Have We Become Too Familiar With the Message of the Cross?
Updated: Apr 13, 2022
For the last two years I’ve been determined, by God’s grace, to search out the scriptures, so as to minister more faithfully. When you grow up in the church, I’ve discovered that you often take for granted how you’ve been shaped to think or believe. And even in formal training there are things that need “unlearning.” This has lead me on a mission to ask a lot of questions of the Faith I believe. One of the books that has helped me on my quest is “The Crucifixion” by Fleming Rutledge. She too grew up reading The Bible and attending church. So she believes that this book is her life’s theological work concerning the crucifixion of Jesus as the central theme of the Christian life. And what a book it is.
So today I wanted to set out and share some portions of her book to help us all look at what we believe. I think it’s important for all of us at times to make sure we don’t get too familiar with things or people-for familiarity breeds contempt.
Guarding Against Familiarity
Questions to ponder:
Isn’t this a peculiar way to begin a world wide movement called the church?
How much is THE CROSS-SHAPED LIFE is actually proclaimed anymore in the western church?
These are questions most of us have probably never stopped long enough to ask or even ponder, and that tells me we are too familiar with the message of the cross of Christ.
This is what Jesus told his disciples in Luke’s gospel, 9:21-23
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised on the third day.” And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, this is the one who will save it. For what good does it do a person if he gains the whole world, but loses or forfeits himself?
This scripture is a prime example of where we are today in the West. It’s not a culturally acceptable way of thinking or doing life nowadays. And there is a generation behind us that is requiring more answers to the Faith we say we adhere to. And unlike most of us they don’t follow so blindly. From the Pew Research Center:
71% of millennials are at least “fairly certain” they believe in God
67% of millennials rank religion as at least “somewhat important” in their lives
But only 28% attend church at least once a week
So this led me to ask more questions:
Are they observing in us, people who have laid down their lives in love and service to God and others?
Do they see in us the transformative power of living the cruciform life?
Now more than ever people are struggling with what they believe. The uncertainty of our times has many looking for solutions, and we need to give them answers. This generation is exposed to so many schools of thought on a daily basis. They are also exposed in secondary and higher education and in every form of media. Therefore this constant exposure outweighs anything they received grewing up in church; and if they don’t know how to guard their hearts, they could easily be swayed into believing anything that sounds good and comfortable. And comfort is the opposite of the cross shaped life.
The cross shaped life is vastly different from other religions. The premise of the cross and the Christian life looks nothing like other world religions.
HAVE YOU NOTICED THAT?
The central claim of Christianity is oddly irreligious at its core-Fleming says in her book.
Dietrich Bon Hoffer wrote that the weakness and suffering of Christ was and remains a reversal of what the “religious man” of today expects from God.
“The religious imagination seeks to be uplifted, not tortured, humiliated or killed. Therefore the principal of Jesus’s death at the cross is an unrepeatable event that calls all religions into question and establishes an altogether new foundation for faith, life and a human future.” Fleming Rutledge
St francis of Assissi said-it's in giving that we receive, it's in pardoning that we are pardoned and its in dying that we are born.
Does that sound like the cultural standard of our day?
Paul said in to his letter to Rome:
“I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Why did he say that- have you ever asked yourself that? Why would it be necessary to put that disclaimer in his letter to the church in Rome? The Apostle was called to the gentiles-those without THE TRUE FAITH. And dying by means of crucifixion meant shame, reproach and criminality. Most people wanted nothing to do with identifying themselves with a crucified man. And many in those communities didn’t want to embrace the cross shaped life because it meant real change in their way of being and doing life. It meant identifying with those they considered shameful and scum.
You see the crucifixion as a means of execution included shame not only for the person who died but anyone who was associated with him. So for Paul to say he wasn’t ashamed meant he was identifying not only in the death of Christ but also in his shame.
WHAT SETS US APART AS CHRISTIANS?
“In no other world religion has there ever been the notion of worshipping a crucified man.”
