason why Protestants in particular have gone for the cross rather than the crucifix. Jesus is no longer on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus was not the final word. We remember that he was taken down from the cross, buried, and then gloriously resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven. The cross is a reminder of what was, not what is.
And that reminds us of why he submitted himself to the cross. He had so many chances to avoid death. He didn’t need to be in Jerusalem during that Passover festival. His brothers had advised him against it. And yet not only did he go, knowing that the Jews wanted to kill him, but he rode into the city amidst a crowd of palm-branch-waving fans. It wasn’t a freak misfortune or a risky outing that didn’t end well. His mission was to get crucified, because he knew that he would rise from the dead and triumph over death.
And his mission in getting crucified was to take on himself the penalty for our sin. Above all his teaching on righteousness, above all his compassion and love shown to outsiders, sick people and needy people – above all this was his love for sinners, such that he left his place of perfect unity with God the Father, and put himself under his Father’s wrath and judgment, so that God’s wrath towards sinners might be turned away, and so that sinners might share in his triumph over death.
This is why the cross is so important to Christians. Without the cross of Jesus Christ, without his suffering and death, without his resurrection from the dead, we are lost along with everyone in the world. We are stuck in our sin, facing lives of futile hardship, ending in futile death, if we don’t have the cross of Jesus. It’s a symbol of our hope.
That centuries-old instrument of tortuous death is our reminder that we have eternal life, and have nothing to fear, because of the death and resurrection of the one who hung on it – the Son of God. Because of the cross, if we repent and believe in Jesus, we have forgiveness. Because of the cross, those who are in Christ have nothing to fear from anything – not sickness, not persecution, not famine, not poverty, not torture, humiliation, not even death – because we have a certain hope that cannot be taken away. It doesn’t depend on us. It’s already been achieved by what Christ did… on the cross.
Lord, let me live every day with the cross of Jesus, your Son, reminding me of your steadfast love towards me in him. May I boast in nothing except his cross. May I fear nothing because of his cross. I can only come to you in prayer, because of his cross. So give me strength to follow him, knowing that the cross of Christ gives me, and all your people, the hope of a certain, eternal and infinitely better future. AMEN.