The significance of the cross is best thought of as the primary corrective to our current lens on life and faith. What needs correction obviously changes over time and space. In our day and time, the restoration of relationship is the absolutely crucial thing that we need to regain and is, thereby, the primary lens through which we need to view the cross.
Relationship is such a vapid concept in our day and time that we don’t even recognize there is no individual without the relationships that give shape and direction to the constituent parts of culture and community. In another day and time, when culture and community are the assumption and individuality is incoherent, models like penal substitution or christus victor may very well be the most important corrective lens through which to view the cross.
The meaning of the cross is not a static set of words or ideas – it is the means by which God loves and transforms the world. If we cannot view love and transformation through the dynamic lens in which we see where the action of God intersects with the needs of our present, then we have no hope of rightly understanding what the cross is and does, much less how to talk about it faithfully.
There is a thought that rings true in our quest to feed the hungry and clothe the naked – those who would receive assistance must do work to earn it. It makes sense when you consider that Jesus was a carpenter first and the book of Thessalonians even says something like the one who does not work does not eat. It’s at the heart of American idealism that the goal of what we do and go after is to contribute to the betterment of society and be good workers for the sake of the economy. But the notion that someone has to work to receive something is the antithesis to the Christian notion of grace.
In truth, it’s not really that we generically think someone ought to work to receive help – what we specifically mean is that they owe us something in an unspoken system of barter if they want anything from us. It’s hard work to beg for money. I’ve met some beggars who’ve done a better sales job on me than any other person in the mainstream corporate world. If we really just meant that people have to work to deserve charity, we would have to accept that some of the most deserving and hardest workers are the people we least desire to fund. What we wind up wanting is not “work” to express a desire for help, but a positive contribution to someone else. There is, of course, no “Christian” definition of positive contribution to which we turn, we just want to think they’re earning their keep.
Christian charity works in the opposite direction. Take the story of harvest gleanings from Ruth. I’d argue that the type of work the people do there to receive the leftover food is more like the ‘work’ we want eliminated than the work we think people should be willing to do – they simply come and get what they need and leave without contributing anything positive to the owners of the fields.
The very heart and soul of Jesus’ message is that what he offers we haven’t earned. When we include earning anywhere within the notion of giving, we’re already permanently off the track God desires us to follow. It’s not that we should give freely to anyone and everyone with no thought as to how or why – but that there are better and worse ways to share from the abundance we have been given. There are more and less effective ways to witness to the kingdom God is building rather than the economy upon which America runs. There are things we can to do let people into our hearts and find God waiting there rather than earn their way into our wallets and find the next quick fix. Charity is about building a kingdom – not earning a paycheck or creating walls between the haves and have nots.
Sin and righteousness are not helpful categories for understanding a faithful life because these categories presuppose the existence of a community that is capable of being broken and mended; exactly the kind of community that is lost in the radical individualism of modernity. We can’t get rid of concepts like sin and righteousness anymore than we can get rid of Jesus. But if we want to be faithful to the gospel message, we have to first learn to see and experience the kind of community that is presupposed by the entire world of the bible – only after learning to embody that kind of community life will concepts like sin and righteousness be capable of meaning anything.
“If alternatives exist outside of these forced choices (and they almost always do), then the statements are factually wrong. It’s turning an emotion-driven approach into weaponized belonging. And it always benefits the person throwing down the gauntlet and brandishing those forced, false choices.” Brené Brown
The operative theory here is the same one that drives half my preaching… if we think our options are either/or, we’ve already given up on affecting the outcome. “Weaponized belonging” is all that’s left when we fail to recognize the embrace of a love that cannot end and never fails; a love that is present not in spite of our fears and failures, but in and through them; a love that compels us far beyond the walls of the way it’s always been. Intensely partisan “debates” are just one specific symptom of a much deeper failure to see the world God makes possible rather than the fear that so naturally dominates our attention.
Moana’s lyrics in the movie’s climactic scene better represent Christ’s words on the cross than most strands of Christian expression today.
I’m going to try and tie several things together to express what I think is deeply lacking at the heart of those expressions. I don’t have the time to do justice to the kind of post this topic deserves, but the notion herein is so central to what I believe is at the heart of Christianity that I feel compelled to share at least this disjointed set of thoughts that may in some way point toward the message we, the church, so desperately need to hear and proclaim.
