Understanding the meaning of the cross
What on earth is the meaning of the cross? How do we understand it? Probably the short answer is we don’t - but here are several responses to help us try. By Andy Goodliff
One response is, as one song puts it ‘I’m overwhelmed by the mystery.’ (i) The cross is a mystery and so we cling to the promises we find in scripture:
Christ died for our sins
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,
not counting people’s sins against them
In Christ we have redemption through his blood,
The forgiveness of sins
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous
To bring them to God.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood
To him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
Another response is to say that to understand reconciliation, to understand the cross, we need to only read aloud, recite the story of the passion, usually from John’s gospel, from beginning to end, alongside Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. (ii)
In other words to understand the cross you’ve got to hear it, indwell it, enact it, and especially eat it; that is, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
As one preacher said, Jesus didn’t give us a theory, he gave us a meal.(iii)
So I’d encourage you to do everything you possibly can to read and hear the passion story from Palm Sunday to Good Friday and on to Easter.
Another response is to say that although we will never fully understand the cross, we can try, with the Bible, to find images that help unwrap something of the truth of cross.
So we look to images like that of the Passover Lamb, and say at the cross, Jesus is the Lamb of God sacrificed once and for all, for the forgiveness of our sins;
or that of a battle, and say at the cross, Jesus overcomes and conquerors, paradoxically, the powers of sin and death;
or that of a lawcourt, and say at the cross, Jesus is in dock, receiving the sentence that was ours, that we might be acquitted and go free;
or that of a bridge, and say at the cross, Jesus makes a crossing that overcomes the great divide between us and God, that God might be reconciled to us;
or that of a hostage situation, and say at the cross, Jesus makes a payment or a ransom that buys our freedom.
The meaning of the cross is forgiveness, victory, pardon, reconciliation, freedom, and more. The cross is where God acts decisively for us; that he will be God with us.
Another response is to see the cross not as answer, but as a question. (iv)
We come before the cross and bring our most honest questions, of why and how?
Why would it be necessary for God’s Son to die in such a peculiarly horrible way? What does Jesus’ death on a cross a long time ago have to do with us now? What does it mean to call Good Friday good?
To respond to the cross with our questions is to recognise that to follow Jesus, especially as he journeys to the cross, is to have questions.
The gospels are full of questions, the disciples are full of questions, and so our faith is one that is always a questioning one, always one seeking understanding.
The Baptist theologian James McClendon said that theology – thinking about God – means struggle.
If you’ve found a neat tidy faith, you almost certainly have not found the Christian faith. We cannot come to the cross without carrying a question.
And sometimes we may find answers, or at least the beginnings of an answer, but more often than not we will find another question.
When we respond to the cross as a question, we turn to pondering and like Paul we say:
Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?
When we respond to the cross seeking to unwrap its meaning, we turn to proclamation, and like Paul we say:
God did not spare his own Son, but gave him for us all …
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
… For I am convinced that neither death nor life,
neither angels nor demons,
neither the present nor the future,
nor any powers
neither height nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God
that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When we respond to the cross as a story to be recited, we turn to prayer, to confession and lament, and like Isaiah we say:
Woe is me! For I am one of unclean lips
and like Paul we say:
Wretched person am I! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And when we respond to the cross as mystery, we turn to praise and like Paul we say:
‘Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! …
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be glory for ever!
We will respond in different ways at different times to the cross. We will sometimes ponder, sometimes proclaim, sometimes pray and sometimes praise.
It is impossible to do anything else, because to come to God is always to come via the cross.
The cross stands in front of every human life and for some it will be a stumbling block; for others it will be a ridiculous story; but for some it will be like a ship’s mast to which we cling in the storms of life.
And we, the church, we are called to be those who keep coming to the cross, to find life and mystery, meaning and questions, promise and hope, love and suffering, grace and mercy.
And as those who are called, we are also those who are sent, like Paul, to keep pointing to Jesus and saying, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.”
“We preach Christ crucified … the power and wisdom of God.”
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
“I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
May we ponder, proclaim, pray and praise at the cross.
(i) Matt Redman, ‘I will love you for the cross’ ©1998 Kingsway Music.
(ii) As the late Robert Jenson suggests in his Systematic Theology Vol 1 (Oxford, 1997), 190.
(iii) Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham, currently Professor of New Testament, University of St Andrews
(iv) For a further exploration of this kind of response see Sam Wells, Hanging by a Thread (Canterbury, 2016)
Image | Kyle Wright | Creationswap
The Revd Andy Goodliff is minister of Belle Vue Baptist Church, Southend-on-Sea. This reflection is adapted from a recent sermon.