Text: Mark 8:31-38
Our beloved friend, Beth Paschal, would often say that in her diverse social circles when she mentioned that she was a member of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church it was either a conversation starter or a conversation stopper. In her gracious, yet sometimes mischievous way, Beth would smile when she would say, “When the topic of Pullen comes up, there is no middle ground from which to proceed with the conversation.” In religious circles, conversation about the cross can elicit the same response. For those who want to talk about the cross as central to the Christian faith and the gospel message, they cannot get enough conversation about it. For them, Jesus’ death on the cross defines not only the Christian story but serves as the foundation for how they understand God, Jesus, and humanity. But for others of us, the cross and Jesus’ death on it stand as one of the more confounding and questionable aspects of the Christian narrative. Those of us who reside in this category often struggle to find the words to talk about its true purpose and meaning. In many churches this morning the message of the cross will be the focus of all that is said, sung, and prayed. And in a few other churches, the references to it will be vague and covered in a shroud of ambiguity and confusion, if not suspicion and disbelief.
This diversity in our theologies of the cross hit home this week as the Pullen staff gathered for a day long retreat. As a centering exercise, to begin our time together, I read a few excerpts on prayer from Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline and then invited the staff to make prayer beads. I had purchased several strands of beads from the bead store for this exercise and on one strand there were two small white crosses. In making my purchase, I had noticed them but didn’t think too much of it. After making our prayer beads we took turns showing them to each other and talking about their significance. At one end of Cathy Tamsberg’s prayer beads was one of those little white crosses. She began her sharing by saying, “I chose one of the crosses because I didn’t know if anyone else would choose it and because I don’t have a problem with the cross like I know some of you do.” Her comment was not meant to be sarcastic or judgmental and none of us took it that way. She was simply speaking a truth that she knew about her colleagues and their questions about the meaning and purpose of the cross. Indeed, even among the staff of this church, we are not all of one mind about the theology of the cross. And yet, it is precisely in our differences in how we think and believe about significant issues of faith, like that of the cross, that we encounter the space and opportunity to stretch and grow and be transformed.
David Heim, an assistant editor with The Christian Century raises the question of how we understand the cross in an article he wrote for The Christian Century in March of 2005. He writes, “Is the story of Jesus mainly about his death and a life that leads to it, or is the story of Jesus mainly about his life and a death that flows from it?” He continues saying, “On one view, it hardly matters: these are just two ways of looking at the same thing. On a more combative view, the difference is as great as night and day. Does the cross belong on the sleeves (and hearts) of Christians, as the glorious core of their faith, or does it belong in the repair shop, in need of drastic repairs, the primary Christian embarrassment for believers and an offense to outsiders?” Heim goes on to make the point that the disagreement is not over Jesus’ death as a fact (few disagree about the realities and circumstances of the crucifixion) but rather, the conflict revolves around two competing theologies of the cross. On the one hand, there is a theology that affirms that “Jesus’ death is the supreme saving act, and that the equation of guilt, punishment and grace worked out through the execution of the innocent, divine victim in place of a rightly condemned humanity provides the essential sum of Christianity itself.” For those who grew up in the Christian church, this was the theology we learned. However, throughout church history and especially in more recent times, theologians have questioned this understanding of the meaning and purpose of the cross. On the other hand, many have raised the question of whether the traditional atonement theology represented in the cross actually “represented a terrible wrong turn, plunging Christian spirituality into a toxic brew of idealized” suffering, authorized violence, and social domination.
In the 13th century, there was a great debate among the Catholics. At that time there were two great debating societies-the Franciscans and the Dominicans. The two societies disagreed on almost all issues of theology. Richard Rohr writes, “the Dominicans would say one thing and [the] Franciscans would always say the other and neither, in those days, were kicked out of the church.” (Sounds a little bit like Pullen!) One of the great debates was the question, “Is Jesus necessary?” Based on sound biblical teachings, the Dominicans concluded that yes, Jesus was necessary. Jesus had to offer this sacrifice and pay this atonement bill. But the Franciscans never agreed with that. They said that Jesus wasn’t necessary, and he was solving no problems. Instead, they saw Jesus and his death on the cross as Jesus’ way to identify with the pain of the world-to identify with the poor and not the rich, to remain as far as possible on the edge, not the center.
