I confess that I cringe when when Christianity and the church is called an institution. Christianity is not an organization looking for recruits. Rather, Jesus calls us to a way of life that takes the cross as its symbol for a way of life. But what does this cross represent? What does it mean? We wear cross-shaped jewelry. Tattoos of crosses are popular. Long before these trends, crosses typically marked places of worship. The cross on a steeple consecrated or indicated a place of worship. The cross persists in our culture as a powerful symbol. When the cross is observed in our world, our art, and our culture we have some immediate notion that it is religious. When two girders in the shape of a cross were discovered in the devastation of the World Trade Center after 9/11, workers and on-lookers responded with piety and reverence. Much was written and discussed about the cross at Ground Zero.
After centuries of depicting the cross and the crucifixion in art, the symbol of the cross persists in our culture. Yet, what is meant by “the way of the cross?” Let us go further than the veneer of religiosity and go deeper than a visual shorthand to faith. There is one particular image of the crucifixion that I think unique in art history. Not a well-known piece but one that triggers reflection because it is so different. In 1890, the watercolor painter James Tissot painted the crucifixion. However, he does not show Christ or the cross. His painting of the crucifixion is shown from the perspective of Jesus on the Cross.
In this image we are no longer permitted a safe distance as spectators or movie-watchers. The cross cannot be reduced to a symbol or artifact. We are not even allowed to stand reverently as pious worshipers. Instead, we must join Christ on the cross and see the world and all of humanity through the event of the crucifixion. We see the world from the cross, just as Jesus did. An endless collection of humanity stares onward, some with pity, some with scorn, some with reverence. Others are just carrying out their duties and going about their business. What may we gain from this type of perspective about the way of the cross?
1. The way of the cross calls us away from sin and to true righteousness (1 Pet. 2:24). Week after week in our worship assemblies, the cross may become nothing more that a spiritual bailout for the debt of our sins collected each week. Unfortunately, this overemphasis on indebtedness and guilt stunts our growth in righteousness. The apostle Peter reflected on the cross and called it the beginning of a life of righteousness, not just the end of sinfulness.
2. The way of the cross calls us to reconciliation and peace (Eph. 2:16). If Christ died for all of humanity, how can we justify hostility? Should you try to justify hatred and hostility, you will shame yourself. When Jesus looks at all of us from the cross and we know that he is reconciling all of humanity to God, then it makes no sense that we should hate one another. Sadly, we divide and dispute over minor issue that have nothing to do with the cross. We should discuss these issues, but resorting to division when the cross stands among us as a death to hostility is truly sinful and shameful.
3. The way of the cross calls us away from the world and its self-righteous values (Gal. 6:14). Rather than emphasize our own ability to accomplish great things, the cross reminds us that we are at our best when we trust in Christ. Our good deeds do not save us. One of the criticisms of Christianity from outsiders is that God unfairly rewards good behavior with heaven. There’s no such teaching in Scripture. The cross shatters the notion that we can justify ourselves through religious deeds. Rather, trust and obedience to God is the way of the cross.
4. The way of the cross calls us to endurance and faithfulness (Heb. 12:2-3). Following Christ is not always easy but it is worthwhile. In those moments when we grow weary and we are ridiculed or persecuted for our faith, we can sympathize with Christ. He endured the cross. He had the power and the authority to end it, but he had to pioneer the way of the cross for the rest of humanity and bring an end to the way of “might makes right.” It is difficult for us to stay on the way of the cross in a world that promises peace through strength and superiority. We may be called haters when we assert that obedience to God matters. We may be called unpatriotic when we pledge our allegiance to Christ alone. We may be called naive when we believe that ministry to the poor and weak might change the world. Along the way, let us consider Christ and do not lose heart.
5. The way of the cross is discipleship (Mark 8:34). Self-denial is often confused for self-hatred. Likewise, self-love is confused with indulgence. Discipline leads to maturity and discipline involves self-denial. Not for the purpose of punishment, but for the sake of growth and maturity. A disciple is not a member of a church, and making disciples is not a matter of recruiting people to a religious organization. A disciple is a learner and follower. Jesus himself said that following him involves taking up our cross. That notion disturbed his disciples like Peter and Paul who could not understand the Way of the Cross at first. It was, and is, scandalous. It is a high calling, but a calling to everyone that excludes none. There is no other way to save our lives. Our own attempts to save ourselves will end badly. But if we give our lives to God as Jesus did on the cross then God preserves life. The cross separates us from the illusion of this world that offers us the false promise of happiness in “doing whatever we will.” The cross and the resurrection affirm the truth and the better way of “doing what God wills.”