Christianity is nothing without the cross. (And the cross is nothing without the resurrection – but that’s for another day).
Paul would only boast in the cross (Gal.6:14). Christians are baptised into the death of Christ. The share the Lord’s Supper to remember and proclaim Christ’s death. The gospel begins with ‘Christ died for our sins’.
But to boast about or celebrate the cross would have been utterly bizarre for a first century person, especially a Jew. It should strike us as pretty weird too but we are inoculated by over-familiarity.
A positive assessment of a barbaric pagan execution method? Impossible. A crucified Messiah? Grotesque.
If Good Friday reminds us of anything, it is of the shocking ‘otherness’ of God. His ways are not predictable or nice or neat.
The life and mission of Jesus began and ended in violence and bloodshed. His ministry was shaped by increasing conflict that climaxed in a solitary, brutal and unjust death at the hands of Empire.
And yet the united witness of the NT writers is that this was no accidental or insignificant event, but God’s dramatic confrontation of sin and death and evil in his Son made flesh.
No-one imagined that this would be the identity and calling of the Messiah until Jesus burst on the scene, healing people, announcing the coming kingdom and uttering dark predictions about his voluntary, sacrificial and substitutionary death (Mk 10:45).
The cross announces to all that our lives and this world are so broken and distorted by sin that absolutely nothing else can begin to set things right except the death of the Son. For if there was any other way to effect forgiveness and avert the wrathful judgement of God, then the cross would indeed become a symbol of an unjust and unloving Father who allows his Son to suffer unnecessarily.
This death is the decisive event in God’s saving purposes for individuals and for all of creation. It is a place where something so deep and mysterious happened that the Bible talks about it in multiple ways. For centuries Christians have wrestled with what happened at the cross – how atonement ‘works’ – and it’s remarkable how no one explanation can ‘capture’ the atonement, it is simply too big and rich and breathtaking to tie down in one image or idea.
But, however understood, it calls each and every person to worship of the self-giving God who in himself and out of love atones for sin, enacts just judgement, defeats sin and death and overcomes evil.
Too often, Christians can think of the cross as only a ‘past event’.
But the cross is never an end in itself – it is only the beginning of a whole new life within the bigger picture of salvation. Consider Titus 2:11-14
11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
The self-giving Messiah dies to redeem his people from something to something else: from a life lived for the self in this age, to a life shaped by the age to come.
All of the Christian life is to be lived under the shadow of the cross – the Christian life is nothing if not cruciform. To follow Jesus in living life for the good of others; in putting to death the old and putting on the new; in being willing to face suffering.
As I think about Good Friday I am troubled by how comfortable and untroubled I am by this God.
This cross confronts my self-sufficiency – it announces to you and me that there is no human way of salvation for if righteousness could be gained in any other way then ‘Christ died for nothing’.
The cross confronts my theology of God himself. I fear that in studying the big picture unfolding narrative of the Bible and being able to see something of how it fits together, God can be all too easily boxed away; his present and future actions fitting safely within the boundaries of an already written story that we, as NT Christians, now have a much fuller understanding of than in the OT.
But at the cross, God exploded his people’s understanding of who he was and what he could and would do. I wonder how and where he might do the same for his people today?
Comments, as ever, welcome.