A Good Friday Sermon: Why the Cross?
Even after 2,000 years, Christians are still duking it out over the cross, trying to make sense of the violent sequence of events that led to Jesus’ execution at the hands of Empire and religious authorities. . .and why this had to happen. Why Jesus had to suffer a gruesome and excruciating death when he was, tradition holds, otherwise innocent. The question goes much deeper than this, of course. There are questions of sacrifice and satisfaction, deeply tangled up in the cultures of ancient Judaism, first century Palestine, the late Roman Empire, the feudal society of Northern Europe, and the mystics of the Middle Ages. And more recently in our own society, nineteenth- and twentieth-century church phenomenon like the rise of contemporary evangelicals, fundamentalism, Anglo-Catholicism, and so forth.
Look, the cross and theories about atonement are favorite subjects for church historians and theologians. Worthy of spilling a great deal of ink over and vast resource expenditures researching and compiling and ruminating.
But there is one thing we are apt to forget as we argue over the why’s and wherefore’s of Jesus’ crucifixion. As much as we Episcopalians and Anglicans pride ourselves in pursuing faith without sacrificing our minds, we mustn’t forget that when God in Christ dies on the cross, all intellect dies, too. On the cross, all of humanity – heart, soul, body, and mind – are lost to Jesus. Just as they are lost to all of us in death.
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The cross simply is. Like our suffering much of the time. Like the suffering of the world. It is in the moment. Hard as the cross, sharp as nails. Propped up in a sky with a harshness that wrecks all our best thought and deepest hopes.
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The cross remains a hideous thing. Hideous even though we’ve tried turning it golden, by wearing it as jewelry and painting it onto Bibles and Prayer Books and raising it up as statue and sculpture. We have painted it, drawn it, reflected on it, named holy orders after it, raised it up as a sign of hope. Some have gone to war using it as a talisman. Others have waged peace holding the cross up high. We have made it a symbol of mercy, of redemption, of liberation. It has been the tool, weapon, and wonder for us and our spiritual ancestors across a hundred generations. Strange we are as a Christian people.
But the cross remains a hideous thing. And holy. Because it reminds us of the death in our own lives and stands on Golgotha like a beacon of terror. It is the doorway we must all pass sooner or later. It is the weight we must all carry with our own sufferings, each unique, but each common with the sufferings of all humanity. We hunger and thirst for answers to our own special crosses – those unique weights we haul around even if we pretend not to. We want to know why. Of course we do. What could be more human? And there are some who claim to have answers.
But answers to senseless things are never fully satisfactory, even if we give them titles like “Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” “Christus Victor,” or even the aptly named “Satisfaction Theory.”
The reason the crucifixion speaks to us has little to do with theory, but everything to do with reality. It is C. S. Lewis who remarked in one of his books that pain and suffering are probably among the most real elements of our lives. All of us who at one time or another have experienced pain, death, and suffering know this to be true. Even when our minds are in denial, our hearts, our guts, and even our very bones and flesh know the truths of pain, death, and suffering.
It was real that Jesus died for the simple reason that good people who challenge the evils of their day often die. It was real that love is often crucified by our anxieties, lust for power, and hunger to be in control. It remains real that God in Christ Jesus speaks to us most often when we are out of intellectual answers, facing death of one kind or another, and bereft of the Spirit.
There is much more. Read it all--really, read it all.