In this week’s Ethos class we talked about the meanings of the cross. The question hasn’t often been posed in Christian education, “What does the Cross of Jesus, the Messiah, mean?” or, “Why did Jesus have to die?”
But it is an incredibly important question to raise! Otherwise, we simply assume we know the reasons why, and what his death meant. And why should we assume that everyone on earth knows why Jesus died? After having conversations around these questions for several years now, it is obvious, at least to me, that most Christians do not know the answers to them, let alone the rest of the world. When I first raise these questions, I get these sorts of answers:
“Jesus died so we can go to heaven when we die.”
“Jesus died for our sins.”
“Jesus had to die to redirect God’s wrath away from us to himself.”
“Jesus’ death means forgiveness.”
“Jesus’ death had something to do with atonement.”
I don’t really want to challenge those. Those are good answers, although the “go to heaven when we die” thing isn’t exactly biblical language. But there are problems with this sort of language. First, these are all about atonement for sins. Jesus’ death was certainly atoning in nature, but it is almost painfully obvious in reading the four gospels that this is not all the cross means (esp. Mark 8). These answers also tend to be “next-life” heavy, making the question, “what does Jesus’ death have to do with our world now?” very troubling for some of us. That question generally upsets Christians, especially if they have made the Christian religion about something that only deals with the afterlife.
The Cross of Jesus, the Messiah, is the “Way of the Kingdom”
To understand this, Mark 8, 9, & 10 are important, especially chapter 8. Also, this is a central theme in the letters of Saint Paul. A very helpful book is “Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross” by Michael Gorman (I have written about this before on endsandmeans.org in a brief series called “Discipleship, the Cross, Suffering, & the Cruciform Church” – forgive the repeat of some of that material.)
In Mark 8, Jesus frames his identity question. “Who do the people say I am? What are they saying about me?” The disciples tell him the word on the street: He’s a prophet, John the Baptist reincarnate (weird considering they are the same age), or Elijah – come to prepare the way of the Lord…
But what about those following him? He asks them… “Who do you say I am?” Peter steps up. “You are the Messiah.”
Here is where American Christianity tends to take a wrong turn. Peter’s confession has NOTHING – can I say this in stronger terms? – NOTHING – to do with Jesus’ divinity. Israel was NOT expecting a divine king, a God-messiah. That was not in their purview. Mark, Peter, and certainly Jesus himself all end up claiming that Jesus is indeed the son of God, divine, but that is NOT WHAT THIS TEXT IS ABOUT! And it is important to differentiate the two claims (that Jesus is the Son of God and therefore divine, and that he is Israel’s Messiah, and therefore the rightful King). Later, Saint Paul, will put those two claims together to restate Israel’s monotheism in terms of Jesus being the King, and God himself in the flesh, and therefore Jesus is the King of the entire cosmos! But in this story, we cannot separate what Jesus is about to say concerning the Cross and his own death from the fact that he is King (Messiah). The Cross, whatever we decide to say about it, has something to do with the kingdom of God!
Jesus has come announcing the gospel of God (Mark 1:14-15). And that gospel is this: “The time is now. The kingdom of God has broken into the world. Re-order your entire lives around this new truth.”
And this confession, awareness, and realization that Jesus is the Messiah, of Israel, and (it is soon to be revealed) the entire world, is a statement about that kingdom news (gospel) that Jesus came preaching in Mark 1. Jesus is the king of the kingdom of God. He is the Messiah.
Now, we need to pause at this point in Mark 8, and ask some questions of the text.
What does it mean to Peter, and the other disciples, that Jesus IS the long awaited Messiah of Israel?
Well there are several ideas that were popular notions at that time about what the Messiah would do. At least 4:
(1) According to the Zealots (James and John), he would storm the city, take Rome by revolutionary force. A violent overthrow of the occupying pagan forces.
(2) According to the Pharisees, he would renew the Temple to its glory, establish his reign through legal purity in such a powerful way that Israel would be restored to power and glory.
(3) According to the Sadducees (and the Herodians), he would collude with the powers, politically maneuver himself into a position of authority and power, and restore Israel to its rightful place in the world.
(4) According to the Essenes, he would provide escape somehow, some form of rescue, away from the powers that threaten the true Life of Israel.
(To learn more about these 4 “ways” or “options” read my post “The 4 and the One”)
These 4, and other ideas about how to change the world, have been tried over and over. (1) Revolutionary Overthrow and Violence (2) Religious Power, Hierarchy and Purity (3) Getting our hands on the mantle of power, through the normal political channels (4) Withdrawal from the world. They never work, and (if I may offer a prophetic word to American Christians) they still don’t work to bring real, authentic, Christ-centered transformation.
Now, back to Mark 8. Peter has just confessed, Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus affirms his confession and tells them some shocking news – the WAY in which he will be king is by going to the Cross. He is rejecting to four conventional ideas about HOW the Messiah will bring transformation and renewal (and any other ideas out there). Instead, he is going to die, even a death on a cross.
Peter, and I imagine the other disciples with him, are upset by this revelation. “NO! You will not die on a cross like all the other false messiahs! You will sit on the throne! Rule with power! Change everything!”
Peter is rebuked by Jesus: “Get behind me, Accuser! You are thinking in conformity with the fallen world. I am thinking in conformity with God.”
And there is more news for the disciples, and all would-be followers of Jesus. Not only is the Way in which he chooses to be Messiah the Cross, but the cross is the WAY OF THE KINGDOM FOR ANY WHO WOULD JOIN HIM.
Peter gets a sort of a “That’s not all…” with these incredible CENTRAL words to Mark’s gospel:
“If any of you want to come the way I am going, you must say no to your own selves, pick up your cross, and follow me. Yes: if you want to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life because of me and the message you’ll save it.”
This is what it means to be a disciple, a Christian, a citizen of the kingdom of God. It takes the shape of the cross. We die to self. We follow Jesus… all the way to the cross. We serve the world in the same way.
This is something Saint Paul makes central in his letters – cruciform discipleship. It is in Colossians 1; 2 Corinthians 5; Philippians 2 and many other places.
The Way of the kingdom of God is the Way of the Cross. The cross is the Way of discipleship.
So, to review, the Cross has a dual meaning, frequently missed in teaching and preaching.
(1) The Messiah of Israel becomes King, not by storming the city, not by withdrawing or escaping, not by creating religious power, and not by getting tangled up in the politics of the day. The Messiah becomes Messiah, God becomes King, Jesus becomes the true Ruler of the world, by taking on all the power, abuse, selfishness, idolatry, militarism, brokenness, shame, on himself – dying on a cross.
(2) This “way” that he chose to become King, is now the way of the Kingdom he launched.
And one final word: None of this makes sense without resurrection hope. What makes Jesus different than the other false messiahs that were crucified, is that he was raised from the dead. He was raised in the flesh (Luke 24:39). And as he was in his resurrected form, we have hope that we will be like him (too many NT verses to quote here, but start with the firstfruits language of 1 Cor. 15). What is more… “at the restoration of all things…” (Please read Matt. 19:28-30 and hold it together with Mark 8 – if you do you will discover that the news that the Way of the kingdom is the Way of the Cross is not bad news… it’s good news. God is going to restore all things with Resurrection Power, and the meek will inherit the earth!).