Lent Week 1: Why The Cross?

lent07This year during the Lenten season, we will work our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright.  I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.

Wright’s big idea is that something happened on the afternoon of Good Friday which changed the world.  By six o’clock on that day, the world was a completely different place than it had been just a few hours earlier.

Of course, nobody who was living through the events of that day would have seen it that way.  They would have seen it as just another crucifixion.  This was what Rome did best.  Yet another so-called revolutionary had been brutally liquidated.  His movement, which had never been anything more than a small, ragtag band of followers anyway, was over.  Caesar was still on the throne; death had had the last word.

wrightExcept that it hadn’t.  As Jesus’s followers would reflect back on the events of that day, in light of other events which were soon to follow, they came up with what must have seemed nonsensical to anyone living at the time, and even to us today:  That this was the beginning of a revolution.  More than that, it was the climactic moment not just in human history but in the story of God and the world.  Indeed it had opened up a shocking window on the very notion of God himself.  With this event, God had launched his plan for the rescue of humanity and the entire created world.  You see, it wasn’t just that Jesus had been raised from the dead, important though that was.  It was that the resurrection was the first visible sign that the revolution launched on Good Friday was already underway.  More signs would follow.

But most Christians today, and evangelicals in particular, don’t see it like that.  As a result, most people outside the Church don’t see it like that either.  Instead, the prevailing view is that Jesus’s death saves us from our “sins” so that we can “go to heaven”, whatever that means.  Though that can be revolutionary for someone who has never thought of it before, it is not even remotely close to the revolution envisioned by Jesus’s first followers.  What they had in mind was something much bigger, much more far-reaching, much more explosive, though it does include the idea that we are saved from our sins.  But when we make that the end-all, be-all, we significantly distort what they had in mind, thereby losing much of the world-transforming power that Christianity once possessed.

Think about it:  If the Christian message were nothing more than individuals being saved from their sins and going to heaven when they die, do you think for a moment that Christianity would have transformed the world the way it has?  Do you think for a moment that it would have even made it out of first-century Jerusalem?  Rome back in those days was an incredibly dangerous place to be a Christian.  Do you think for a moment that a faith solely comprised of individuals going to heaven when they die would have had enough power to compel believers to give up their very lives, frequently in excruciatingly horrific fashion?

Yet that is where we are in contemporary evangelicalism.  “This world is not our home”, they say.  “We’re just a-passin thru.”  Whiling away our years here on earth in the hope of being taken away to a disembodied heaven to dwell with Jesus in a state of disembodied spiritual bliss in the sweet by and by.  It’s all over the place in our hymnody.  It’s all over the place in our sermons.  It’s all over the place in CCM.

In light of this, it is not surprising that 81 percent of evangelicals can support a racist, bigoted dictator, the most spectacularly unqualified candidate ever to seek public office let alone the office of president, a man who is the complete opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus, without even batting an eyelash,, and even claim that their Christian convictions compel them to do so.

This is a problem.  As Wright would say, we have Platonized our eschatology (by making a disembodied, spiritual heaven the end goal of the Christian story), we have moralized our anthropology (by making a failed “works contract” the root of the human problem), and we have paganized our soteriology (by replacing the revolutionary Kingdom of God with a non-biblical vision of heaven and hell).

Most of the time, when we speak of the cross in Western Christianity, what we mean goes something like this:  All humans have sinned, causing God to be angry and want to burn them forever in a place called hell.  But Jesus stepped up and got in the way and took the punishment instead (it helped that he was innocent and sinless, it helped even more that he was the Son of God).  As a result, we are in the clear, headed for heaven instead of the hell that we deserve (provided of course that we believe it and can articulate it properly).  Most teachers and scholars would not put it so bluntly, but that is the takeaway.  That is what people expect to hear.  And in many churches, if you don’t say it like this people will say you aren’t “preaching the Gospel”.

