Love Wins, Week 4: “The Cross”

Week 4 of “Love Wins” sermon series.  Any citations from the book are found below.

The cross is like a kaleidoscope or a Rorschach ink test!  We all look at it and see something different and it takes on new meanings.  What is the cross to you?  I hope this sermon will invite you to see the many meanings of the cross.  There is not a right or wrong answer, but we do know that the cross reminds us that: love wins!

Colossians 1:15-23

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;16for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

21 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled* in his fleshly body* through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him—23provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.

When I was 11 years old, I was introduced to Judaism and its beliefs, rituals, traditions, and culture.  I’ll never forget a conversation that my mom had and then shared with me.  Over dinner one night, a Jewish woman sat down with my mom and shared with her why she chose to become Jewish when she married her Jewish husband.  She shared that one of the biggest reasons that she just couldn’t get into Christianity was because of the cross.  She couldn’t understand the fascination with the bloodiness of it or the idea that we needed blood in order for God to forgive us.  Or that she couldn’t understand why a loving God would need a bloody sacrifice to appease God.  Some of the theology behind the cross was something that she just didn’t find appealing.  And really, who could blame her?  The cross is something that I, too, struggled to understand when I began to explore Christianity later in my own life.  I have also asked the questions about the cross- why the cross?  What kind of God would send someone to die for the people?  Is our God a wrathful God who can only be satisfied by blood?  Can we be forgiven only through the shedding of blood?  And what is Christianity’s obsession with the cross?  Why do we wear them around our necks, get them tattooed on our bodies, display them in churches or billboards by the side of the road?  Everywhere we look, there are crosses.  In high school as I was asking these questions as a Jewish teenager, I once asked a friend why he was wearing a cross necklace.  When he didn’t give a good answer, I told him that he might as well be wearing an electric chair around his neck.  He didn’t like that very much!  We are told that Jesus “died on the cross for your sins”- we see that on billboards on the side of the highway, bullhorn guy’s poster at rock concerts- everywhere- but is when it comes to the cross, is that it?  Is there anything else?  Yes there is!  Let’s look at a few ideas about the meaning and significance of the cross found in the biblical texts.

First, a question.  How often do you slit the throat of a goat?  (You didn’t see that one coming, did you?)  Or when was the last time you walked up to the altar and sprinkled yourself with the blood of a bull?  Or have you ever strangled a bird and placed it on the altar for good luck? (LW, 123)  I’d venture to say you’ve probably never done that nor have a desire to do that!  I’d also venture to say that these practices seem very foreign, unnecessary, and disturbing to us.  But in Hebrews 9 we read that Jesus “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”  We know in the ancient world that sacrificing animals was something that people did on a regular basis.  This was what you did in order to make peace with the gods or to apologize for the wrongdoings you had done.  Sacrificing an animal was also a way to thank the gods or God for the gifts of children or a good harvest.  It was done to make sure that whoever you believed was in control of your fate was on your side (124).  There are many many rituals and laws associated with sacrifices in the Hebrew scriptures.  But the most important was the Day of Atonement when the priest would enter the Holy of Holies and offer a blood sacrifice on behalf of the people.  This was to cleanse the people and the space for God to come and dwell among them, for people to offer something to God for the atonement of sins.  Blood was sprinkled on the altar of the Holy of Holies in front of the Ark of the Covenant as a sign of repentance and purification.  Aren’t you glad we don’t do this anymore?

However, these rituals would have been routine for the Jews of the ancient world who began to follow Jesus.  This worldview lent itself to the earliest understandings of what happened with Jesus on the cross.  When we read this verse in Hebrews about Jesus appearing once for all to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself, the writer of Hebrews is insisting that Jesus was the last sacrifice ever needed, and that was a revolutionary idea to the first hearers of this message to hear that the sacrificial system was no longer needed.  “The psychological impact alone would have been extraordinary- no more anxiety, no more worry, no more stress, no more wondering if God was pleased with your or not” (125).  Jesus was the last sacrifice needed for all- forever.  That’s how the writer of Hebrews explains what happened when Jesus was on the cross.  But there’s more.

When we look at our text from this morning from Colossians 1, we see there that the cross is about reconciliation- that in the cross, God was reconciling all things to himself by making peace through the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross.  Reconciliation is what happens “when two people or groups have had something come between them and now they’ve found a way to work it out and come back together and peace has been made.  So in this understanding of the cross, God has made peace with all things (126).”

And then in Romans 3, Paul writes that we’ve been justified by grace through faith in Jesus.  “Justified” is a legal term.  In this definition, we are seen as guilty people standing before a judge with no hope.  Jesus comes to pay the price for our sins so that we may be set free.

And then, in 2 Timothy 1 we read that through the cross, Jesus has destroyed death as if Jesus has won a battle against evil.  The cross as seen as a sign of victory over sin and death.

And then in Ephesians 1, Paul writes “we have redemption through his blood.”  To redeem is to give something worth again or to buy back.  So perhaps the cross is about redemption.

So-“Is the cross about the end of the sacrificial system or a broken relationship that’s been reconciled or a guilty defendant who has been set free or a battle that’s been won or the redeeming of something that was lost?  Which is it?  The answer of course, to all, is yes.”  Using these explanations, Rob Bell writes that what happened on the cross is like “a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again, an enemy being loved” (128).

Like us today, the earliest disciples and writers of the biblical texts had no one “correct” answer or meaning to the cross.  There is no simple answer here.  There is no right or wrong answer either- they used their worldview and theological understandings of their relationship with God to figure out the meaning.  They may not have understood exactly what it was about, but they knew that there was something about the cross that was important.  Although it was a common instrument of death, there was something about Jesus on that cross that stood out against all of the other deaths by crucifixion.  They also knew that Jesus’ death on the cross was not the last word from this rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.  The disciples’ encounters with him after his death made them believe that something massive had happened before, during, and after his death on the cross that affected the entire world (130) because without the empty tomb, the cross doesn’t make much sense.  (But more on that on Easter!).

