Let’s do something different. Bear with me here.
Go back in your memory to a specific date, time of day, place, and an event in which you saw the symbol of the cross.
- Stand in that place. What do you see? What do you hear?
- Be specific. Pay attention to what you are feeling.
- Don’t summarize or draw conclusions or try to explain.
- Be brief. The symbol of the cross is there in this moment of your life.
- What do you feel, see, hear, taste, smell-experience?
- Write it down and don’t worry about complete sentences.
I just asked you to create word pictures. Thanks, Jeff Barker! Word pictures are an effective way for us to visualize a story of our lives and how we react to symbols. We very rarely pause enough to reflect on such feelings in our stories—feelings we carry with us for a lifetime. Today I have chosen the symbol of the cross, because during these 40 days of Lent we are looking deeply at our identities and also how we identify God. The cross, of course, is probably the most recognizable Christian symbol today. Its meaning, however, varies from person to person, according to his/her experiences. Here’s my word picture.
Incredibly humid August evening in Indiana. I’m covered with oil, dirt, and fake blood and wearing white shorts–barefoot. The two other sixteen-year-olds look tired, but focused. I feel tired. I feel weird. I’m sweating; I’m thirsty; I’m nervous. Led through the grass field by seventeen-year-old Roman soldiers to the three platforms. They tie our hands to the wooden planks and make believe that they are nailing our feet. I am tired. The 100 or so teenagers watching have weird looks. Some are sad, some look anxious, others are confused, some are bored. A kid yawns. I want to yawn, but I can’t. I have to be still. Time. Moves. Slowly. Sweat. Thirst. Confusion. Embarrassment. Regret. I have an itch. On my nose. Can’t…scratch…it. Praise songs start with guitar and voices. I like it. Some relief. I want to sing, too. But I have to be still. The other youth leave. The teen soldiers tell us that the play is over. All three of us gasp for air. I’m washing off the dirt and oil, wondering why I didn’t cry like the girl in the front. I want something to drink. Or pizza. And I’m worried about having enough clothes leftover for the weekend.
For many, the cross is a symbol that points to death—more specifically, a gruesome death for Jesus of Nazareth. The cross’ meaning, however, has changed over time. The early followers of Christ avoided it—for obvious reasons. Crucifixion was a form of state torture for the Romans. It was not meant to kill someone quickly. Its purpose was to degrade and humiliate a person so much that he was de-humanized. Embracing such a symbol of a crucifixion was not something that would help the early followers of Jesus to remember well their teacher and prophet. They preferred instead to focus on Jesus’ teachings, life, and ministry.
Many scholars and historians believe that certain followers of Jesus in the 2nd Century may have been the first ones to use a hand gesture that mirrored a cross. This gesture was in fact to heal from disease, spiritual, or mental affliction. But the actual cross symbol–the crucifix [cross with Jesus personified on it], was not widely used until the 6th Century CE. This of course follows the beginning of what we now call the Catholic tradition [out of Europe under Roman Emperor Constantine in the 300’s CE]. Of course, the crucifix and sign of the cross remain important aspects of Catholic faith practice today. For Protestants, however, [those who broke away from Catholic tradition] this is usually not the case. Notice the empty crosses [no Jesus] and rare examples of Protestants making the sign of the cross as a hand gesture.
As the symbols changed, so did the meaning of the cross. And this had major significance in people’s lives. The basic question, since all this talk of crosses began, and the question raised in Luke’s Gospel story is:
Why did Jesus die?
It sounds simple, but of course, the answers have not been simple. I do not have the time in one sermon to go over all of the attempts to answer this question. But I will give you a summary of [and hopefully a relevant reflection on] the most widely used perspective.
The penal substitutionary theory of atonement. Yeah, say that three times fast.
In other words: Jesus died for [and because of] our sins.
This theory of the atonement developed with the Reformed tradition. We have a man named Anselm of Canterbury to thank for it, as he developed this idea about 1100 CE. The gist is that Jesus Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalized) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can forgive the sins. In this view, Jesus died because God was angry at humans for being sinful. Someone had to suffer and die on the cross, and that someone was Jesus. This view of atonement is the most common [still] in U.S. churches, and apparently quite the norm in Indiana Christian camps with youth Passion plays. I would know. Oil, dirt, fake blood.
