Some years ago I went to see the elegant new sanctuary of a large, prestigious church. An unusual formation of illuminated crosses dominated the chancel decor. Pointing to it, the woman who was showing me around, commented, "Of course that has no significance here in our church."
I have never been sure what she meant. But her words struck me like a thunderbolt. Many times I have pondered them. Of how many churches could it fairly be said, "The cross has very little significance here"? Of how many professing Christians could it be said that the cross has very little significance to them?
What a contrast to the apostle Paul! For him the cross towered over everything. Referring in our text to his first visit to Corinth, he tells the Corinthians, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified." Similarly, he wrote to the Galatians, "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."
These testimonies lay bare the very bedrock and core of the Christian faith. Christianity is the religion of the cross. The gospel comes to us in the shape of the cross. Without the cross there would be no gospel, no good news at all. In authentic Christianity, the cross is essential, foundational, central. It dominates the entire landscape. It confronts us on every hand, at every turn. We can never escape it. Rightly is Christianity sometimes called, "the faith of Christ crucified."
I invite you to join me in reflecting on some of the reminders of this vital truth.
I. The Cross in the Bible
Think, first, of the Old Testament. When Jesus appeared to His disciples on Easter evening, He reminded them that everything written about Him in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled. "Then," says Luke, "he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, 'Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day'." According to Jesus, the Old Testament plainly foretold His death and resurrection.
What is the ultimate meaning of that promise spoken in the gloom of paradise lost about the seed of the woman that would crush the serpent's head, but would itself be bruised in the conflict? What is the ultimate meaning of that altar on Moriah's lonely height, where a trembling father raises the knife to slay his only son as a sacrifice to God? What is the ultimate meaning of the Passover lamb whose blood protected the Israelites from the terror of the destroying angel on the eve of the exodus? What is the ultimate meaning of the bronze snake raised on a pole in the desert so that anyone poisoned by snakebite who looked at it would be healed? What is the ultimate meaning of all that elaborate and symbolic ritual atonement in the book of Leviticus? What is the ultimate meaning of those countless animal sacrifices that stained the altars of Israel with their streams of blood?
Who is Isaiah's Suffering Servant, wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities? Who is Daniel's anointed prince who would be cut off? Of whom does Zechariah write when he says that the Jews will someday turn in repentance and faith to the one whom they pierced?
Whose is the voice that cries through the psalmist's tears, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Of whom does he write, "A band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and feet…. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing"?
The Scottish theologian James Stalker summed it up well when he said, "The whole stream and drift of the Old Testament moves straight to the cross of Christ."
As for the New Testament, here the cross throws everything else into eclipse. Even the casual reader must be struck by the lopsided attention all four Gospels devote to the closing events of Jesus' life, culminating in His death and resurrection. Mark, briefest and generally considered earliest, races with snapshot speed from one episode in Jesus' life to another. Yet how the evangelist lingers when he comes within sight of Calvary. He takes six of his sixteen chapters to tell the story of Jesus' passion. His Gospel has been called a "Passion Story with an introduction."
Taken together, Matthew, Mark, and Luke devote more than a quarter of their accounts to these closing scenes in Jesus' life. John's Gospel, which assigns nearly half of its chapters to them, is divided by some scholars into two parts, "the Book of Signs" and "the Book of the Passion." If the evangelists had portrayed the ministry of Jesus — to say nothing of His whole life — on the same scale, the Gospels would be larger than our entire Bible.
In the apostolic preaching reported in the book of Acts we find the rudiments of the New Testament doctrine of the cross. The epistles develop that doctrine in its fullness and richness, showing how the whole majestic temple of Christian truth rises out of the bedrock of Calvary. Dominating the visions of the book of Revelation is the Lamb enthroned in the midst of the multitudes redeemed by His blood. Twenty-eight times John describes the glorified Christ under this sacrificial image.
God has stitched His Word together with a scarlet seam. To understand the cross is to understand the Bible. "All the light of sacred story gathers round its head sublime." But to stumble over the cross is to find the Scriptures of both Testaments a chain of bewildering riddles. It is like reading a Shakespearean drama and missing the plot.
II. The Cross in the Consciousness of Christ
Perhaps you have seen Holman Hunt's painting, "The Shadow of Death." It portrays Jesus in the carpenter shop at Nazareth late in the afternoon. Weary from the day's toil, He stands with His arms stretched upwards. Through the open door the light of the setting sun casts an ominous shadow on the wall behind Him. It is the shadow of a cross, His tool-rack looks like the crossbar to which His hands have been fastened. That hideous shadow spreads its foreboding wings over the life of Jesus from the hour of His birth, when the angel told the shepherds of the advent of a Savior.
