In my message the first week of Lent, I suggested we should do a “Cross Search” – pay attention during the week to crosses we see as we go about our day and ask ourselves, “Why is it there? What difference does it make? How does it bring the Kingdom of God near?”
I was surprised by how few crosses I did see throughout the week! A mere handful, and not even at every church. I was expecting to see this symbol of our Christian faith much more prominently on display.
Think of the cross as our “logo.” That’s how one marketing guy sees it. A logo which “exists to communicate key information about the religion’s values and history, while giving followers and prospective converts a symbol around which to rally.” And most world religious have their “logos.” (If you’re interested, read this article for a brief description of the “Top Ten Religious Symbols.” Just remember, it’s written from a marketing perspective, not a faith perspective.)
Among these “religious logos,” the cross is unique. Other religion’s symbols represent positive attributes like strength, conquering power, the heavens, unity, balance, perfection. Our symbol, the cross represents the death of our God.
Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury wonders aloud in his little book, The Sign and the Sacrifice, “Why do we have an instrument of torture at the center of our imagination?” Indeed, the Apostle Paul admitted that the cross of Christ was “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:23). One of the earliest depictions of the cross is a piece of graffiti scribbled on a wall in Rome. It shows a man with a donkey head nailed to a cross. Beside is a crudely drawn figure looking up at this spectacle. Underneath are the words, “Alexamenos (the stick figure) worshiping his God.”
We couldn’t we have had a better symbol for our faith? The fish symbol used among early Christians as a secret ID during times of persecution? Or a cup and bread? Or a boat (another early Christian symbol representing the church)? Or even a heart that we can make with our fingers! Wouldn’t that have been nice? Somehow we ended up with the cross. And the truth is, as Archbishop Williams notes, “there is no pre-cross Christianity.” In fact, there is NO Christianity without the cross.
We often try to reduce our religion, and others, to core principles and basic values. Certainly, there are some key ones for Christianity. “Love thy neighbor.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Love God – love people. Undoubtedly, if people would only do these things – do what Jesus said -the world would be a better place! But you don’t have to be a Christian to try to do what Jesus said. You don’t even have to “believe in Jesus” to resolve to live out his words.
But that’s not Christianity. It’s a philosophy.
In the Gospel of Mark, there’s an important exchange between Jesus and his disciples. It happens right after Peter figures out who Jesus actually is. “You’re not a messenger. You’re not a prophet. You’re the guy! You’re the one! The Messiah, who will save us and bring about the promised reign of God.”
As soon as Peter says that, Jesus starts off about suffering and being rejected, killed, and resurrected. Peter takes Jesus aside and “rebukes” him. (Can you imagine “rebuking” the one you just called “Messiah?”) Of course, Peter and the rest of the disciples get rebuked in turn. “You’re not setting you mind on the things of God,” says Jesus, but on human things.”
The death and resurrection of Christ is “a thing of God,” not a human thing. It is the very essence of our faith. Our understanding of God’s love and how God works in the world is contained in the cross.
There is no Christianity without the cross. No Christian life. No salvation .
After Jesus sets the disciples straight, he calls the whole crowd to himself and says,
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38)
Right in the middle of that teaching Jesus says those words we struggle to understand, that those who want to follow him must “take up their cross.” We think that means self denial, but notice Jesus says we must deny ourselves and take up our cross.
Perhaps we should take those words literally. In the language of the New Testament, to “take up” something literally meant to “lift it up,” to hoist it like a flag or a signal or a sail. It’s as if Jesus is saying now, “put your own cross on display.”
Own the cross. Do not deny the shame or foolishness of the cross, lest Jesus be ashamed of us “when he comes” in his glory.
I think we need to be a lot bolder about declaring that we are followers of Christ. On July 4th we put out an American flag. On Halloween we carve pumpkins and put them on our porch. In November (or earlier) we put campaign posters in our front yards. At Christmas we put up all kinds of things – lights, wreaths, Christmas trees, maybe even a manger. All year long we display the symbols, the logos, of what is important to us.
When do we put up the cross?
The cross is the symbol of the fact that we are followers of Christ and of what it means to follow Christ. If someone came to your house, got in your car, visited you at work, would they see a cross? Would they know you are a follower of Christ?
I wonder what would happen if all of us put a cross on our front door or in our front yard – at least through this season of Lent.
Think people would notice? Think they might ask themselves, “I wonder why it’s there? What difference does it make? What message are they trying give?”
Wouldn’t it be great if people did ask us those questions?
I think we need to be a lot more bold about owning the cross as the symbol of our faith. Which probably means thinking more about what it means and why it is important and how what happened on the cross changed the world. After all Jesus promised, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)
So who’s willing to take up, to lift high your cross?