What does the cross of Jesus mean?

Apr 21, 2014 by

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Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. — Matt. 28:7-8

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. — Col. 3:1-4

God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen. — Martin Luther King Jr.

If the cross of Jesus means anything worthy of embrace it must be, first and foremost, an absolute scandal. This gruesome tool of torture continues to remind us all that the world is just not fair. Jesus lived an unprecedented life, ruthlessly committed to comforting the afflicted in their pain and punishment and afflicting the comfortable addicted to power, prestige and privilege. Jesus’ confrontation with the elites led to his unjust execution. This, ironically, is where salvation must lead. God dwells in the Land of the meek and merciful, the persecuted and peace loving, those who hunger and thirst for justice so deeply that they are willing to be killed for it.

How can this possibly be “good news?” Only if, at the end of the Game, it leads to resurrection life, unshackling the destruction, death and disease of this world. Jesus’ mutilated body pulls back the curtain of power and exposes the injustice and inequality saturating every context and circumstance, prodding us with the ultimate lifestyle question: Will we muster the courage and confidence to boldly take up the cross of Jesus? This cross can only be the inevitable result of loving the losers and all those left out. We are the ones who must be in solidarity with the dreamers who have always known indignity and suffering. And we must be the ones who advocate for them with our words, deeds, energy and reputations. Let us not mince words: Jesus was killed because he was political. Like King. Like Romero. Like Gandhi. Their brutal deaths have been seeds buried into the ground, bearing abundant fruit in the global struggle for peace and justice.

The cross saves us by doing Something inside us as well. If God can be truly known in the suffering of the cross, we can be assured that we are not alone as we struggle to liberate ourselves from our own painful patterns and counterfeit copings. Our fears and fantasies, anxieties and anger, rage and resentments all lead us into culs-de-sac of addiction, abuse, repressed memories and mental illness. Yet, our salvation doesn’t just happen. We must carry the cross down our own road to recovery. Rigorous personal inventory. Vulnerable confession. Therapy. A commitment to spiritual disciplines. These will lead us to the Promised Land. But only if we know, deep in our bones, that there is a force of Love more powerful than anything that haunts us. And there is.

This Love was the final, once-and-for-all scapegoat, taking on the projecting pain and bitterness of the whole world. The cross hangs as a clarion call to stop the blaming and violence: in our homes, on our streets, within our halls of power and all over the online comments section. Only when we see what scapegoating did to the man who lived out unprecedented love and justice — meditating on the precious and brutalized Jesus upon the cross — will we be able to stop crucifying our so-called enemies.

It was also the final, once-and-for-all religious sacrifice. No living thing needs to die in order to have access to the Divine. Every time we share a meal (the bread and the wine) we remember that Love dwells within us and all around us, especially in our darkest and dirtiest moments. We don’t need to go to a special building or to a sacred person to experience the forgiveness and grace that abounds for those who pledge allegiance to a critical and compassionate consciousness. We will fail, but we must get back up again. Because God will be there. No matter what.

Let’s be clear: this cross is not a divine magic wand that immediately takes away our trials and troubles. It is not a guaranteed ticket, for those who “believe,” to go straight to heaven when they die. It was not the ultimate act of violence that appeased an angered god. It ought to never be waved around triumphantly as the one right religion, the absolute Truth that all must bow to. These are popular ways of conveniently counterfeiting the vocation of the cross into an easily accessible status that doesn’t demand much of anything.

Those of us who testify to a world of unjust crucifixions, but hold on to the active hope of the empty tomb, embrace life “with fear and great joy.” Life is a gigantic mystery. We gamble on goodness and truth because we are compelled that there are more divine surprises to come. We go about “setting our minds on things above,” all the things that led Jesus to the cross, because we have hope that there will be a “day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn.” For all those living in agony and apathy, let’s pray this Day comes soon. Until then, let’s bring all of our critical and creative energy to the task of bringing resurrection life to every corner of the globe.

Tom Airey teaches economics and world history at Capistrano Valley High School. He and his wife, Lindsay, graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary and are experimenting with Anabaptist intentional community in Orange County, Calif.


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