The Integrity of the Cross

Posted: September 14, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 17B, 2018
Mark 8:27-36

The Integrity of the Cross

The cross is a primary symbol of traditional and modern Christian faith even if it may not be the first symbol. It is a symbol that grew in the 4th Century AD. In our tradition it is seen to represent the suffering of the Holy in the midst of humanity. It is also true that multiple meanings are given to it and multiple effects come from those meanings. It seems also too obvious to say that the cross is the nerve center of today’s gospel story by Mark.
But what does that mean?

What most progressives understand today is that the cross is a symbol of traditional Christianity ‘par excellence. It has been around a long time and it is universally known as a Christian symbol especially since the time of Constantine’s reign in the 4th century. And the rest, they say, is history. Looking back on history we can see how the cross became the emblem of Christian triumphalism, forged in the fires of the late Roman empire, in the process of a military victory” (Funk 2002:141). And prime among those ‘fires’ in days past, were the Crusades in and following 1096, the Inquisition in 1232 onwards, and Auschwitz in the 1940s. Prime among those ‘fires’ in the past 10 years or so, are Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism, and the ‘religious right’, of several persuasions.

We can say that under the banner of the cross and Constantine’s motto: ‘in this sign conquer’, the ground was laid for murder and mayhem. We acknowledge that the hymn ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ was shaped, and a creedal Christianity developed which left
a human Jesus completely out of the picture! What we cannot abide with is that cruelty and a terrifying death, are part of the so-called plan or purpose of ‘God’, because we know that they are the doings of human beings. And sometimes, totally depraved human beings at that.

If all the above is true then we must ask; can the symbol of the cross be freed from
its triumphalist associations and evil overtones? Can the symbol of the cross be freed from the thinking that says the ‘cross’ means ‘blood’ and Jesus dying for our sins? Some would say it has to, others that it cannot and others that it can but it means a new view and understanding of God and who Jesus was and is for us today.

While I am sure I will not be able to answer those questions today I want to have a go at starting such a quest. In fact, it is probably more about putting into words what is already under way. What might be possible is looking to see if we can make just a small beginning at weaving another possible way of looking at the symbol of the cross.

I think the first thing we need to do is acknowledge a predominant portrayal of the Cross is an unhelpful one in that it is ingrained in our thinking and thus a large challenge when it comes to thinking alternatively. John Shea suggests that when the cross is portrayed as the preordained means by which humankind is redeemed, then God in implicated in the death of Jesus not as fellow sufferer but as executioner. And as a starting point for our thinking it is at best unfortunate. These are sharp words but it is the primary point in our change in thinking. It is true that Jesus’ death mattered to his friends, but only because his life mattered more. As S J Patterson suggests, what they did was begin to speak of his death in ways that affirmed his life and they came to see he stood for something so important that he was willing to give his life for it.

This I suggest is a fundamental and very important difference because there is a certain human-ness and integrity about it, which is absent from so much of the other ways of thinking. And as Rex Hunt notes there are three threads at work here. The first is that the cross is about Jesus’ integrity; The second is that God’s ‘love’ is not about supernatural payment or rescue from sin, but rather divine sharing in human suffering; and the third is that Jesus did not invite the cross, but accepted it rather than abandon his vision or glimpse of what the world is really like when you look at it with God’s ‘eyes’.

Another way of looking at this is to say that Jesus saw beyond his present, he saw the integrated bigger picture and he sought to pass his glimpse along, and he did this not by telling stories about how it was and stories about how it could be but rather by using common everyday idioms, images and metaphor through sayings. aphorisms and parables. We call this the unconventional wisdom of a sage.

We know that it is not possible to discover one uniformed view of Jesus, otherwise why has there been so many attempts to discover the historical Jesus but New Testament scholar Dom Crossan offers one helpful re-imagined response:

“He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants…  They know all about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession.  What, they really want to know, can this (realm) of God do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming its tortured isolation among the graves that mark the edges of the village?”

As Bob Funk said ‘This human Jesus did not write a definitive essay or publish a book. And the classic creeds from ages past seldom help, because they are preoccupied “with the status of Jesus rather than with God’s domain”. By contrast, we could say that Jesus’ efforts were more like that of a painter who uses broad strokes in both the political
and the social spheres of Galilean village life. And those strokes offer a picture which
enlarge God to include humankind, and enlarge the self to include the neighbour.

I want to take a leaf out of his book now and show you a big picture and use a modern idiom, or video to lay it out before you. As you watch think about the neighbour who potentially, an enemy! And hold fast to the idea that the death of something matters but only in that life matters more and that the challenge is to express a more absolute, uncompromising integrity as the true meaning of the cross. It might seem a bit of a stretch but I suspect that the result is what Mark’s, or his community’s, theological reflection.

And the challenge is that we will be able to hear this meaning only when, in an act of generosity, we keep our eyes open and our hearts hurting, and walk with those who, for whatever reason, carry unbearable crosses.

Video – The Next Revolution

Crossan, J. D. 1991.  The historical Jesus. The life of a mediterranean jewish peasant. VIC: North Blackburn. CollinsDove.
Funk, R. W. 2002.  A credible Jesus. Fragments of a vision. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Patterson, S. J. 2004.  Beyond the passion. Rethinking the death and life of Jesus. MN: Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Shea, J. 1975.  The challenge of Jesus. IL: Chicago. Thomas More

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