The Cross of Hope

Published Monday, February 27, 2012
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February 26th

I Peter 1:18-22

          When Reba was three, and I was just starting back to school, I took her to the seminary where she saw for the first time, a large, graphic sculpture of Jesus, hanging on the cross.  She pointed in horror, and said, “Who is that?” 

“It’s Jesus, honey.”

She replied emphatically, “No, mommy.  That is not Jesus.  Jesus is the baby in the manger.” 

Then, when she realized I was serious about this man hanging in on the cross, she looked at Jesus with great sadness and empathy, and said, “Poor Jesus.  He needs a doctor.” 

It is a funny story that I like to tell about my girl, but it also reminds me of my own discomfort with this part of the story of Jesus.  The image of an infant Jesus, a healing Jesus, a teaching Jesus, or even an angry Jesus in the temple is preferable to the part of the story where Jesus hangs on the cross, in agony, the tragic and unexpected consequence of following God’s call on his life. 

I don’t think my discomfort is especially unusual.  As Mennonites, we don’t tend to focus on the agony of the cross.  We look at the life and teachings of Jesus, and sometimes the resurrection.  But it’s those 24 hours between the last supper and the burial of Jesus that really mystify us.  What do we do with this cross?

          Much of the difficulty with the cross comes from what many of us were taught about the meaning of the cross.  I don’t care if you we were raise Mennonite, Baptist, Catholic or Episcopalian or agnostic—you probably know a little cross theology.  Many of us grew up being told that Jesus suffered and died to save us from the fires of hell.   So, in order to make Jesus’ death have meaning, we must accept the violence, we must carry that weight, that burden of Jesus death. 

          It’s a heavy way to approach the cross, and the suffering of Jesus. 

          The other thing many of us heard was that God required this sacrifice.  Jesus, God’s only Son, had to die to satisfy God’s anger and disgust with humanity.  This makes God seem violent, angry, and mean, spiteful, even detached. 

         These interpretations of the cross and suffering of Jesus make our Anabaptist values feels….murky.  As people of peace, who follow the God of peace, what do we do with what we've been told about God, and God’s violence?  What do we do about God that demands sacrifice in the death of God’s only son, and how has that influenced the way we have looked at the relationship between God and Jesus, and between God and us? 

          I hope you are not here today thinking that this Lenten series on the cross is going to wrap this issue up with a big bow, and we’ll figure it all out.  Oh, I pray that it does, but I’ve been looking at this for a few years, theologians have been studying this for centuries, and this question of Jesus’ death by Roman execution continues to confound the Church.  In fact, if this symbol doesn’t leave you with questions, or cause you to squirm, I would be worried. 

          The problem of Jesus’ death has not been resolved. 

          It took the early Church a few generations to even begin to make sense of Jesus’ death and suffering.  In fact, there were letters and writings about the meaning of the cross, before the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, had even been written down.  People were trying to make sense of Jesus’ unexpected death before people knew the whole story of his life. 

          And we continue—two millinia later—to struggle with the meaning of this cross.  Reba was more right than a 3 year old should be when she looked at Jesus, hanging on the cross, and said he needed a doctor.  The image of Jesus has been tarnished, even beaten down, by these destructive ideas of what his death means.  We must continue to heal the wounds of centuries of shame-laden theology about this cross that have been put on our Christian ancestors.  So today, we’ll start with our text in 1 Peter, written to the Church in Asia Minor. 

          The church in Asia Minor was suffering.  This multi-ethnic congregation, attended by both slaves and free people, rich and poor, men and women, were experiencing persecution for their beliefs in this executed and resurrected Jesus.  This letter to the church in Asia Minor was a word of encouragement, hope and strength, in the midst of discrimination and persecution.  This letter was written to let this church know that they were not alone. 

          First Peter has been described as a baptism liturgy, a worshipful, thoughtful approach to this decision we publicly make to follow in the way of Jesus.  This letter called the struggling community to continue to live a holy, ordered life, even in the midst of persecution.

