8/15/2011 11:54:00 pm

The Centrality of the Cross: Part Two - Practice

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Here is Part Two of my series on the centrality of the cross. Part One is here

Ok. So the cross is central, someone might say, but if you keep mentioning the Cross all the time, what’s to stop it becoming formulaic and just the magic words to keep a service orthodox? Isn't mentioning the cross just religion?

The truth is that anything you want to keep as a defining principle or event, can be mentioned only out of compulsion, or habit but it is not inevitable. I think the trick is to keep asking throughout the life of the church “How does the cross impact on this?” In major times of teaching we must be clearly showing how the cross makes a difference. Let me show you how this works for three different topics, dealing with evil, relating to people of other faiths and responding to the poor.

The Cross and Responding to Evil

In this world we are constantly faced with the reality of evil. We are confronted with war and terrorism on a global scale, violence, rape and neglect in our communities and anger, hurt and abuse in our own lives. The church, if it is truly going to engage with world needs to know how to respond to evil.

Biblically the church will be calling its people to a ministry of reconciliation, of love for enemies and forgiveness. It will also hold firmly to the principle of justice and the fight against evil.

When the church teaches these things without the cross then it either becomes too hard, too soft or the preacher of two irreconcilable ideals.

If the church preaches forgiveness and love without the cross then evil becomes tolerated and the victim’s suffering gets dismissed. Forgiveness comes free and costs nothing. The suffering victim is told to love their enemy and forgive because that’s what Christ taught we should do. The evil doer escapes punishment and the victim must carry the burden of someone else’s sin.

Any justice achieved now will be unsatisfactory. How do you make a people group adequately pay for the acts of genocide they committed against their neighbours? How do you make the rapist adequately pay for violence they committed against someone created in God’s image? How do you make the mother who neglects and verbally abuses her children adequately pay for all the pain they inflict and the future damage they cause? You don’t because you can’t. We are a church that worships a holy God who hates sin. This means that no punishment and vengeance dolled out by earthly authorities will ever make up for the sins committed.

The end point in the fight against evil must be the destruction of the source of evil. If a church preaches justice and the fight against evil without the cross it must fight a battle that it cannot win with a God who is uninvolved. The reality is that all of us are participants in evil, and if we pursue evil to its end, we will pursue it not to the ends of the earth, but to the centre of our hearts. If we are to destroy evil, we must destroy others and we must destroy ourselves. If we were ever to whole-heartedly fight evil outside of the cross we too would just join in the cycle of violence.

In the history of the Church whenever it has been in charge of the state it has almost without fail ended up punishing sin with an iron fist.* Death for the adulterer, the homosexual, the witch and the disobedient child. And in the churches’ pursuit of justice it becomes the committer of evil.

Yet when we face evil in the light of the cross we see a God who hates sin, who punishes sin, who never trivialises suffering, who puts the wicked to death and gives life to the righteous.

At the cross Jesus takes all the wrath of his father heaped upon him. He, the sinless one, has the sins of humanity placed upon him. There on the cross, beaten and naked, he goes through hell and we see just how much God hates sin, that he would kill even his own Son.

He does this so that through him God would be able to forgive the wicked. Here at the cross we see God’s justice as he punishes evil, rebellion and sin. And we see God’s mercy upon the sinner as he offers his grace and forgiveness.

So when the church preaches forgiveness and reconciliation to the victim in light of the cross it does so knowing that God has already forgiven us. We are all perpetrators of evil and the one who we have done evil to, first and foremost, is God. Yet God forgives us and takes all the wrath we deserve upon himself.

When we call on each other to forgive those who sin against us, we do so in the knowledge that God has already forgiven us. But not only that, one way or another, the sin that has been committed against the victim will be dealt with. Either God has punished it at the cross or he will punish it at the end of time. No evil escapes the hand of God. Justice will be done.

At the cross we see how seriously God takes evil. He doesn’t trivialise suffering but shows that it is so serious that only the life of his beloved Son will pay for it. Jesus takes the wicked, gives them a new heart and a righteousness that is his own. The destruction of wickedness need not mean the destruction of the wicked if it is Christ who makes them righteous. Or to put it another way the wicked person is put to death, as they die to sin, and are born again, a new creation in Christ.

The cross shows us our King who is not dead but will one day come to right the world. What he began on the cross he will finish on that last day. The wicked will be judged and the righteous will be vindicated. Judgement will come and it will be great and terrible just as it was at the cross, yet no more will the innocent suffer for sins they did not commit. We will celebrate because we know that the right response to evil is the wrath of a righteous God.

The church can rest assured. The churches’ fight against evil and for justice can march on knowing that the true judge of the world has come and is coming again. The church fights knowing that we do not, and the systems of this world do not, need to be the final reckoning for sin. When we strive for justice we know that because Jesus is taking care of punishment we must strive for fairness and equality; More than that, we strive for love. As the cross shows us love, love becomes our modus operandi. Because of the example and power of the cross we see that our greatest weapon against injustice is love, and we work so that all people might be changed by love, ultimately to have their evil nature put to death, and to be given new life in Christ. Only that power comes through the cross.

When the church centres it’s response to evil in the cross it finds a response that is more compassionate to the sinner and to those who have been sinned against than could be imagined and harder on evil than is thought possible.

