More to Christ than just the cross

[Originally posted on May 16, 2011 – but for some reason disappeared off the blog, perhaps by an Act of God… 😉 ]

A very good friend of mine, on a similar path of faith to me, went to a church service the other day and found it very difficult. Difficult because the sole focus of every song, prayer and piece of liturgy seemed to be the dreadfulness of our sin, and the cross on which Jesus died in agony to take away God’s just wrath for our sin. Knowing the church in question, which is capital-letter Conservative Evangelical, I have a feeling that this is not untypical of a lot of their services.

For many conservative churches, this trinity of Sin, Wrath and Cross – i.e. penal substitutionary sacrifice – has come to be a touchstone of sound doctrine and almost the whole meaning of the gospel. It is the message preached in every sermon week-in week-out, and the basis for all evangelism.

Now, neither I nor my friend are denying the reality or badness of sin, nor the huge significance of the cross. But we both believe that there is more – so much more – to the Christian faith than just the cross, or just sin-wrath-and-cross. There’s more because there’s more to Christ than just the cross and payment for sin.

Indeed there’s more even to the cross than just ‘the cross’, if by ‘the cross’ we just mean a particular doctrine of the atonement. I’m personally convinced that penal substitution is not the best, and certainly not the only, model for understanding the cross of Christ (I’ve expounded my own interpretation of Good Friday before). But even if it is, there’s still just so much more to Jesus than the few short, brutal hours of his crucifixion.

Jesus before Jesus

First, there’s Christ’s participation of joyful love within the eternally pre-existent communion of the Trinity, for unimaginable aeons before he ever set foot on this earth. There’s his co-authorship of creation, standing at God’s side as his helper, and as the one by and through and for whom all things were made.

There are his mooted theophanies throughout the Old Testament – as one of the three strangers who visited Abraham, as the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, as the ‘angel’ who wrestled with Jacob, as the ‘rock’ in the desert with Moses, as the extra figure in the fiery furnace with Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego, and in all the appearances of the ‘Angel of the Lord’. There are his foreshadowings in the lives of the patriarchs, in the writings of the prophets, and in the very pattern of the story of Israel.

Jesus’ life and works

There there is the long-heralded yet unprecedented event of his Incarnation, when ‘redemption ripped through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny child’, in Bruce Cockburn’s memorable lyrics. I’ve written elsewhere that the Incarnation, rightly understood, is shocking, unheard-of, unthinkable, as God the most holy subjects himself to the privations, perils, pains and indignities of human life on this screwed-up planet. To me, the Incarnation is every bit as important and foundational a part of the Christian faith as is the cross.

There is the drama of Jesus’ birth and the flight into Egypt. There are the mysterious years of his childhood illuminated only by the brief flash of his visit to the Jerusalem Temple. And then at last there are his appearances at the Jordan and Galilee, and the start of the most remarkable three-year healing and teaching ministry the world has ever seen. There are the parables and the miracles, the public popularity and the official opposition; the tears and the triumphs and the troubles. There are the countless conversations with ordinary individuals, life-changing for each one – Nicodemus, Zaccheus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the Gadarene demoniac, the man born blind, the woman with the issue of blood. And all of it telling the same clear message – the long-awaited Kingdrom of Israel’s true God and the World’s true God is breaking in here and now with the advent of Israel’s true Messiah. The Kingdom of peace and truth, of love and goodness, of forgiveness and mercy and restoration is here and now for the asking. The search is over, the wait is ended; “dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation…”

Then of course there is the great and terrible drama of Jesus’ last week: the final Passover meal, the very human anguish in the Garden, the bitter betrayal and arrest, the desertion by all his friends. There is the travesty of a trial on trumped-up charges, the silent dignity under abuse, and then at last the awful dark of Good Friday – of love and truth and hope blotted out by religious vested interest and human frailty and the efficient brutality of a military state.

There is the cold, dark wait of the tomb; the despair of Holy Saturday; the hopes crushed, the light seemingly put out forever.

Easter and beyond

And then there is the unbelievable morning of Easter Day, the empty tomb, the resurrected Christ – God’s great joke against all the powers of evil; love given the great last word against death and injustice and despair. There are the meetings with astonished, incredulous friends; the sharing of breakfast, the breaking of bread, the restoring of Peter. And then the final promises and commissioning before passing beyond sight and understanding to rejoin his Father and our Father.

And beyond this – the coming of the Spirit, the transforming of the disciples, the birth and beginnings of a new movement that would unbelievably change the world, swelling to global proportions and – almost as a sideline – giving rise to some of the greatest art, architecture, music, literature, law-making and science the world has ever seen. Sadly the church is as human as it is divine, as flawed as it is inspired, and so it would also tragically bring the evils of crusades and conquistadores, inquisitions and pogroms; but for each of these blasphemies there has arisen a Francis of Assisi, a William Wilberforce, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Martin Luther King, a Desmond Tutu to show Jesus’ way again. And where Christ’s spirit has been allowed to shine through, his church has brought life and hope and purpose to countless millions across all cultures and all walks of life.