“Not only that but this God of ours, choose through the method of crucifixion, for the messiah to experience such shame and reproach, scornfully forsaken by both the elite and the common folk.“ Fleming also says in her book:
Jesus was discarded on the garbage heap of humanity. Leaving behind only a discredited, demoralized, handful of scruffy disciples, who had no status whatsoever in the eyes of anyone.”
What a peculiar beginning for a world transforming faith.
Paul in his writing to the Corinthians says this:
It pleased God through the the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.. we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles …for the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
“The cross is at the heart of the Christian story and it is to be the centerpiece of the Christian life.”
The apostle Paul was constantly reminding the churches in his letters, that the word of the cross in it’s very nature is scandalous, but is the only legitimate ground for Christian confidence.
That’s why Paul says in his epistle to the Philippians:
“all of these things that I counted as gain I now count as loss, for the sake of knowing and identifying with Christ.”
Paul didn’t just want to “know about” Christ, he wanted to identify with him and his sufferings- and he did. But this is most certainly not a paradigm of thought in our culture.
As a Pharisee he did not suffer, he was an elitist; but now he wholeheartedly declared that he and his fellow apostles are fools for Christ sake.
Nowhere else in any other religion is the term divine foolishness found. Folly related to the divine.
As Fleming states: “Holy foolishness sponsored torture, and public execution, without any spiritual overtones associated with it”..think about it …the cross didn’t have any semblance of spirituality. There was nothing redemptive about dying on the cross during that day, only do we in hindsight and through the teaching of the apostles and the church fathers do we understand the power of the cross of Christ and what it means to be truly human. The truest demonstration of extravagant love and sacrifice. “He who knew no sin became sin for us”…thus receiving in his body the penalty for our sin… receiving in his flesh the condemnation for our sin. This is the great exchange.
Because for us in American Christianity today the cross comes packaged as inspirational uplift; so we can’t imagine it for the horror and scandal that it was. We’re so accustomed to seeing it around peoples necks and in art form on the wall-that we can scarcely think of it that way.
This is why the apostle Paul more than anyone else insists, that the cross is the central theme of the gospel message. Jesus was both fully divine and fully human; but if the fully human Jesus is not incarnate then salvation is not from God.
“The Christ event is deeply rooted in this meaning; the fact that the three person God is directly acting as one throughout the entire sequence: from incarnation to crucifixion, to resurrection, to ascension and to last judgment.”
“This is what makes the message of the cross powerful and different from every other religion. Paul in his statement means this- that God is present and powerful specifically in this message just as we have born the image of the man of dust we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. With this Paul shows that in the cross and resurrection the death of Adam, the man of dust, who represents us all, is assimilated to the future, of Jesus, the man of heaven, who represents us all that much more; thus guaranteeing our future with God. Paul goes on to say- therefore my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”
This is why as ministers of the gospel we must never look to obtain success; the cross is foolishness to the perishing but life and the power of God, to those who receive its message.
For he said in his letter to the Corinthians:
It is written, Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 1Corinthians1:20-25
“You might would think there was something disingenuous about Paul saying this because he was a scholar right? But if you know any highly educated people you know it’s hard for them to be able to receive this message. In order for Paul to become an apostle to the Gentiles he had to leave all of his status, all the religious elite to live a life of an unimaginable danger and affliction as he would travel the world preaching Christ crucified to people of every sort.”
And this is why we can’t treat the cross of Christ as familiar. “Paul wasn't just an intellectual, he was of the highest elite status. So it wasn’t a small thing for him to do this, it was a big thing; not only did he put his life in danger often but he cut ties with all of those that he knew in the community to become an evangelist of the crucified Christ.”
So let us ask ourselves today- who is God calling us to that we may deem unworthy? In what ways are you serving Christ that may seem menial, but holds great significance in the kingdom? Remember it’s the foolish things of this world that matter most to God.
“And we can all take great confidence- not in the flesh- but in Paul's admonition to the church in Corinth- "consider your call Brothers, and sisters, not many of you are wise according human standards not many influential, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish of the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.“
“We don’t have to have confidence in the flesh when we carry the cross of Christ. We carry it in order that we may gain Christ and be found in him; and that is enough.”