It is sign and symbol. It towers over the religious landscape of our day even in a post-Christendom world. It remains both an offense and a glory. The cross of Christ looms before us on Good Friday. Before we arrive at Easter, we must first stop here. “The way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6) come to this hinge of history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
I must confess that as I look back over 44 years of active ministry, I think I have preached and taught too little on the meaning of the cross. Even in my good days, it is easy to take it for granted, to assume that it is just an example of noble sacrifice or believe that it is more metaphor than reality. Yet, year after year on Good Friday, I am challenged to stand at the foot of the cross. This Lord, this Master, this King becomes our Savior in offering himself as an atonement (a sacrifice/payment/covering/reconciler) for our sin. Those words have an old-fashioned ring which tend to offend us. We want to soften the cross. We tend to reduce it to a mere example of goodness and sacrifice. To be sure it is both – an example of good and sacrifice, but it is so much more. In “softening” the cross, we distort reality and diminish the true accomplishment of Jesus on the cross.
I remember our Good Friday worship at Asbury United Methodist Church. We would recreate the biblical scenes from Good Friday interspersed with Gospel readings. Members had made a large wooden cross big enough to hold a person. At the right moment, as the biblical story of the crucifixion was read, nails were pounded into the cross. Even though we knew the story, we would shudder with each pounding of the nails. The harsh reality confronts us with a deeper truth. On the cross, Jesus reconciled us to God. He “ransomed” himself for us from the powers of evil in our lives and our world. Look at the cross and ponder the truth. Biblical passages abound. Take Ephesians 1:7 as but one example. “We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace.” Grace is free but it is not cheap. It cost a life! His life.
David Buttrick (1927-2017) summed it up well, “Yes, human beings acted to crucify Christ, but they did so within collectivities, swayed by forms of social ideology…. The only way to make sense of crucifixion is to see the principalities and powers converging on Calvary.” At the cross, Jesus felt the full force and fury of their attack.
But it was precisely here, at the very depth of his exposure and weakness, that Jesus, in conquering the principalities and powers, demonstrated the height of his glory and power. As Paul declares, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15 NIV).” (Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 82)
Augustine wrote: “He who was able not to die unless he willed it, did die because he willed it. So, he made a show of principalities and powers, openly triumphing over them himself. By is death, the one and most real sacrifice was offered up for us. Whatever were the charges by the principalities and powers held us under bondage, he cleansed, abolished, extinguished.” (Augustine, On Trinity; taken from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament II, Mark, p. 230)
I have said the words about a thousand times at more funerals than I can count or remember… “But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Romans 8:37-39) Both their truth and power are undeniable, but in saying them, I find it easy to miss the connection to the cross of Christ.
Through Christ on the cross, the Christian claim is that the power of evil is broken. Make no mistake, evil is still present. It still has a grip on us and grabs for our soul, but it no longer owns us. We have a new master and his name is Jesus the Christ.