We cannot pinpoint the time when Jesus first awakened to His bitter destiny. But from the outset of His ministry He saw that His path would lead to rejection and death. When at His first cleansing of the temple, the religious leaders demanded a sign of His authority, He replied, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." After the resurrection, the apostles realized that these words were a veiled prophecy of His death and resurrection. At this same time He told Nicodemus, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
Jesus seems to have made few references to His death during His ministry in Galilee. Yet early in this period He explained why His disciples did not fast in these words, "The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? … The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." Nor can we forget what provoked the great crisis of the Galilean ministry, after the feeding of the five thousand. Although His followers were enthralled by His miraculous powers, most of them deserted Him when they heard Him declare that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood.
During the last months of His ministry Jesus devoted most of His time to teaching the apostles privately. Mark notes that during this period He repeatedly spoke of His advancing death. The change came with Peter's confession that He was the Messiah and the Son of God. Now Jesus knew He had won the hearts of these men. Now their faith would bear a fuller, clearer revelation of the apparent contradiction of His Messiahship in the scandal of the cross. As the storm clouds lowered, He assured them repeatedly that it was for this very purpose that He had come. Finally, in the Upper Room He compressed the whole of His redemptive teaching in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
The Gospels record more than thirty of Jesus' forecasts of His death. They date from the opening of His ministry, growing in force and fullness until at last the awesome hour of destiny struck.
From start to finish, the religion of Jesus was the religion of the cross. The driving force in His life was His resolve to obey His Father's will, even to death on the cross. Calvary was no accident. It was a deliberate, voluntary self-sacrifice, planned before all worlds and carried out right on schedule. "The Son of Man came … to give His life a ransom for many."
III. The Cross in the Church
The cross also confronts us on every hand in the Christian Church. By the second century, if not earlier, Christians were using the cross as a sign of their faith. Throughout all the centuries since, the cross has been the distinctive universal symbol of Christianity. The great European cathedrals and many other churches, too, are cruciform in design — that is, built in the shape of the cross. From church towers and spires — Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox alike — the cross juts towards the sky in cities, towns, and the open countryside around the globe. It is, appropriately, the focal point of many sanctuaries. We find the cross on inscriptions, seals, ornaments, vestments, tombstones, and monuments in Christian communities everywhere. Many Christians wear it on lapel pins, necklaces, and chains. In her book, A Treasury of the Cross, Madeline Miller remarks that "on no single object has more artistry been lavished." As the Stars and Stripes are the proud symbol of the United States, so the cross is the revered emblem of the worldwide church of Jesus Christ. The choice could hardly have been otherwise.
You have only to leaf through the pages of any representative hymnal to grasp the influence of the cross on the songs of the faith. Recall the classic hymns Christians love most to sing. Among them are these perennial favorites: Rock of Ages Cleft for Me, My Faith Looks Up to Thee, Thou Lamb of Calvary, "The Old Rugged Cross" and that great hymn which the poet Matthew Arnold called "the noblest hymn in the English language," When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. The church of Jesus Christ marches through the world to the music of redemption.
What is the unique and fundamental message of the Christian pulpit? Paul summed it up very simply for all the other apostles as well as himself in the words of our text, "Jesus Christ and him crucified." From Peter's Pentecost sermon to the latest Billy Graham Crusade, the secret of vital Christian preaching has always been faithfulness to the doctrine of the cross.
What is the meaning of the sacraments? Baptism signifies union with Christ in His death and resurrection, and cleansing from sin by His blood. In some traditions recipients of baptism are marked on their foreheads with the sign of the cross. The Holy Eucharist, with its broken bread and poured out wine, etches anew on our minds each time we observe it the figure of a Savior crucified for sinners. "As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup," said Paul, "you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."
In their continual observance both sacraments are Christ's own everlasting reminders to His church that it owes its life to the redemption He purchased by His death.
