“We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles...”
Today is Holy Cross Day. It’s the day when we commemorate one of those ancient events in the Church’s history which you may want to take with a pinch of salt. According to legend, in 326 AD the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Constantine was the first Christian emperor, of course, and his mother was also a Christian. While there it is said that she “found” the cross on which Jesus had been crucified, along with those of the two thieves who had been crucified with him, and the sign which had been placed above his head. They knew which cross belonged to Jesus because a dying woman who was touched by a piece of it was instantly healed - allegedly. Believe it if you like.
The people of the time certainly did believe it, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was soon built over the site. On September 14 of the year it was finished, the cross was brought out of the church so that people could venerate it for the first time, and it then became a must-see on the newly established pilgrim route to Jerusalem. An early pilgrim to the site described how it would be brought out with great ceremony, held by a bishop and guarded by deacons, so people could file past and kiss it. The guards weren’t just there for decoration. They were there because on one occasion a rather over-enthusiastic pilgrim had gone further than kissing the cross, and bitten a chunk out of it instead. Everyone wanted a piece of this relic, quite literally in some cases.
If that early pilgrim found that the cross was a bit tough to chew on – and way too hard to swallow –there’s a sense in which he isn’t alone. The cross has always presented problems for people. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthians Christ’s crucifixion – his death on that cross - was “a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”
The problem for Jewish people was that the idea that God’s Messiah might die, let alone die in such a humiliating way, was completely at odds with their understanding of what the Messiah should be like. If this was God’s chosen one, why would God let him die? They took Jesus crucifixion as proof that God had rejected him.
The problem for the Greeks was rather different. These were people who had grown up with a world-view shaped by the classical Greek philosophers – people like Plato. They weren’t necessarily living in Greece or even ethnically Greek. Greek thinking had spread around the civilised world in the time of Alexander the Great. If you rated yourself as a sophisticated person then you thought like a Greek about life, the universe and everything. The Greek idea of God was of something perfect, distant, unchangeable, above suffering. A man dying 1on a cross, humiliated, messy, helpless – how could there be anything holy about that? As Paul said, it was foolishness to them.
So, whatever background you came from the cross was a problem. It just seemed all wrong that a holy person, a person favoured by God – let alone God himself – should suffer and die like this.
It’s easy for us to lose sight of how offensive the cross seemed then; we don’t see people being crucified. We bejewel the cross and use it as a decoration, but when we look beneath the glittering surface the cross can still pose the same problems for us as it did for our ancestors. Why did Jesus have to die like this? Of course the resurrection changes our view of the cross, but it doesn’t cancel out the pain of Jesus death. Why couldn’t God have rescued him at the last minute, prevented him from having to go through this. Why did his followers have to witness it, and have their faith so brutally challenged? Why did the early church have to wrestle with this stumbling block, this folly? Those are questions that are just as powerful now as they were then.
Christians over the ages have come up with all sorts of answers to that question of why Jesus had to die, often explaining it in terms of some sort of cosmic transaction, a deal done in the heavenly places. They have used the imagery of sacrifice – Jesus as a pure offering which opened up the way to God. They’ve used the image of Jesus as a triumphant warrior, going in to fight a heavenly battle on our behalf – that was popular in the warrior societies of the dark ages and the early medieval period. They’ve used the image of Jesus as a sort of ransom paid to release humanity from the prison of sin and death. There’s yet another image, that of the cross bringing healing, in our Gospel today, which echoes the story in the Old Testament reading. The predominant image in Protestant churches over the last few centuries, though, has been that of the law court. Our sins separate us from God, says this image, and a penalty must be paid for those sins, just as it would be in a human court, to put us back into the right relationship with him and bridge that gulf. Jesus pays the fine that is too large for us to pay.
All these images have their strengths. We still understand the idea of sacrifice; someone laying down their life for others. That warrior imagery is great if you feel you are facing a mighty foe, and need a hero on your side. Jesus as the ransom works if you are feeling stuck in a prison of sin or despair. Many people have found healing as they have looked to Christ. And if you are weighed down with guilt then the thought that Jesus has paid a price that you can’t can bring you the sense of forgiveness you need to find new life.
But these are just images, models we have created, and they break down when you push them too hard. Why did God need Jesus to sacrifice himself? Who is that ransom paid to – God? Satan? How can a death bring healing?
The image of the law courts raises a whole raft of questions.
Why does someone have to pay a fine at all – couldn’t God just forgive if he wanted to? And how can it work for one person’s death to wipe out someone else’s sin – doesn’t it give the message that we can do what we like, without consequences for us? This model also assumes that we are hopelessly and permanently alienated from God in the first place, when throughout the Bible we are told that he is as close to us as our own heartbeat, whatever we have done, walking beside us, loving us with a love that nothing can defeat.
The trouble is that whenever we use imagery to talk of God we run the risk of trying to make those images bear more weight than they are able to. We can end up worshipping the image rather than worshipping God. In fact, these cosmic theories can distract us from the real, and very earthy, human event that happened in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday. Why did Jesus die? Basically, because people killed him. And we don’t need to find a complicated theological explanation for this – it was entirely predictable that it would happen. He proclaimed a message which was good news for those who were oppressed, but bad news for their oppressors, which threatened to overturn political and religious applecarts. Jesus’ death happened because he wouldn’t go back on that message. He wouldn’t turn away from those he had come to help. He died for our sins in the sense that it was a sinful world which made his death inevitable.
Jesus’ death was part and parcel of his life, a life dedicated to proclaiming that God was with humanity, a life in which he showed what it looked like when God was one of us, what it looked like to be truly alive, fully human, as well as divine. That was never going to go down well with those who had a vested interest in treating others as if they were less than human. And if he came today we would kill him all over again because we are no different.
From the moment of his birth, Jesus was “God with us”, Emmanuel - in the vulnerable baby in the manger, who only narrowly escaped with his life from the murderous rage of Herod, “God with us”, in the everyday life of the carpenter from Galilee, and “God with us” even in suffering and death, the times when all hope seems lost.
The power of the cross is its message that even there, at the lowest moment, the lowest place, the place where all you can see is failure, God is at work, God is with us. In fact, especially in these times, God is at work and with us. That was a vital message for the early Christians who often faced brutal deaths themselves – “the power and the wisdom of God,”as Paul put it – and it is a vital message for us too.
A very wise old priest once said to me “there are two types of people; those who have been crucified and those who haven’t” and it was the crucified ones whom he thought had the richest possibilities in their lives. These were the ones whom life had broken in some way, who couldn’t pretend they had it all sorted out, who often looked like failures to others, and yet in falling into the abyss had discovered that they had fallen into the hands of God. They had learned, as you never can when you are clinging onto a façade of success, that however fickle life was, God’s love was deep and indestructible. The cross of Christ is the place where God gives us what we most need – all we really need - the knowledge of his presence.
That cross that Helena found in Jerusalem might have been the one on which Jesus died’, or it might have been that of some forgotten victim of Roman oppression whose name we’ll never know. I think she may have been right to proclaim it as holy though, because whoever suffered and died on it, the message of Jesus’ crucifixion is that God was there too, even in the darkness of death, and that he can be just as present with us, bringing us through the darkness to new light and life.