I once heard someone say that the cross is like a kaleidoscope- every time you look at it, you may see something different- different images, different colors, shapes, and meanings- and that’s the beauty of it.  The cross may mean different things to you at different times in your life.  Sometimes the cross may be for you that image of forgiveness.  Sometimes it may be for you the ultimate symbol of sacrificial love.  Sometimes it may be for you a picture of Jesus dying for your sins.  Pastor Adam Hamilton once said that “the cross is not math or science, but poetry lived out in human flesh- the cross is a divine drama in which God through Jesus is revealing the darkness of the human soul and the relentless grace and love of God for the human race.”

If we know anything for certain about the cross, we know that it is a divine mystery.  So based on the evidence we do have, we can discern that Jesus is our Redeemer, high priest, our atoning lamb, liberator and king willing to die for his people.  We can learn that his death reveals our sinfulness, the costliness of grace, the magnitude of God’s mercy, and shows us what love looks like, and that we are to follow his example.  We learn that in his death and resurrection he identifies with our pain, suffering, and our mortality.  And in the resurrection he proves he has overcome each of these.  The cross saves, redeems, and draws humanity to Jesus.  The cross brings reconciliation to the world.  The cross is not only meant to break down barriers between God and humanity, but also to break down the walls and barriers that divide us as a human race.  People say that Jesus died on the cross so we can have a relationship with God- yes- but that reasoning puts US at the center.  For the first Christians, the story was grander and wider than that- when we say that this is the only meaning of the cross, Jesus only as the answer that saves individuals from sin and death, we “run the risk of shrinking the gospel down to something just for humans, when God has inaugurated a movement in {the cross} and resurrection of Jesus to renew, restore, and reconcile everything ‘on earth or in heaven’ (Col. 1) just as God originally intended it…individuals are then invited to see their story in the context of a far larger story, one that includes all of creation” (134).

This means that the cross is for everyone and it is a cosmic event.  “When we say yes to God, when we open ourselves to Jesus’ living, giving act on the cross, we enter in to a way of life”- when Jesus chooses the cross, he might as well be saying to us, ““Do you see the extent of the Father’s love yet?  Do you understand that I have come so that you might finally hear of a love that is willing to suffer, yes, even to die in order to win you over?” I believe that Jesus did not choose the cross as a means of changing God or making God’s forgiveness possible.  Instead, the cross is about changing you and me- it is a call to action.  In Jesus, we find a model of the purest kind of love. A sacrificial kind of love that stirs our souls to love God and others in return.  In this kind of love, our hearts should be moved to model that selfless example of love to those who surround us in this world.  The accounts of Jesus’ passion serve as a reminder that humanity is indeed broken, and only the purest kind of love can heal its wounds.  We find this in the crucifixion accounts themselves- the disciples flee, Peter denies Jesus, Judas betrays, the soldiers mock, etc., and Jesus continues to love.  We are meant to be changed, to be moved, by standing at the foot of the cross.

We each look at the cross and see something different and it perhaps takes on multiple meanings for you.  To me, the cross is the ultimate symbol of love.  I do not believe that God needed to send Jesus to die a bloody death so that God might love us and forgive us.  I do believe that Jesus chose the cross so that we might understand the depth of God’s grace and mercy.  I believe that the cross is a reminder of the sin and darkness in this world that needs to be overcome, and Jesus set out to overcome that.  We, in turn, are to continue that message and bring it to the world.  After all, it was the darkness and violence of humanity that nailed Jesus to the cross.  It was Jesus who forgave as he suffered.  People, not God, demanded his crucifixion, but it was Jesus who ultimately overcame suffering and death.  Phillip Gulley, in his book, If Grace is True, presents the idea that “the cross is simply one more sign of humanity’s consistent resistance to God’s grace…Calvary was not the fulfillment of a divine plan…it was not necessary to satisfy some bloodthirsty deity.  The crucifixion was the cost of proclaiming grace” (136-137).   To me, the cross is also reminder that God, through Jesus Christ, loves humanity so much that we are worth dying for.  The cross is the ultimate symbol of love, forgiveness, and grace.  To get some other ideas, I asked some of my facebook friends what the cross means to them.  Their answers were just as diverse as some of the ideas we’ve explored this morning.  For one, the meaning of the cross was “God taking our violence, and through it, creating the greatest act of love” (Mark Need).  For another, the cross is the image of salvation.  For another dear friend, the cross represents the very human soul and the freedom it gives us through Christ.  And as we are making our journey toward Easter, a pastor colleague said that the cross was important because of “the emptiness of it-Christ is no longer on it!” (Frank Oakman).

So what is it about the cross that moves you?  Why would you choose to wear a cross around your neck or display one in your home?  I suppose we all want new life.  “We want to know that the last word hasn’t been spoken, we want to know that the universe is on our side, we want to know on Friday that Sunday will eventually come.  That is why the cross continues to endure.  It’s a reminder, a sign, a glimpse, an icon that allows us to tap into our deepest longings to be part of a new, reconciled creation” (137).  It’s a reminder that death and destruction and sin do not have the final word.  The death of Jesus is not the final word because the final word is undying love (If Grace is True, 138).  And finally, of course, the cross is the ultimate reminder….that love wins.  Love wins over sin, death, and human darkness.  Love overcomes the agony of the cross and overflows into the empty tomb and out into the world.  That is the good news of the cross, no matter how you look at it- that, yes, love wins.

 

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