As I have studied the various theologies of the cross, believe it or not, it is Martin Luther’s contrast between what he called the “theology of glory” and the “theology of the cross” that has been most helpful in my own journey of understanding the meaning and purpose of the cross. The theology of glory, Luther says, is built on what appears to be self-evident about life and on assumptions about the way a god is expected to act in the world. In contrast, Luther states, that the theology of the cross is grounded in God’s self-revelation in the weakness of suffering and death. The theology of glory confirms what people want in a god; the theology of the cross contradicts everything that people imagine that God should be.
I believe that it is precisely this contradiction that led to Peter’s response to Jesus when Jesus said he must undergo great suffering, be rejected and killed. Understandably so, Peter had been witness to all the great things the earthly Jesus had been doing-a theology of glory-healing the sick, the paralyzed, and the demonic; feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish; turning water into wine; and a whole host of other miracles. This was the God, the earthly king that everyone expected. It must have been a jolt to Peter to hear his messiah say that he would suffer and be killed. It was simply too much for Peter to accept. After all, what kind of God would save the world through suffering and rejection, through weakness and humility, and through powerlessness and death? Who could or would have ever imagined that God would enter the world and thus humanity in such a way? Who could have imagined the truth that God’s mercy is given to sinners, not reserved for the righteous; and God’s strength is exposed in weakness, not displayed in power. Thus it is that Jesus says those who want to save their life must lose it, while those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will save it. While God is found in beauty and security and peace, the truth of the cross is that God lives with us in uncertainty, danger, and suffering-precisely where human wisdom perceives God’s absence.
So what does Jesus’ death on the cross mean? And what does it mean for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus? If, for a moment, we can set aside our understandings of the cross as an atonement for sin or a supreme saving act or as a God-condoning act of violence or a story that doesn’t have any meaning or relevance for us today, we make way for another option to emerge. And it is this. The cross is about rethinking how we see and live in the world. It is about reorienting ourselves to a different way of thinking, and acting, and believing. It is in the words of a friend, “the intersection of pain and hope and one can’t be abandoned for the other. The pain makes us real, human, connected to one another and in need of growth and learning. Not because God created us to suffer, but because God suffers with us. Jesus on the cross is God’s great compassion-God’s acknowledgment of our suffering, and God’s desire to help and protect us. And the cross is the place through which we enter that compassion.” Remember those beads that Cathy made? What she said in the end about why she put that cross on the end of her prayer beads was this. She said, “I believe the cross is a symbol that somebody died because he stood up for other people-people who didn’t have a voice.”
What is our cross to take up? It is our commitment to be in this world but not of this world. It is our willingness to say no to a theology of glory-if we mean by glory a life of certainty, and absolutes, and our own expectations of how God is to work in the world. It will require steadfastness in standing against the power of institutions that oppress the weak and vulnerable and marginalized. It is our willingness to allow our very souls to be transformed through our own pain and suffering; and to live in this world knowing true glory: that faith is not certainty, hope is not optimism, and love is not painless.
Theologian and spiritual teacher, Richard Rohr writes: “Jesus never once said, ‘Worship me,’ he said, ‘Follow me.’ One of the cleverest ways to avoid following someone is to worship him…You just put him on a pedestal, you make God out of him, and you pay homage to this God figure and then you don’t have to do what he did.” If we are willing to rethink the cross, it will mean truly following Jesus, not just worshipping him. It will mean standing up for other people-especially the people of this world who don’t have a voice. We can hide behind our debates about the theologies of the cross or we can rethink what the cross means for us and follow the way of Jesus. May God give each of us the courage to rethink the cross and then take it up and follow. It may not lead us to a place where we are free from pain and suffering or to a place of certainty. But it will lead us to a place of love and truth and hope.