And this is the author’s take on Jesus’ death, even before the first gospel account had been written down.  “For Christ also suffered for sins.  Once.  For all.  The righteous for the unrighteous.  In order to bring you to God.”  The author packs a lot of dangling phrases into that one sentence, as is pretty common in the greek language.  But, it’s an English major’s worst nightmare.  “For Christ also suffered for sins.  Once.  For all.  The righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” 

          Christ did indeed suffer for sins.  We know this to be true, from all of the gospel accounts.  Jesus suffered for the sins of silence, of commission, of complacency, of fear, of the empire’s stranglehold on society.  Jesus suffered because the religious and political leaders were afraid and threatened, and the people that loved Jesus did not speak up in his defense.  The goodness, the rightness of Jesus suffered for all those who could not see what God called Jesus to do.  They could not see God’s reign breaking in. 

          But this is where it gets really uncomfortable for us—the author of 1 Peter says that Jesus died to bring you to God.  Forget for a moment how difficult it is for you to hear this—imagine what it meant for this persecuted community to hear this word.  This is a community that may never have heard about Jesus, if it were not for his death and resurrection. This is a community that probably understood the call of discipleship more clearly and more personally because Jesus died. Because of Jesus’ death, these followers of Jesus knew without a doubt that their decision in baptism and confession of faith meant that they too may face the same consequence.  They may also be killed.  They may also suffer.  But they do not do so alone.  The spirit of Jesus was alive and present in this Christian community.  It was inspiring this fledgling church to be strong, to live into the commitment they made at baptism, to follow in the way of Jesus. 

          How ironic that a symbol of the empire’s attempt to squash Jesus’ message is a symbol of hope for this persecuted community, a reminder that Jesus was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”

          What I hear in this text from I Peter—in this early interpretation of the cross—is not a message of guilt to this struggling community.  They are doing the hard work of discipleship already.  They are suffering for what they believe.  They do not need guilt.  They need hope.  And the author takes this cross—a symbol of empire power to destroy—and turns it upside down.  This is not a symbol of fear, but of hope.  Jesus may have died, but his spirit lives on, and continues to inspire these believers.  And in their baptism, they accept the possibility that this too could happen to them. 


          In 1961, a group of young college students, called the freedom riders—seven black and six white—got on a bus leaving from Washington DC.  Their plan was to ride through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, ending in New Orleans, Louisiana where a civil rights rally was planned.

The Freedom Riders' tactics for their journey were to have at least one interracial pair sitting in adjoining seats and at least one black rider sitting up front, where seats under segregation had been reserved for white customers by local custom throughout the South. The rest would sit scattered throughout the rest of the bus. One rider would abide by the South's segregation rules in order to avoid arrest and to contact their supporters back home and arrange bail for those who were arrested.  Both of the first teams of Freedom Riders had some trouble on their journey, but the worst awaited them near Birmingham.  There, one group of freedom riders were attacked and beaten.  The other bus managed to escape the depot in Anniston, but not before the tires on the bus were slashed.  The bus made it a few miles out of town, where it finally had to stop.  There the bus was firebombed.  

This is a terrible story of suffering and persecution for the right to ride an unsegregated bus.  But what is incredible to me about this story is this:  Before the tragic incident, where the freedom riders were beaten and nearly killed, the organizers of this event had a hard time getting volunteers.  No one wanted to go on this ride.  After this event, though things were no safer for anyone, it was much easier to get volunteers for the next freedom ride. There were several hundred freedom riders that summer, willing to risk their lives so that all people could have the right to right public transportation. 

          Why was that?  Perhaps it was not unlike what was happening to the church in Asia minor.  Though they were persecuted, though they were afraid, there was a spirit of hope surrounding them.  In the firebombing and beatings, the civil rights movement knew there was hope there, and that moved them on to continue the work of equality and righteousness. 


          This cross is a difficult symbol for us to face.  The suffering of Christ is not something we glory in—it pains us to know that Jesus died.  But this cross can by a symbol of hope, a representation of Christ’s presence with us, calling us to our baptismal vows, to following the way of Jesus, to be fully the people God called us to be, even in the face of violence, persecution, and oppression.  AMEN.



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