This is a problem.  It paints a picture of God as an angry, bloodthirsty tyrant.  Some people and some strains of Christianity, particularly the uber-Reformed strains of Calvinism, are all over this.  But many people cannot accept this picture of God and they hope and pray that if there really is a God then he/she/it is nothing like this.  They react in a variety of predictable ways:  Some chuck the whole thing as irrelevant and walk away altogether.  Some go back to their Bibles and the writings of the great early teachers of the Church and find all sorts of things being said about the cross, for instance that it is how God’s love won the victory over the forces of sin and darkness.  Still others find early writers urging us to imitate the example of Jesus’s self-giving love and seize upon that as the answer:  The cross isn’t about God punishing sin but about Jesus providing us with the ultimate example of love which we are called to imitate.  Thus a tremendous confusion has arisen as to what the cross is all about.

Not surprisingly, this causes people to lose sight of the main thing:  that when Jesus died on the cross, something happened which changed the world into a completely different place.  And when you get caught up in the true meaning of the cross, you become part of this difference.  The day of Jesus’s crucifixion was the day the revolution began.  More than that, Jesus’s crucifixion is part and parcel of a much bigger story than whether people go to heaven or hell when they die.  It is part of the story of God’s kingdom coming here on earth as it is in heaven.

In order to understand the cross more fully, we must look at it in its first-century setting.  There are three distinct first-century contexts within which the cross finds meaning:  the Greco-Roman world, the Jewish world, and the world of the early Christians.  In the Greco-Roman world, crucifixion was a horrible thing.  You see, the Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, they perfected it.  They figured out how to extend the process of dying on a cross to last for several hours and even for days on end.  Once you had seen a crucifixion, you could not unsee it for as long as you lived.  The Romans reserved crucifixion for two specific types of undesirables:  slaves, rebels, and especially slaves who were also rebels or leaders of rebellions.  Crucifixions were held in the most public places:  on frequently traveled roads and at the entrances of cities.  The message was clear:  Rome is in charge here.  Just try to rebel and see if you don’t end up like this.  There was also an element of mockery here, parodying the ambitions of uppity rebels:  “So you see yourself as high and lifted up?  There’s your “high and lifted up”.  You want to move up in society?  Fine, you can move up–literally, on a cross.”

In the Jewish world, life was organized around the great religious festivals, of which the greatest was Passover.  Passover commemorates the events depicted in the book of Exodus when God acted mightily to lead the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt.  The story is rehashed in detail at every Passover.  Jesus chose the Passover as the time when he would do what he had to do.  But more than just remembering the deliverance that happened in the past, the first-century Jews were awaiting and expecting a fresh act of deliverance.  The exile of Babylon continued long after the Jews returned home, in the form of continuing pagan oppression.  All the prophets insisted that this exile was due to the sin of Israel in failing to keep the Law.  If this long-awaited deliverance was to come, then, it had to consist of a divine action of “forgiveness of sins”.  But there was no conception in Jewish thought that if such a deliverer were to come, that he would suffer.

In the world of the New Testament Christians, there was a tremendous diversity of thought concerning the cross and what it meant.  But it converges in some pretty specific directions:  Once we replace the idea of going to heaven when we die as our ultimate destiny with the biblical idea of a new heavens and a new earth, there will be direct consequences for how we understand both the human problem and the divine solution.  In the view that is prevalent in present-day Christianity, the human problem is sin which stops us from going to heaven; this was dealt with (somehow) on the cross.  But in the biblical way of looking at things, what stops us from being genuine humans, living out our vocation as priests bearing the image of God, is not only sin but the idolatry which underlies it:  the idols have gained the power that humans ought to be exercising because humans have handed it over to them, and sin keeps humans in the thrall of these idols.  Dealing with sin therefore has much more profound consequences than just releasing humans to go to heaven, it also means releasing humans from bondage to the idols of this world so that they may worship the one true God and fulfill the vocation he intended for them.

God’s plan to deal with sin and idolatry is focused on his people Israel.  But in the New Testament the focus narrows to Israel’s representative, the Messiah Jesus Christ.  He stands in for Israel, thereby fulfilling the divine plan to rescue humanity and ultimately all of creation.  This is the short version; Wright will unpack it in greater detail over the remainder of the book.