Of course, there are a lot of issues with this view. God is angry and vengeful enough to want to kill humanity? Isn’t this a humanity called good by God? But in God’s rage, God still finds it possible to send Jesus to take the blame and be killed, therefore satisfying God’s need to punish sin. So it’s hate mixed with love.
Of course, that has haunted many people. For if God is angry at us, this feeds a shamefulness or guilt that many people feel. Someone feels “bad” because Jesus died for her sin. I have seen this all too often: people stay in abusive relationships, isolate themselves, consider suicide—all because they are “bad” and deserve punishment. It is amazing how many times I have seen this.
There is another side as well. Penal substitutionary atonement can also justify, in some people’s minds, violence against others. Innocent children die in Afghanistan due to drones? People die in Palestine and Israel because of bombs? Shootings in Connecticut? It’s all justifiable, because it will save someone else. Taken too far, this substitution theory is awful.
Needless to say, many people reject this theory of atonement all together. Theologians, like Marcus Borg, understand Jesus’ death on the cross as an event of political motivations. Many wanted Jesus dead for his revolutionary ideas. Jerusalem indeed was a hotbed for revolt, political demonstration, and religious movement. It actually wasn’t until long after Jesus’ death that the cross actually became a symbol for forgiveness of sins. In Borg’s view, atonement theology does not go back to Jesus himself. Jesus did not see the purpose of his life [his vocation] as being only his death. In sharp contrast to the substitution view of atonement, it is God who initiates and fulfills reconciliation.
It is amazing grace, not wrath. God gets rid of any separation between humans and God with mercy.
Why is this important? Well, see above–all the baggage people carry, the lack of healing, and of course, the violence.
Also, what we think about the cross and Jesus’ death is not very connected to the Gospel stories themselves. Jesus does not describe God as a vengeful, angry deity ready to blast sinful people with lightning bolts because everybody is bad. I honestly don’t see a Jesus who is so focused on individual morality and the afterlife. I see a Jesus who was passionate about serving humanity—especially those who were unloved or called “bad” by others or pushed down by oppressive systems, or left out in the cold. Jesus taught more about the kingdom of God being on earth—in other words, that God’s presence was here on the ground, where real people live and breathe and try to make sense of their purpose in life. Jesus saw the injustice, hate, and sadness of the world and didn’t try to hide it. And when he did describe himself in this Luke passage, he talked about animals.
Herod, the ruler who supposedly wanted to kill him [according to some Pharisees in Jerusalem], was a fox. Picture what a fox looks like and what kinds of animals a fox likes to eat. Jerusalem was full of little baby chicks. It’s marshmallow Peeps season so the metaphor works. That fox [Herod] was leading them to trouble. Too many chicks were following him.
And Jesus was the mother hen.
Not a tyrannosaurus rex or a roaring lion, but…
A mother hen who is completely devoted to protecting and caring for her little, defenseless chicks. A mother hen without the teeth and claws of the fox. A mother hen who will selflessly teach mercy and accept and love all those people who were told that they’re bad. A mother hen who is sad about the state of affairs in the world—so much hate, so much violence, so much abuse of power. And yet, a mother hen who is willing to keep on healing, teaching, and empowering people to see God in their lives.
So what do you see in the symbol of the cross?
Why did Jesus die?
It is God’s wish for people to be cared for and loved—not hated.
It is Jesus’ life and teachings that call us to care and love all who are left out, hated, pushed down, and led astray.
God’s insistence on being here with us in the mess and suffering of the world is immeasurable. It’s not anger; it is grace.
In a world that tells us, to quote Bruno Mars, that we’ve been locked out of heaven:
Jesus tells us: God’s kingdom is here. On earth. Living. Working. Moving through us.
So let us journey to the cross–the path of truth, and life, and mercy.
Grace awaits. Love under the wings of a loving God.
And as you journey there, notice the others along the way. There are people just like you. They are looking for purpose and forgiveness and acceptance just as they are. They too have sometimes been called or feel bad.
So how will they see grace, justice, and love in you? Amen.
 Stott, John (2006),The Cross of Christ (20th Anniversary ed.). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. p. 27.
 Dr. Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, 2003.