The Cross and Interacting with Other Religions

In Australia we are blessed to live in a multicultural society. This means that one of the great challenges to the church in our country will be how we interact with other faiths.

This is even more important given that we, the people of earth, have a history of fighting over religion more than anything else.

For the church to engage in fruitful dialogue with people of other faiths it must hold the cross at the centre of its thinking and its speaking because the cross gives Christianity it’s greatest distinctive, it clearly sets us apart from every other faith.

Often interfaith dialogue seeks to show the similarities between multiple faiths and find areas of commonality so as to build mutual respect because “we are just like you.” This can end up with people praying to the same God, in the same religious services, under the ridiculous notion that all roads lead to the same God. We flush out all the distinctives in an effort to forge better relations with other faiths.

Unfortunately this insults all involved. Dialogue is vitally important, but dialogue never has to mean acquiescing vital tenets of faith in the name of tolerance.

When the church talks to and about other faiths, it must keep the cross front and centre, otherwise how will we know who we are, and how will they know who we are?

No other religion has a God who is so foolish as to let himself be killed by those who he created. No other faith solves the problem of the human heart purely through divine initiative. No other God has saved its people purely out of his own goodness and through no merit of the people.

This being the case the cross gives the Christian, no right to boast. Knowing that salvation comes only through the death and resurrection of a loving God rather than our own goodness, means that we cannot in any way look down upon people of other faiths. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is not that the Christian is smarter, better, more special or more moral. The difference is only Jesus, and the faith that he gives.

So as we relate to those of other faiths, the cross will lead us to love them because, just like us, they too need Jesus. As Luther (or someone) said “We are all mere beggars trying to show other beggars where to find bread.” The cross will lead us not to acquiesce the uniqueness of our faith in the spirit of unity and tolerance but to humbly share with people of other faiths a vision of a God of ultimate love and ultimate mercy. Then they will see Christianity clearly, and true inter-faith dialogue can happen. But until we embrace the cross we insult our God who died for us because we hide away his greatest act of love, because of it’s offensive nature, and we insult those we speak to about our faith, because we think they cannot handle the most distinctive part of our faith.

The Cross and the Poor

People will often feel the church should be focusing on sharing Jesus’ love through deeds of justice and mercy. The church has a responsibility to be loving the poor and marginalised. If the church is to stay true to its mission we will be loving the poor.

This emphasis can be seen as being in tension with preaching the cross. We can spend our time in church talking about Jesus or we can spend our time in the community loving like Jesus. It’s a choice between words and actions. If you follow this thinking to its most extreme the only time we should be talking about Jesus we should be talking about him in relation to how we care for the poor.

But the truth is that the best and true motivation for our love for the poor has to come out of the cross. A proper understanding of the cross has to lead to a changed response to the poor.

Without the cross our care for the poor and marginalised becomes about obeying the rules set forth by our teacher, it becomes an exercise in changing our hearts through our actions. The more we love the poor, the more we will be conformed to the likeness of Jesus, and our hearts will be changed and the more we will love the poor. The more we achieve this, the more we will be living in the will of Christ and worthy of his love and honour. It’s a religion of work with ourselves at the centre. We are at the centre because we try and please God with our own goodness and adherence to his values. We are at the centre because we are doing the work that changes our hearts, and hoping this will please God.

But the cross turns that on its head. The cross says that for our sake Christ became poor (2 Cor 8:9). He came, the most rich becoming the most poor. And he poured himself out for a wretched and sinful people, saving them from their own self-imposed, spiritual poverty, making them children of God and giving them, in himself, every spiritual blessing.

The cross shows us a God who has saved us in the greatest act of generosity ever to brighten the universe. Our life comes from a God who has saved us out of his heart, a heart inclined towards the undeserving poor.

Christ has risen to new life giving us a new heart and his power through the Holy Spirit.

We now have a responsibility to be loving the poor and marginalised because we know that we are the recipients of Christ’s love when we were poor. We know that we are only who we are because God had mercy on us when we had nothing.

As a result we live out the teachings of Christ not to change our hearts, or to please our Lord, but because he has given us a new heart and through the power of his Spirit he changes us to be like him and live out his love. We love because we have been loved and received his love. We love the poor out of grace. We love the poor who are undeserving because we are undeserving. We reach out to the lowest, seek out the most lost and go into the places that are darkest because he came searching for us when we were lower, more lost and in greater darkness, and now he empowers us to search and love like him.

Any church that spends all its time talking about the cross but does not see justice and mercy as an outworking of the cross hasn’t really understood the cross. And any church that forgets the cross when talking about the need for loving the poor and marginalised has forgotten where the true locus of power lies in Christianity.

So there are three ways where the cross is played out in giving meaning to the everyday issues Christians face. Jesus Christ, known and preached as our Lord who came, lived, died and rose again for us, must be at the centre of all we do. Without him and his saving work done at the cross through his death and resurrection, we are to be pitied more than all people. I’ll let John Stott bring it home: “To encounter Christ is to touch reality and experience transcendence. He gives us a sense of self-worth or personal significance, because He assures us of God's love for us. He sets us free from guilt because He died for us and from paralysing fear because He reigns. He gives meaning to marriage and home, work and leisure, personhood and citizenship.”

* I haven’t actually done my research and looked up every time the there has been a Christian theocracy in the past two millennia and examined their penal system. But I can think of plenty of examples of the Church gone feral when given the reigns to power.