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What Does the Cross Mean to You

Posted by The Rev. Chris Harris on

Good Friday Sermon – The Rev. Chris Harris

In a few minutes you are going to be invited to come forward to ‘venerate’ the cross. That might be a new invitation for some of you. You might be wondering how does one venerate something anyway? Well not surprisingly its very personal, there’s no particularly way to do it. It’s an offering of reverence in whatever way that is meaningful to you. Some people will reach out and touch it with their hands. I’ve seen people gently kiss the cross – there’s something about a tactile connection to the hard wood that is important for some – some kneel and silently pray at its feet, others will bow before it or make the sign of the cross as they pass by.

Reverencing something presupposes that it has great significance to you. But just as there are different ways to venerate the cross—there are different understandings of what the cross means, each one, just as personal. 

I wonder on this Good Friday, having just heard the passion once again, what does the cross mean to you?

I recall asking that basic question at the first Good Friday service I had ever attended. I was new to Christianity and asking really basic questions like, ‘why Jesus had to die – and why in the WAY that he did?’ ‘Couldn’t God have saved him?’

Jesus had to die on the cross in order to pay for our sins, I was told.

OK, and I had heard that before – many of you certainly have as it’s the default statement it seems about the cross and even Jesus -- but I have to say, it never really resonated with me. I didn’t grow up being told I was a sinner or having a lot of guilt instilled in me. Like most people I thought I was a pretty good guy, I volunteered my time for the homeless, called my mother on mother’s day…. I was by no means perfect, I guess what I’m getting at I just didn’t wake up each day worried about my problem with sin, so when I was told, it’s all been taken care of by Jesus’s work on the cross, I just didn’t connect with the that on any emotional level.

Being a lawyer it probably didn’t help that I kept asking pesky follow-up questions like, ‘so just how did that whole ‘payment’ for our sins work anyway?’ Well it was a good Lutheran church and they walked me through the whole, Penal substitutionary atonement theory, a medieval doctrine which attempts to explain the cross and which goes something like this: all of us have sinned, and therefore owe a debt to God, that debt must be paid or God cannot forgive, (otherwise God’s own righteousness would be called into question) but it’s a debt we as sinners we could never satisfy so the theory goes, and so Jesus takes our punishment in our place – and God accepts that payment because he was sinless.

Anyway, as a lawyer I kind got the logic of it. I certainly understood the concept, someone’s broken the law and someone’s got to be punished. but…I guess I just felt as though God would be bigger than that – after all, crime and punishment and retribution is something humans have been doing for thousands of years. You’d think that God would have advanced beyond that somehow…to something better.

And the idea that forgiveness first demands some kind of payment or punishment doesn’t really come through for me as I read the Gospels. Think of the Father in the Prodigal Son story, RADICALLY welcomes home is disobedient son… he throws the biggest party he can must, no questions asked, without any need for payment?

Or what about when Jesus tells us to ‘turn the other cheek’ when someone slaps you or our call to love those who persecute us, or what about the person who tries to take your shirt, Jesus doesn’t demand payment for their trespass, he says, hand them your coat!

Now we’re talking! Now that IS something different!

I guess the bottom line was that the ‘payment for sins’ theory of the cross for me, doesn’t jive with the God of love that I had been introduced to by Jesus. It ends up making God into someone who demands violence and suffering even death, as payment for sin, and is apparently incapable of the very forgiveness that the gospels call us to?

Fortunately when I was in seminary you discover that there are actually many other ways to understand the cross – and I wont go into them, other than to say, that that they freed me to find my way to an understanding of the Cross that did speak to me…

And just to be clear, I’m speaking from my own experience here, not for the rest of the clergy or the church, I am speaking personally, because our relationship with Jesus IS personal for me, and I want to encourage you to find your own personal way in as well. And it wont be the same for all. I think we each need to work out the terms of that relationship as we would any other loving relationship -- and that that includes the meaning of the cross, because our understanding of why Jesus died, can have a lot to say about how we live.

For instance, I know that for many of you, the payment approach understanding is very familiar, and comforting—it’s a bedrock that feels as steady as a mountain.  And if that’s true for you, I have no desire to shake that -- you have found your way in. Amen!  I have also known people who have deep regrets about decisions in their life, for whom the idea that God’s son paid the price so you may be forgiven is a terribly powerful and has literally changed lives – and if that is you, again, Amen!

And so I’m not saying there is only one way, I think God grace is big enough and his love broad enough to have a way into the cross that speaks to all of us, at least if we are listening.

So how does the cross speak to me?

I think first and foremost for me, the cross is symbol of sacrificial love. Jesus’ death WAS a sacrifice in the sense that it was an offering to God, but not as payment for sin, but an offering of love – a love for us all. Think of the martyers over the years who gave their life so that others might live. MLK, Ghandi, Harvy Milk, or even every day hero’s, the 92 year old John Shear who while working as an usher at Santa Anita, threw himself on top of a 5year old girl who had wandered into the path of a runaway horse only to be trampled himself, or Chelsey Russel, who jumped overboard to rescue a 2yr old from drowning, keeping him above water for 5 agonizing minutes fighting the current with every last bit of her strength until child could be pulled aboard, just as she slipped below the water and was lost--- all people who made an offering to God of their life, out of love for others, even complete strangers.

So yes, God does love us so much that he would send his only son to live and die as one of us, but NOT as payment, but in order to embody a way of being human that was so self-giving, so self-emptying, that it changed the life of those who witnessed it and those it would be later witnessed TO. In that way, the cross becomes less about forgiveness and more about transformation As the Francicsan Richard Rohr puts it: Jesus didn’t come to change the mind of God about humanity – we were already loved – no, Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.

And that leads me to another symbol, I see the cross as a symbol of courage, the courage to stand up for your beliefs, to stand with the outcasts and the disposables of the world and do to so fearlessly. Its been said that Jesus was killed because of who he ate with – the outsiders, the outcasts, the unclean. So however we see the cross, don’t let it obscure the life that Jesus led which got him there: The way of life he showed us was so radical that it threatened the very power structures system of his time – and still does today.

I also see the cross as a symbol of companionship; that no matter what I will suffer in life, GOD in Christ has been there. God isn’t some distant, unknowable, unrelatable deity, God was a person who shared our suffering, as terribly as anyone ever could, and I find comfort in that. And isn’t that one of the universal things we do for those who suffer -- we look for where we have had common ground or common experience, we form support groups and gather with others whoever suffered as we have, not because it makes the pain go away, but because our pain is easier to bear when its shared.

As we observed in our Stations of the Cross Tuesday night, the cross reminds me that

  • when I feel alone and abandoned, you were there, as when his friends deserted him and left him to be judged by the mob,
  • when others belittle or ridicule me or make me feel less than, you were there, as you carried your cross through the jeering crowds who mocked and spat upon you,
  • when I stumble under the weight of all the responsibilities and obligations that I try to juggle in my life, you were there, stumbling under the weight of your own cross,
  • and when the day comes that I breath my last breath, you will be there too.

All of which leads to my final symbol, Hope for the imbreaking kingdom of god – not in some distant event or second coming, the inbreaking of the kindom that we are called to usher in as we follow Jesus to his cross, when we offer self-giving, sacrificial love to the stranger, when we have the courage to stand with the oppressed and against injustice and as we offer the companionship to walk along side those who suffer as Jesus walked with us.

It is a final and definitive hope. For the cross to me symbolizes God’s final and definitive “NO” to the powers that killed him and that continue to stand against the way of Christ -- even the power of death.

As you approach this cross tonight, I invite you to search your heart,

What does the cross mean to you?