Whakapono: The Meaning of the Cross
The ‘cross’ is an odd symbol to have at the heart of a faith tradition. It is the symbol of a state execution, and yet has somehow become a sign for salvation and liberation. It sits at the centre of the Christian tradition, but we’re still trying to capture the mysterious meaning found within the events of Easter. The New Testament doesn’t offer one linear perspective, but instead uses a variety of images and metaphors to try and capture what we mean when we say that ‘Jesus saves’.
Whatever we say, we should start with the foundational Christian claim that God is love; the story of Jesus and the meaning of his death and resurrection, has to begin here.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts our fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
When John the Baptist sees Jesus approach, he cries out “Behold, the lamb of God!” The metaphor of a lamb is one that is littered throughout Christian scripture, song and testimony. Jesus is the lamb of God. Its a phrase used so often that many of us no longer attach significant meaning to it. To understand this image and get a sense of why Jesus died, we should first go to the context of the gospels which tell us this story.
Jesus, a revolutionary figure: challenging the religious and political powers; disrupting the religious categories of in and out; disturbing the rules around forgiveness, access to God, law-keeping and ethics. And his gospel and kingdom presented an alternative imagination to that of the gospel of Rome. Following our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, was about refusing to buy in to the system of violence, oppression, manipulation and control that was represented by Rome, and the Lord and Saviour – who was Caesar.
And so Jesus is executed. Religious powers want him dead so that they can go back to the serious business of being faithful to God. Roman political powers want him dead so that he won't disturb the 'peace' of Rome, the status quo. And as he hangs on the cross he says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” He still refuses to bend in to their way of seeing the world. He still refuses to respond in violence or condemnation. There is a profound contrast here. A man whose revolution is characterised by loving his enemies and refusing to take up violence, and powerful violent figures who use their power to crush him and snuff out his life.
One of the big existential questions being posed is one that continues to this day, a question that sits at the heart of the human condition: What is ultimate reality? What prevails? What lasts? Do the powerful and violent win in the end (because sometimes it really looks like it)? Or does self-giving love win in the end?
The New Testament suggests that the symbol of the resurrection of Jesus is a definite answer to this question. Powerful empires might have all of the force in the world on their side. But even they are no match for the love of God. Jesus rises. Love overcomes. Love is stronger than all the violence of the world put together.
It is love that is left standing when all is said and done.
The book of Revelation, an apocalpytic fantastical letter written in the latter part of the 1st century images the story this way: There is a beast, powerful, strong, seeking to devour, it comes from the sea – which is a symbol of chaos in the ancient world. And there is a lamb. Not only a lamb, but a lamb that has been slain. The beast symbolises the empire of Rome. And all violent empires and oppressive ways of being in the world. They are antichrist. And there is a lamb that was slain; representing Jesus, and the Spirit of the revolutionary Christ. A refusal to give in to the games of violence, power, domination and oppression.
The paradox of the Christ mystery is that it is the way of the lamb, the way of self-giving love, that prevails in the end.
Another image in the scriptures is that of sacrifice, an image that can be difficult to make sense of in the modern world. It sounds pretty bloody. And it sounds like God is quite angry if he needs the blood of the innocent to calm his anger and wrath.
The writers of the New Testament look back at this story of Jesus, and they use the language of sacrifice to talk about what Jesus’ death might mean for them. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ death was offered to God to satisfy his anger (so that he wouldn’t take it out on us). Even in the Old Testament, when their understanding of God is quite primitive, they recognise that many of the sacrifices they brought to the priests were to be offered to God, cooked and then eaten together as a meal of reconciliation. And the prophets go out of their way to say that God doesn’t need the blood of sacrifices to make him feel better about us. The prophet Isaiah – speaking for God says, “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.”
The authors in the New Testament go even further to say that God did not need sacrifice, and that the blood of bulls and goats had nothing to do with God’s ability to forgive us or otherwise. Instead, the claim is that Jesus' death is a death to the entire sacrificial system. It says ‘no more!’ to the spilling of blood as a way to gain God’s approval. This is not what God is like.
You see this in the life of Jesus. He offers forgiveness and blessing freely and willingly, to all the wrong people, and to people who never even asked for it. Jesus offers us an entirely different image of God. And he is killed for it. But to prove the point, to demonstrate that the Jesus’ view of God is better than the violent wrathful view of God, Jesus’ resurrection symbolizes the affirmation of the God who is revealed in Jesus.
A lamb. The way of love and self-giving always wins in the end. Even over the biggest empire. Even over death.
A sacrifice. To end all sacrifice. God does not need the blood of innocents to forgive. God’s love and God’s kingdom finds its way in all the wrong places and among all the wrong people.
It is good news of the gospel.