God on a Cross?

January 4th, 2011

There are many things about Christianity that make it different from the other religions of the world, but the crux of all those differences lies in the story of the cross of Jesus. Human history tells us many mysterious things but this is the most impalpable. Jesus without doubt has been the most benevolent influence yet to touch the human spirit. Just think of the hospitals, schools, and numberless institutions of mercy that have emerged across the centuries as a direct result of his influence. Yet his peers felt it proper to reward him with a brutal death on a cross. And then his followers took that cross, not as a sign of shame, but as a symbol of hope and glory and declared it to be the hope of salvation for the world. Under the sign of that cross they went forth to challenge a culture and to change their world.

Why was the cross so important to them? The simple fact is that there is no other point where the crucial claims of the Christian faith about God, humanity, and sin come into sharper focus. Because of their years with Jesus and because of the cross and resurrection, they could never think of God, human personhood, or sin in the same manner again.

As they lived with Jesus over the days of his public ministry, they had heard him talk about his Father, sensed his intimacy with him, and resumed fellowship with him after the resurrection,. Three things seemed inescapable for them. He was obviously no ordinary person. His powers, his knowledge, his holiness, his discussion of his relationship to God whom he called Father, all forced them to believe that he knew a peculiar filial oneness with God. His resurrection and his acceptance of worship from them solidified their conviction about him that he was divine. Yet they knew his mother and his brothers. They had seen him eat, sleep, get weary, pray, worship, and die. All of these things, and particularly the name by which he most commonly identified himself, “Son of Man,” made it evident for them that he was one of them. God and humanity in one person? A contradiction? Yes! But for them what for others would be mutually exclusive conclusions were inescapably one. God had come among us as one of us.

The cross also made it abundantly clear that Jesus' coming was for them and for the whole world. He had come to meet a need, to solve a problem that humans have but cannot solve. That was the obvious determination of human beings, though they are creatures and draw their every breath from their Creator, to center themselves in themselves and to make themselves the end for their own lives. The depth of that determination and the extent of the havoc it produces was illustrated for them in the rejection of Jesus by the very world which they knew was his handiwork. Jesus identified this clearly in one of his parables (Luke 19:11-27). He was approaching Jerusalem that last time. He spoke of a nobleman whose servants said: “We do not want this person to reign over us” (v. 14). For him the ultimate problem for us is religious, not moral. It is our refusal to let the One who is the Source and the Center of all things be who he actually is in our lives. The result of the exclusion of our true center could only be implosion. He in love had come to save us all from the uncontrollable impulses to self-destruction created by the vacuum that we had produced by centering ourselves in ourselves to the exclusion of our true Lord. The cross was the demonstration of the human refusal to surrender our autonomy even to one as gracious and as good as Jesus. Where could one look for a more graphic picture of human sin?

Because of the cross, the early church found itself, as we said, looking differently at these three realities: the nature of God, the nature of human personhood, and sin. Like a true trinity, these three separate issues can only be understood in relation to each other. Take the matter of sin for instance. It is basically a religious issue, not first of all a moral one. It is a matter of one's relationship to God before it is a question of one's relationship to some objective moral law. Luther is helpful here in his definition of sin as “a heart curved in on itself,” one that refuses to accept in trusting love God as Source and Center of one's existence. Thus the last nine commandments of the Decalogue grow out of the first. If our relationship to God goes wrong, all other relationships will go wrong. Life is a whole and cannot be broken into separable parts. What we do with God determines what we do with everything else. If the center is wrong, everything will be wrong. And our center is wrong. Look at the way we use each other. Look at what we do with one another, even with one like Jesus.

The demand of that first commandment though is incredibly radical. The very thought of surrendering the keys of one's being to another brings an inner terror. If I am to put God absolutely first in my life, I must trust him. But how can I know that it is safe to trust him? He is so far away and so enigmatic! What will he do with me, lead me into, force upon me if I surrender my autonomy to him? The thought of having to make such a surrender to a God whom one does not really know brings an existential dread to the human spirit that can leave one in helpless paralysis. That is why the New Testament makes sin and distrust synonymous. It is the very nature of personhood that one can only open in love to one whom one trusts. My distrust of God leaves me with a trust in myself that by definition is a rupture of a relationship with the very One who gives me life. That is why sin, or unbelief, is the certain way to death. It cuts me off from the source of life itself. But what can one do? Personal trust can never be forced. That, the early church said, leads us back to the cross. Who was this who suffered and died there?

It was the conviction of the early church that the one who died on Golgotha's cross was not just one of us. Paul, in one of the most valuable passages on the atonement in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 5:14-21) insists that somehow God was in Jesus on that cross and in his suffering and death was reconciling us and our world unto himself. Jesus himself, the night before, had told his disciples that the Father was in him and that he was in the Father, and that, in fact, in their seeing him they were actually seeing the eternal Father. How their minds must have raced as they tried to reconcile all of these seemingly irreconcilable claims! God on a cross? This meant a different kind of God. James Denney, the Scottish theologian, caught what the early church was feeling. He said concerning the crucifixion that as a Protestant he envied the Roman Catholic priest with his crucifix. “I would like to go into every church in the land,” he said, “and holding up the crucifix, cry to the congregation, 'God loves like that.'” In the crucifixion we get a picture of how far human beings will go to keep God off the throne of their lives. But in that same cross we see how far God will go to get his rightful place back so that he can save us. The simplest analysis of it all lies in the brief words of Paul, that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). If God cares like this and will go this far to bring us to himself, perhaps it is not such an unthinkable thing that one should trust him.

A factor that forced the early church to believe in the deity of Christ was the fact that humanity can never save itself from its own inverted will. Only God can save. He alone is the Savior. There is nothing in a human that can either forgive one's own sins or break sin's control. So if the cross was the answer to the human need for salvation then it was inevitable that God was involved. But they also knew that somehow there had to be a human element there as well. Somehow in their instincts they knew that the problem of sin had to be settled where it was, not in heaven, but in a human heart. A problem cannot be solved where it is not. That simple conclusion made the incarnation for them an inescapable necessity. Only God can save, but the human heart is where the problem must be solved. That made the God-Human the only logical answer. So Paul concluded, “For our sake he (God) made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The early church expressed this in a telling phrase: “Unassumed, unhealed.” If Christ had not cared enough to take our sins into himself, there would have been no healing for our sin-sick souls. But he did.

That means that the thought of surrender to such love does not, in the light of the cross, seem so fearful.

Dennis Kinlaw is founder of the Francis Asbury Society and former president of Asbury College. He is a retired member of the Kentucky Conference of the United Methodist Church. This article first appeared in Circuit Rider.

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