Yes, sin is real, and the cross is vital. But there is so much more to Christianity than just the cross (or just sin-wrath-and-cross) – because there is so much more to Christ than just the cross.

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12 Responses to More to Christ than just the cross

  1. RAY RAY says:

    Amen, Brother. I cannot remember of ever having sat through an uplifting or happy sermon. Even the day I accepted Christ as my savior was a big disappointment. All the gloom and doom and crying and giving witness always wore ma to a frazzle. For having a loving God, it just never felt right.
    Reply

  2. johnm55 says:

    I also, when I was part of the Anglican church, had problems with the creed.

    I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
    who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
    born of the Virgin Mary,
    suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    was crucified, died, and was buried;
    he descended to the dead.
    On the third day he rose again;
    he ascended into heaven,
    he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
    and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

    I know that it has to be kept brief, and understand that most people have to be able to agree with it, but what about the thirty odd years in-between. To me if Christ is to mean anything it has to be his life as an example that is important.
    Just in case some one out there hasn’t heard , Cry of a Tiny Babe, and everyone should hear it at least once, click the link.
    Reply

    • John, you introduced us to that song (you used it as part of a talk at church) and I’ve liked it ever since!

      Agree about the massive hole in the creed – unfortunately, a lot of evangelical doctrine has followed suit. Even Jesus’ birth is only the warm-up act for the cross in more conservative theologies. And, with no intention to diminish what Jesus did on Good Friday, always singing and talking only about the cross can get very dull. ‘I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full’ – not ‘I have come so that you can go on and on about sin and painful death the whole darn time’! 😉
      Reply

  3. SmellOfBurntWiggle says:

    ah John I thought of you at the Bruce Cockburn ref!
    Agree it’s massively missing out to jump from birth to death.

    um, what exactly are conquistadores?
    Reply

  4. JimPruitt says:

    Jesus is the key figure of world history. We date our calendar by him. We pray to him, use him as a swear word and celebrate his birth, death and resurrection. What more do the Gospels say about him?

    He was estranged from his own family. It may have started in childhood. Mary was confused at what the angel told her (Luke 1:29) even though she tried hard to understand – Luke 2:19 reports that she “pondered.” At the baby Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, Mary was “astounded” at the comments of Simeon (Luke 2:33.) When Jesus was twelve, he separated from his parents in Jerusalem. When they found him he said, “Could you not tell that I must be at my Father’s?”(Luke 2:49) and his parents did not understand what he was saying (Luke 2:50.) The truth behind this story may be a recollection that he was a very precocious youth. He may not have been physically strong. Luke 23:26 records that he was too weak to carry his own cross. Mark 15:44 asserts that Pilate was surprised how quickly he died.

    When he began his ministry, his brothers did not accept him (John 7:5.) His family tried to take him into custody because they considered him mentally ill (Mark 3:21.0 His townspeople tried to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29.) Jesus rejected Mary at some point (Mark 3:31-35. Note: The church father Tertullion who lived 160-220 viewed this section of scripture as Jesus’ effort to teach the kinship of faith, not to deny family.

    He put out a challenge to the authorities unlike New Testament contemporaries or near-contemporaries like Theudas or Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:36- 37.) Nor was he like the “Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the desert some time ago” …” (Acts 21: 38.) He compelled his followers not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (Matthew 16:20, Mark 8:30) perhaps in order to dissociate himself from those he regarded as counterfeits. He did not mount a direct military challenge. He taught pacifism. He urged love of enemies. He tended to stay within the Jewish faith but was willing to set aside some of its restrictions in the name of humanity, famously forgiving an adulterer (John 8:1-11. Although this is one of Jesus’ most famous encounters containing a quote that has come down through the centuries – paraphrased as “he who is without sin, throw the first stone” – it a difficult passage since it does not appear in the most reliable manuscripts. Many consider it inauthentic. It may have been part of the oral or written traditions and picked up by a later copyist. Also, it is inserted in other parts of the New Testament in other manuscripts: after John 21:25 or after Luke 21:38.) He did so even in the face of the zero-tolerance command from Leviticus, that “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death”(Leviticus 20:10.)

    Jesus must have given people a sense of extraordinary closeness to God. He forgave sins. That is even important for those who do not believe that our sins were forgiven by the atonement on the cross. To quote AN Wilson: those who cling to “the gruesome idea that human sin could only be forgiven by the death of Jesus on the cross must miss the point of such Gospel stories. This was the essence of Jesus’ teaching and this was what caused scandal to those, like the Pharisees or the Essenes, who believed that forgiveness could only be offered to the pure.”

    Jesus may have been a commanding presence. He taught in Capernaum with great authority every Sabbath (Luke 4:31-2.) He may have dressed well. All four Gospels report that at his crucifixion, the Roman soldiers divided up his clothes. The Synoptics report that the Roman soldiers gambled with dice for the clothes – (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15: 24 and Luke 23:34.) The Fourth Gospel simply says that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes among themselves and adds the detail that there were four Roman soldiers present (John 19:23.)