- An Article – I recently read an article connecting healing from a history of abuse with the message of the movie Moana. The entire article is well worth reading, but the point that stuck out to me so profoundly was the recognition that naming and accepting the trauma of our past is an absolutely vital part of finding healing and wholeness. If we cannot look into the eyes of our past as it actually happened rather than how we desire that it would have been, we will never be able to find joy in who we are and will become. The article closes – “You are not defined by your darkest hour. You are greater than what has been stolen from you. It is never too late to heal. It is never too late to make a fresh start. It is never too late to have your heart restored.” Great movie, incredible article.
- John 3:14-16 – “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I can’t recall a single person ever quoting John 3:16 while adding what comes just before as opposed to what comes after. I’d also be surprised if you could change the nuance of a message any more deeply than by reading two verses ahead of 3:16 as opposed to the 2 following verses that are so often quoted. I preached a sermon a while back on the passage in Numbers to which verse 14 refers. Far from the “believe your way into salvation” message that is so easily implied by 16 and following, the imagery of 14 forces us to see that salvation comes in the confrontation with our most profound brokenness. When we stare into the heart of darkness, sin, betrayal, trial, and tragedy we find the love by which we are created and made new.
- Vulnerability – Brené Brown is one of my absolute heroes. Her research gives language to express aspects of the faith that we do not even begin to address in the Christian circles in which I’ve taken part. I wrote a far more thorough post about why I find her work so valuable as it relates to faith, but I’ll summarize the relevant point here. Most of the church-y words and slogans we use are a means to hide as much as they reveal. We put words up as a shield so that we don’t have to experience the vulnerability of exposing our wounds and feeling powerless over how others respond. To claim that the cross is the center of our faith is to claim that God’s vulnerability is the source of and model for our lives. Jesus Christ became vulnerable so that we might find life in Him. For our lives to give witness to a cruciform life is to expose the imperfections that we so desperately want to hide from the rest of the world. We are restored when we are truly seen.
- Parable and Truth– The human mind has absolutely no meaningful grasp of truth or how to tell if a particular message guides us toward the truth or steers us away from it. I don’t mean that to be a critique of any particular strand of Christian thought – more an indictment on virtually everyone’s inability to have the conversations we think we’re having and our lack of appreciation for modern day parables. Something profoundly important happens when we know we’re listening to a story that isn’t supposed to report on events that actually happened – we are forced to give up the illusion that we have a truly objective and common way to speak of God or the world as they are. The stories we tell ourselves quite often define the reality we see at least as much as anything coming from the outside world. To know truth, sometimes we are required to hear it through the lens of unfamiliar or uncomfortable stories.
- Stories that Form – Americans right now are seeing with unprecedented clarity that the stories that wrote us form us in ways that make it very difficult to change our perceptions. This reality leads us to act in ways that harm others and even our own self interest. The way to overcome the faulty and problematic narratives of the world is not to prove the objective problems within a given narrative, but to offer a more compelling and truthful account of what life is and what life is for. To do so can’t happen with simple truisms or catchy slogans. Change only happens through the authentic, vulnerable relationships by which we come to see our lives in the light of a different story.
- Sin and Evil – Sin and evil are two sides of the same coin. Sin is the way we have broken the world. Evil is the way the world breaks us. To speak of sin and evil primarily from a perspective of ‘punishable offences’ or ‘punitive justice’ or ‘criminality’ never creates the space to see that before we are or do anything, we are God’s children. There are no individuals and thereby no actions that can be objectively and meaningfully defined as sin or evil until after we understand ourselves to be a particular part of the created world and human community. How we are formed by God’s creation is more basic than who we are as an agent of change. Therefore, what actually makes a difference is whether our lives and actions embody the relationship that God is or become sin that breaks the world and evil by which we are broken.