Christian missions have encircled the globe on the wings of the cross. Ask William Carey why he sailed for India. Ask David Brainerd why at the cost of his life he blazed a trail through the savage wilderness to the Indian villages of colonial America. Ask David Livingstone why he plodded through the torrid jungles of Africa, danger and death stalking him every step of the way. Ask the five missionaries martyred in Ecuador in 1956 why they braved the poisonous spears of the Aucas, a tribe so ferocious and feared that the government of Ecuador wanted them exterminated. One and all, these heroes of the church's missionary outreach will answer, "So that perishing souls might learn of the Savior who died for sinners." The vision of the crucified Christ supplies the impetus for Christian missions. Block out that vision and the missionary enterprise will fast become a relic of the past.
We could go on to see that all of the church's ministries of compassion are the lengthening of the outstretched arms of Calvary. But we move on now to the cross in Christian experience.
IV. The Cross in Christian Experience
It is at the cross that a person becomes a Christian. Calvary is the gateway to the Christian life.
Have you read Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyon's immortal allegory of the Christian life? If you have, you will remember that when Pilgrim set out for the Celestial City, his back was laden with a heavy burden: the burden of his sins. Then he came up a hill to the cross. There, as by a mystic touch, his burden suddenly lifted and tumbled down the hill, vanishing into an empty tomb below.
You know, don't you, what it is to bear that burden? Have we not all groaned and shuddered under the damning weight of our sin and guilt, unable to shake it off? Have we not all felt deep within our hearts the sting of alienation from God that our sin inevitably brings? More than anything else you and I, along with every other person on this planet, need forgiveness and reconciliation with God. It has always been so. This is why, when Paul went to Corinth, he decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. This is why all authentic gospel preaching takes us to Calvary. Only at the cross, nowhere else, can our burden of sin be removed to and buried in the bottomless pit of God's everlasting forgetfulness. Only at the cross can we find pardon and peace with God. Only at the cross can anyone become a Christian.
Moreover, the cross sets the pattern of the Christian life. The life into which we have been baptized with Christ is a cruciform life. "If any want to become my disciples," Jesus said, "let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me." Here is the greatest paradox of Christian experience: the Christian life begins in death — death to self with all its dreams and appetites and ambitions. We rise to newness of life in Christ, but only after we have been crucified with Christ. Our old self must die, that our new self may live.
Self-crucifixion is never easy, never pleasant. It hurts — hurts a lot more than anything else we may ever have to endure. But in the school of Christ, self-crucifixion is not an elective. It is a required course, and there are no substitutes. Can we honestly say that we have died — utterly died — to self? General William Booth and his wife Catherine, founders of the Salvation Army, could. Mother Teresa can. So can multitudes of humble, unsung followers of Jesus. What about you and me?
The cross also provides the motivation for the Christian life. "We love," wrote the apostle John, "because he first loved us, and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins." The root of all Christian virtue and goodness is love for God born of gratitude for His gift of salvation through the cross of Christ.
Indeed, the cross supplies us with all the spiritual grace and power we need to live the Christian life. It strengthens us in temptation. It undergirds us in suffering. It comforts us in sorrow. It nerves and steadies us in our battle with the forces of evil. It conquers our fears. It fortifies our faith and emboldens us to trust God when our path is dark and we cannot see what lies ahead. Even the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit who has come to recreate us in the likeness of Christ is a fruit of the cross. In every aspect of our Christian life we feel the impact of the cross.
Our picture would be incomplete, however, if we failed to notice that it is to the cross that Christians cling when the billows of death sweep over their souls. Then, more than ever, they anchor their hopes for eternity to the one great sacrifice of Calvary. They know that the gates of heaven swing open only to those who come pleading no claim but the merits of Christ crucified.
More than a century ago, Henry Francis Lyte, an Anglican clergyman and hymnwriter, lay dying on the southern coast of France. Several weeks earlier, his health broken, he wrote his last and best-known hymn. A few days before he died he put the final touches on it. That hymn, Abide With Me, reveals the author's thoughts as he heard the advancing feet of that angel whose summons no one can refuse to answer. Listen to this stanza:
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee:
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
Suffering intense pain, Lyte said, as the end drew near, "I glory not save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." His loved ones, watching by his bed, detected from the movement of his lips the forming of his last words: "Peace — joy." Grasping the cross and resting in its victory, he met death unafraid and rejoicing went home to be with his Lord.
There is no other way. Only the way of the cross leads home. All of us who are pilgrims of faith travel this road together, bearing on our souls the mark of Christ crucified.
Have you come to the cross? If you haven't, won't you come to it now? Make it the center of your life. Say with another hymnwriter:
I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place.
Never wander from it. Live by its power. Then you shall die in its peace. And the Christ of the cross, who by death vanquished death, will welcome you home on the other side.