    Jesus’ teaching stands for the ages. Although he once told his followers not to go into any village of the non-Jewish Samaritans (Matthew 10:5), he also told a story about what modern people would call cross-cultural communications between Jews and a good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37.) The world now has hundreds of hospitals named after that story and, as a further example of its place in our heritage, it has been invoked more that five hundred times in US House and Senate debates in the last couple of decades. Here is an example: In 2002, Senator Jesse Helms who had been viewed by AIDS advocates as an enemy said that he would ask for an extra $500 million to prevent mother-to-child transmission of AIDS overseas, contingent on matching funds from the private sector. He wrote: ”Some may say that this initiative is not consistent with some of my earlier positions.…. In the end our conscience is answerable to God. Perhaps, in my 81st year, I am too mindful of soon meeting Him, but I know that, like the Samaritan traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, we cannot turn away when we see our fellow man in need.” The New York Times called Helms an “AIDS Savior.”

    His story of forgiveness of the Prodigal Son Luke 15: 11-32. is a staple. His one-liners – the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14; Luke 6:39), blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9.), faith the size of a mustard seed is sufficient for great things (Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6.), do not put your lamp under a basket (Matthew 5:15), seek and you will find (Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9. Note: in the second century the church father Irenaeus, faced with persecutions from without and schisms from within, sought to build a unified church. His internal opponents countered with this saying of Jesus, in an effort to keep heterodoxy alive. See: Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief (New York: Random, 2003) 129-30) and more – are also staples. He urged people not to obsess over material gains since God, who took care of the “lilies of the field” would care for them (Matthew 6: 28-31.) He urged people to go the extra mile in dealing with others (Matthew 5:41) and even to love one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43.) He mocked self-righteousness, telling people they worried too much about others’ minor faults (a speck in the eye) but excused their own faults even when these shortcomings were, by comparison to the other person’s, like having a log in the eye (Matthew 7: 3-5 – and he said it much better than I just did.) He accused the religious leaders of “strain(ing) out a gnat but swallow(ing) a camel” (Matthew 23:24.) Even Jesus’ enemies regarded him as a gifted teacher (Mark 12:13-17 and Matthew 22:15-22.) Like most great teachers his style was to press his listeners to think for themselves and at times his followers did not understand his metaphors (Mark 4:13, 7:17, John 10:6 and 16:29.) About 65 parables are ascribed to Jesus. (Note: all of the parables are in the Synoptics and none in John.) In fact, Matthew, quoting some unknown source, writes that at one point, “he did not say anything to them without using a parable…” (Matthew 13: 34-5.) The Gospel writers remember at least two purposes for his style of parables but these purposes are contradictory, depending on the context. Mark 4:12 reports that Jesus used parables “in order that the crowd might not understand.” This is part of Mark’s “messianic secret” approach to Israel’s rejection of Jesus. Matthew 13 is a chapter of parables with this difference: Jesus resorts to parables because the crowds have not understood and have rejected him especially in Galilee Galilee was the northern province of Palestine. IMatthew 13:13 makes this clear: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’.” In Matthew 13:36, Jesus takes his followers into a house to privately explain a parable.
    Even in the Book of John which contains no parables as such, Jesus talks figuratively. In John 10:1-16, he identifies himself as “the good shepherd” and the “the door of the sheep” and in John 15:1-6 in which he tells his followers, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
    He urged people to strive for timeless values or, in the language we have in the Sermon on the Mount “treasure in heaven.” He said memorable things like the last shall be first (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 9:35; 10;31; Luke 13:30) and he talked of counter-wisdom, a different way of looking at things that was not obvious, talking about his way as the “narrow” gate or door (Matthew 7:13; Luke 13:24.)

    There is of course far more.
    Reply

  5. Terry says:

    For those despairing of the Nicene Creed’s brevity: just remember, Luke and the Johannine Prologue aside, the Gospels themselves only really focus on the last three years of Jesus’s life.
    Reply

    • Very true, Mr T. But they do at least focus on three years of his life, not just a couple of days…
      Reply

      • Terry says:

        But what are you expecting creeds to do? They’re forged in the fire of controversy as statements of orthodoxy. If you want statements about Jesus’s life, well; that’s where sermons come in. Besides, the Nicene Creed also focuses on Jesus’s life now – something that, apart from a few ‘he is risen’ platitudes, the Church also seems to forget.

      • Fair point Terry. I understand that creeds arise in a particular context and that they can’t say everything that needs to be said. Perhaps the problem is when the church only makes the limited skeleton of a particular creed – or a particular set of touchstone doctrines – its sole focus and basis for orthodoxy and praxis.

  6. Terry says:

    Well, yes… Isn’t that sort of what your original post was about? ;p
    Reply

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