- The goal of modern medicine is to get out of life alive – Stanley Hauerwas has shared a variation of this quote in a multitude of writings and interviews, one of which can be found here. With getting out alive as the increasingly common understanding of our goal in life it becomes impossible to come face to face with our greatest source of vulnerability – our own mortality. If any of what I have shared about vulnerability is correct, then the quest to live forever cannot help but entail the rejection of being fully embraced as the imperfect, broken, struggling self that we all are. Rejecting that embrace means rejecting the story of God’s quest to know and redeem our broken bodies. To even fight the darkness of sin and evil is ultimately to refuse to accept our mortality. The way to salvation is not by combating that which makes us imperfect but by experiencing a love that is far more powerful than anything we could think, say, or do.
A far too brief attempt to tie these thoughts together and express the heart of the gospel message – whatever we have done and whatever has been done to us, we are defined not by the failure of our humanity but by the embrace of our God. God became sin so that we might see nothing can separate us from the love that is stronger than death. We are loved. We are accepted. We are enough. There is no other foundation on which to stand. There is no more important aspect of our relationship with God and one another. There is no hope, no life, no joy; no justice, no mercy, no mission; no holiness, no salvation, no redemption without God’s radical embrace of exactly the frailty and failure we fear most; without God’s radical embrace of death itself on the cross.
Our greatest problem is not that we are too sinful or evil. Our greatest problem is that we have no idea what it means to know and be known by a love that has no bounds and never ends. Until we experience the embrace of community as God is in Trinity and desires in creation, we’ll never know what sin and evil break or how to then seek forgiveness and healing. In the climactic scene, Moana sings these hauntingly beautiful lyrics that might as well be Jesus’ words from the cross:
I have crossed the horizon to find you.
I know your name.
They have stolen the heart from inside you.
But this does not define you.
This is not who you are.
You know who you are.
To look upon the cross is to confront our greatest shame and deepest wounds; and to hear the voice of God respond: I am yours, you are mine.
Is Jesus the only way to heaven? Before attempting an answer, we must ask a prior question. Is the life of God that was poured out and perfected upon the cross strong enough and deep enough to effect the salvation of the whole world? The former question is problematic if we cannot answer the latter with a certain and emphatic ‘Yes!’
To answer ‘no’ is to imply that we see Jesus as a life raft tossed into the ocean, which must be found and utilized by a drowning person. If that were the case, then I would have trouble blaming anyone for a desire to multiply the rafts so that more and more persons might find rest in their quest to stay afloat – and that is often how the more liberal voices come across when justifying alternative religions as paths to salvation. On the other side, more conservative voices that require the unique particularity of Jesus come across as cruel in their comfort with the notion that many will drown even if they never had fair access to the limited number of rafts available.
Beginning with the latter question points to the possibility that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus reveals to the whole world that God has made an island in the midst of the ocean; an island big enough to give rest to all the world; an island with food and water to satisfy every need and shelter to protect from every storm. If that is the case, then arguing over what brand is printed on your life preserver necessarily points your answer in the wrong direction.
Perhaps some will refuse to leave the ocean, preferring the fight for survival to the fear of the unknown. But it remains much more faithful to the Christian story to understand that Jesus is not one small life raft in an ocean full of lost and drowning souls. We may think we are doing the world a service by trying to find more boats, whether inside traditional Christian understanding or not, but God in Christ by the power of the Spirit effects a wholly different plan to end our struggles in the ocean. As Jesus was raised upon the cross, so God has raised up the dry land to save us from our drowning and make possible a new life shared in harmony with all creation. Starting with that affirmation changes the meaning and possible outcomes of the former question entirely.
I’m from the land of boxes and straight lines;
with a place for everything and everything in its place.
I’m from a place of safety and love;
accepted, empowered, embraced, sent forth.
I’m from a voice that shattered simplicity;
asking when, not if.
I’m from the place where the light broke through;
slowly at first, then quickly.
I’m from a world turned upside down so that I could find my place to stand;
it took becoming blind for me to finally see.
I’m from a world that grows with each passing day;
confronted by grace, challenged by sight, comforted by abundance.
I’m from the school where I learned everything on day one;
and then everything all over, each new day.
I’m from a place where love overcomes;
pushing boundaries, shattering expectations, creating more than my feeble mind can comprehend.
I’m from persons and peoples that I will never know fully;
but theirs are the stories that wrote me.
Where I’m from is who I want to be and where I hope to lead.