BIBLE READING: John 19:17-30
When they were making the film of the book, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, they used as a backdrop for a scene where some women are hanged, the chapel of a university. There was a scene in which the women were to be put to death using gallows. The gallows were set up in front of the chapel. The Chaplain of the chapel was swamped by telephone calls protesting at what was called “this violation of the sacred beauty of our chapel”. There were also letters to newspapers, and much heated conversation about the inappropriateness of the gallows in front of the chapel. A member of a local congregation wrote to the editor of the newspaper: “I do not understand what the fuss is about. Maybe the people who are upset have not noticed the cross at the centre of the chapel”.
Every religion in the world has had a central symbol around which its thought revolves and from which its outreach takes its character. For some it was the moon; for others the sun; and for others the winds or the stars. The central symbol for Christianity is a wooden cross – heavy, splintered, with iron spikes, which has stood for more than 2000 years as a declaration that God loves us like this. Christianity or any other religion will not secure its particular identity if it loses its grip on the central fact that made it.
The message of the cross is central to Christianity and is critical to our understanding of the life of Christ and the message he came to proclaim. The cross may be seen by some as a symbol of cruelty and devastation. Perhaps rightly so, as it was believed in the ancient world that crucifixion was the most awful and dreaded form of execution. Some would like to divorce Christianity from the cross, but the fact is. that it is central to our faith. The cross itself is not the crucial point – it is the instrument where Jesus declared his love and compassion for humanity.
The cross and the crucified one is the core and essence of the Christian faith. Some treat the cross as a triviality, or an ornament. There are stories of the sales person in the London store who asked a customer seeking to purchase a cross, “Do you want a plain one, or one with the little man on it?” Some time ago a survey found 88% of those polled in Australia, Germany, India, Japan, and USA recognised the golden arches as representing McDonalds. When the cross was presented, only 54% said, ‘Jesus’. Worse, 46% of those in the five nations did not know what the symbol was. Crosses are seen in tattoos alongside all sorts of emblems and images from a variety of sources unknown to the Bible, round the necks of people as a piece of jewellery, or gleaming gold in the sunlight on top of the lovely churches of the Kremlin.
Others reject the use of the cross as it is not in harmony with the idea of success which so strongly pervades our culture. It seems to proclaim failure, and that some people find utterly unacceptable. A documentary about Christianity made by the BBC presented the success story of a popular American TV preacher. The documentary showed the extravagant church he has built and the throngs who came to hear his positive and affirming sermons. The preacher came across as a warm and engaging person who dared to dream dreams of what God could accomplish through him. He was asked what he thought about Jesus. He replied, “Jesus was the most successful religious figure of all Time. Just consider it. He began in obscure surroundings amid poverty and despair; today his followers outnumber those of any other of the world’s religions. That is astounding!”
The interviewer interjected, “but I thought he ended up on a cross”. “Oh, no!” the preacher answered. “He was raised from the dead. The cross was something he had to endure just as any successful person must endure hardships. But he overcame the cross and put all that behind him.”
How easily does the life and teaching of Jesus sit comfortably with the ethos of the 21st century, particularly in the western world? There are those who see it as an object to idolise, and who see it almost as a talisman, and appear to be infatuated with a symbol of death, without serious consideration of its demand for human change, morality and social justice.
Henrik Ibsen in Peer Gynt presents Peer Gynt as listening to a soft and harmless sermon at the funeral of a man with a evil reputation, and came away saying, “There was nothing in it to make us feel uneasy.”
Others see the Cross as a symbol or reminder of a long past event of biblical history which they can avoid in their daily lives. They will sing hymns that elevate the cross and the crucified one, and find them comforting, if sentimental. What they fail to do is struggle with the impact of the cross and the crucified one on the cross.
What does this mean for us?
Frederick Buechner, the novelist and clergyman remarked that “There is no gospel without tragedy. The cross is a tragedy that brings us good news”. An act of God to address the human experience of alienation, isolation, insecurity and spiritual famine. An action that confronts us with the nature of God and God’s love and concern for us even when we are living lives that are not reflective of the will of a loving Heavenly Father. Men and women yearn for forgiveness, moral strength and courage, freedom from the fear of death, and deliverance from our sin to be right with God. We are, at times, at a loss to understand how an event on a hill 2000 years ago affect us in our time.
There are some who interpret the Cross and the crucifixion as a legal contract to purge humanity from sin. This tradition has influenced the Christian faith and theology for more than a 1000 years, and has influenced our hymns, such as ‘There is a Green Hill far away’ which says:
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin
Some would argue, perhaps with some merit, that this is sheer legalism and reduces what happened on the Cross to a transaction of the marketplace, and which some people believe lets them off the hook. Emil Brunner, the Swiss theologian, remarked, “We cannot live without God. But also we cannot live with God as long as our sins have not been removed.” This is what is critical.
There is an alternative perspective on the cross, which would challenge and reinterpret the verse as
There was no other good enough
To meet the cost of love
In that crucial hour, Jesus gave himself as our representative, interceding for us and assuring us forever of that forgiveness without which none of us can ever be free. Judgement and mercy met at the Cross and emerged in freedom and forgiveness for us. This is how salvation works in the Christian religion. This is what gives Christianity that integrity which no worldly force or tyranny has been able to destroy.