Sun, Jul 21, 2019

What the cross demonstrates


At the end of our island-stay… 

on our recent holiday in Fiji…

I sat in the ‘entertainment’ area of the resort––

between the bar and the activities hut––

waiting for the ferry that would take us back to the main island.

As the staff tidied up from the night before…

and wrote up the day’s activities on the chalkboard…

one of them turned on the bar’s sound system and started playing music––

a variety of reggae-gospel.

Soon, all of the nearby Fijian staff were quietly singing along.

It was obviously a favourite album.

You don’t have to spend long on any Pacific island––

be it Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, or Samoa–– 

to realise what an impact Christianity has had;

and how central it is to the life of the local people.

Those early missionaries left quite a legacy.

Some of the changes that they brought were good––

such as the ending of cannibalism.


more often than not… 

the brand of Christianity that they imported and imparted was of a rigid, moralistic, and fundamentalist flavour…

and, sadly, that has persisted.

At the same time… 

those missionaries didn’t appreciate the harm that they were causing to traditional cultures.

They didn’t appreciate how they were, inadvertently, acting as agents of colonialism…

or sowing the seeds of future oppression.

And they didn’t appreciate how they had so wedded “Christianity” to “European values”…

and, especially, to Victorian values.

They went because they were convinced that the poor, ignorant natives were lost;

that, without their going, the eternal destiny of these people’s souls was at stake;

that, without their evangelising, these people were destined for hell.

Because, to their way of thinking…

unless these people accepted that Jesus had died for them…

then they could not be forgiven.

Indeed, such an idea––

such a theology––

has been at the heart of so much Protestant thinking since the early Nineteenth Century…

such that it’s the only way that many Christians think about the cross of Christ.

It’s an idea––

it’s a theology––

that can be summed up as: 


In other words, it’s a theology that regards Jesus’ death as a blood sacrifice…

appeasing a wrathful, vengeful deity.

And, at first glance, our reading from Colossians this morning seems to support this.

The author claims that, through Jesus…

God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.


And yet, if we step back a little… 

and we think about it carefully…

that whole theology, and its imposition upon this text, begins to collapse like a house of cards.

Leaving aside what is an unsatisfying portrait of God, which the “traditional” interpretation offers––

and leaving aside the basic ethical principles that the end cannot justify the means…

and that two wrongs never make a right––

the “traditional” interpretation falls apart because, 

as Martin Luther King jr reminds us,

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral; returning violence with violence only multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars”.

It is incomprehensible that God would use violence to overcome violence––

that God could or would demand the death of Jesus…

in order to forgive and to make peace.

Nor does such an interpretation explain how God––

through the cross of Christ––

was seeking to end our estrangement…

or to overcome the ‘hostility of our minds’…

or the evilness of our deeds.

So then, how are we to understand what the author of Colossians is saying?


We need to begin by remembering what the cross actually meant in the first century.

For the ancient Romans, the cross was, first and foremost, an instrument of torture.

And yet, it was much more than that. 

It was an instrument of torture that was reserved specifically for rebels and revolutionaries––

for those who challenged the power of Rome. 

And it was particularly reserved for those who challenged the power of the Emperor–– 

who was perceived to be divine. 

In the Roman Imperial Ideology… 

the Emperor, in league with the gods, was the one who brought peace to the world.

Consequently, peace was dependant upon obedience to the Emperor.

For them, fear, obedience, and peace were intimately connected.

Crucifixion, then, was both an exercise in power, and a stark object lesson. 

It was meant to put the fear of God––

or, more specifically, the fear of the gods and the Emperor, into people. 

The cross was an instrument for maintaining the Roman peace through fear…

and through blood. 


In contrast to all of that… 

the author of Colossians is affirming that Jesus makes peace–– 

not through fear… 

and not through the shedding of someone else’s blood…

and not in order to appease an angry deity. 

But, rather, as the theologian Brian McLaren puts it,

“He makes peace by hanging naked on the cross, offering himself, and saying, ‘The way of the Kingdom is not by domination, and revolution, and scapegoating. The way of the cross is the way of a man, bearing the fullness of God, suffering and forgiving in the midst of the pain, not pledging revenge”.

The cross of Christ is an object lesson not in fear but in forgiveness;

but the cross of Christ is not a means to forgiveness––

it is a demonstration of forgiveness.

Even more than that…

the cross of Christ is a means of reconciliation––

not because it somehow changes the way that God sees us… 

or how God relates to us;

but because it confronts us with…

and reconnects us to… 

our true selves and our true humanity;

and it reveals for us the God in whose image we are formed.

Christ on the cross demonstrates the way of love, justice, and peace.

That is not just a reflection of the true nature of God––

who is love, and justice, and peace––

but it’s also a reflection of what human nature was intended to be.


And yet, the aim or intent of this reconciliation is not just about us.

It’s certainly not about our forgiveness––

let alone about our eternal destiny.

Nor is the vision of reconciliation that the author holds out just about us, collectively.

Nor is it even about us in relation to God.

It’s bigger than that.

It’s cosmic in scope.

The author’s vision is that the whole of creation would be restored to a proper balance…

to a right relationship.

That is what, he claims, has begun in and through Christ.

And that is what, as Christ’s body, we are meant to strive for.

Our calling is not to go forth and win souls for Christ.

Our calling is not to seek to convert people from a particular way of thinking or living…

and to adopt our way of thinking or living.

Our calling is to help them to realise and to live out…

the image of God in which they were made;

to help them to be fully human––

in the way that Christ made clear for us on the cross––

through a life of love, justice, and peace.


Apart from that, neither we––

nor the whole creation–– 

can be as God intends.

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