People of the Cross

During these weeks of Lent, I’m reflecting upon Jesus as God’s salvation. These meditations are selected from my book, “Why Jesus?” (Abingdon, 2010). Lent is the Christian season of the cross in which we discover a very different definition of God than the one we expected, a God who reaches out to us in suffering, self-sacrificial love.

On the way to Jerusalem (and in a sense, Jesus was always on his way there, i.e. on the way to his death) James and John ask, “Rabbi, do for us whatever we ask.”[i]

“Ask,” said Jesus.

“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left when you come into your glory.” When you are crowned King, made Messiah, as we know you will surely be, let us sit on your Cabinet, sharing in your glory.

Their request must have discouraged Jesus. Here were those who had witnessed his servant leadership, who had shared in his trials, still thinking about power and glory.

“You don’t know what you are asking,” replied Jesus, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” He was of course talking about his imminent death.

“We can!” they answered. The folly of Jesus’ dearest friends is almost boundless.

Then Jesus responds, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.”
Surely he spoke with irony. In the end, when he was lifted up high on a cross his disciples were nowhere in sight. On his right and his left were two common criminals.

Hearing about the attempt at one-ups-manship by James and John, the other disciples are indignant. Jesus gives them a lesson in leadership, Jesus style, telling them that they were behaving no better than a bunch of pagans, which must have deeply stung these Jews.

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant; whoever wants to be first must be slave of all,” he told them. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus died on a cross, not to appease the anger and blood lust of God the Father (as the church has sometimes implied) but rather because of the anger and blood lust that the Father’s love received from a humanity who wanted nothing so much as to be gods unto ourselves. The cross which the world erected to silence another uppity Jew became, in the hands of God, the means whereby God got to us.

Everything about Jesus is cruciform. The cross is not just an unfortunate event on a Friday afternoon at the garbage dump outside Jerusalem; it’s the way the world welcomed lover Jesus from day one. Herod tried to kill him when he was yet a wee one in swaddling.[ii] From his very first sermon at Nazareth the world was attempting to summon up the courage to render its final verdict upon Jesus’ loving reach, “Crucify him!”

Gethsemane and Calvary bring to a head just about anything I’ve told you thus far about Jesus. It was not just that Jesus was born in a stable, had compassion on many hurting people, told some unforgettable stories, and taught noble ideals. Rather the significant thing is that Jesus willingly accepted the destiny toward which his actions drove him, willingly enduring the world’s response to its salvation. Arrested as enemy of Caesar, tortured to death as a criminal, Jesus was more than just one more victim of government injustice. He is not just an example that sometimes good can come from bad. Rather, as Paul puts it, on the cross Jesus was Victor: Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them on the cross.”[iii] And he did it for Love: the cross is not what God demands of Jesus for our sin but rather what Jesus got for bringing the love of God so close to sinners like us. This is all validated by God’s raising this crucified victim from the dead, not dramatically rescuing Jesus’ failed messianic project, nor certifying that Jesus had at last paid the divine price for our sin, but rather showing forth to the world who God really is and how God gets what God wants.

What’s amazing is that the providence of God took this cross, this horrible sign of Roman cruelty and the world’s rejection and wove even that into God’s good purposes for humanity. Very early on, the church preached, “Jesus died for our sins.”[iv] That which the world saw as sign of Jesus’ miserable failure, of the government’s need to kick butt in order to keep law and order, of the fickleness of the crowd, or the sinister betrayal of his followers, Jesus’ people came to see as a sign of God finally doing something about the problem of us. “At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly,” said Paul.[v] “Jesus Christ, you crucified, but God raised from the dead,” preached Peter.[vi] Paul says that when he preached among the Corinthians, “I preached nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”[vii] God’s love is infinitely persuasive, patient, and willing to suffer in order to love us. God acts just like Jesus.

And so must we. Jesus promised rewards, but not always the rewards we wanted. When, after the rich man turned away from discipleship and Peter exclaimed, “We’ve left everything and followed you!” Jesus replied that he would receive everything back ten times more – houses, family, friends — and suffering too. Suffering too? That’s a “reward”?[viii]

As Jesus trudged up Calvary, exhausted from his brutal torture, a man in the crowd of onlookers, Simon of Cyrene, was enlisted to carry Jesus’ cross.[ix] Simon is beloved by many of us; in a sense many of us have been picked out of the crowd of curious onlookers and made cross bearers. Every Christian helps Jesus carry the cross for Jesus chooses not to carry the cross by himself. Jesus never promised his people perpetual good health, freedom from all aches and pains, or bypassing of death. Jesus got little of the “good life,” nor did he promise us that we, by following him, would do so. Rather, he assured us that he would never allow anything worse to happen to us than happened to him. He promised that the world would also nail us to some “cross,” if we followed him. As Martin Luther King said it, paraphrasing Jesus, “the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear.” In our Jesus-induced times of pain, he gives even us innate cowards the courage to take up our cross and follow.

The writings of Paul show that from a very early date (probably as early as the first blow that was struck against the head of Jesus by the soldiers) the followers of Jesus began to make sense out of the senseless death of Jesus. There was complete agreement that, on the cross, God was taking the horrible act that we perpetrated and utilizing that to do something about the problems between us and God. Paul — who put some strange limits on women speaking in church, or same-sex relations, or marriage — had an unlimited, extravagant, sweeping view of Christ’s cruciform rescue operation for weak, ungodly, sinners:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us…we have been justified by his blood,…saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.[x]

Weak, sinful, ungodly people are the recipients of the determined love of God that is made manifest on the cross, work that we could not do for ourselves.

Will Willimon

[i] we ask. Mark 10:35-45.
[ii] in swaddling. Matthew 2.
[iii] on the cross.” Colossians 2:15.
[iv] our sins. 1 Corinthians 15:3.
[v] the ungodly. Romans 5:6.
[vi] preached Peter. Acts 2:36 ff.
[vii] him crucified. 1 Corinthians 1:23.
[viii] insert
[ix] cross of Jesus. Luke 23:26-32.
[x] saved by his life. Romans 5:6-10.

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