What does the cross mean to you?

Someone posted in social media recently and asked the question, “What does the cross mean to you?”

ImageI find this intriguing because I am teaching a course on the cruciform church at the moment. I looked at the responses to the question, and here is my paraphrase of the answers.

  • Grace.
  • I come to the cross to tell Jesus how much I need him.
  • Unconditional love.
  • Everything.
  • It means that my life will never be the same again.
  • It tells me how much he has done for me.
  • It symbolises two thousand years of effective protection for Christians.
  • Forgiveness and hope.
  • When I look at the cross, I know that he answers the prayers of the individual.

The other responses are very similar.

I certainly think that the cross represents the unconditional love of God. And I share the experience of a totally changed life when I came to faith in Christ. At a personal level, the message of the cross—the cruciform death and resurrection of Christ—has the most profound impact on my life.

But I wonder whether the above answers highlight some issues we have to face as a church at large?

First, almost all the responses above are about what God has done for us, or will do for us. There is very little about what the cross demands.

For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke all talk about cross-bearing.

Then he [Jesus] said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (NIV; Luke 9:23; cf. Matt 10:38; Mark 8:34)

And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27; Matt 16:24)

The cross is certainly very important to the apostle Paul. In Galatians he talks about his co-crucifixion with Christ.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Gal 2:20a)

Paul also speaks of a cruciform leadership pattern that is about identifying with Christ’s death so that the life of Christ may manifest through his weakness.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Cor 4:10–11)

Much more can be said. But it is clear that the New Testament does not only talk about what the cross does for the followers of Jesus. It also has much to say about what the cross means to the daily life of Christ-followers.

No wonder Isaac Watts says in his great hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,

Love so amazing, so divine. Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Second, almost no-one cites or alludes to the Scripture in their responses to the question “What does the cross mean to you?” in the above question raised in social media. This (at least partially) explains why the responses are all fairly similar, and that they ignore cross-bearing and the cross-shaped faith. I think many will agree that biblical literacy has been declining in recent years, and this is a very unhealthy trend.

Third, I wonder whether the responses also reflect a “what’s in it for me” church culture today? I am glad to see that people do love Jesus because of the cross. But one’s love for God needs to be expressed through cruciform commitment to Christ. I personally find this commitment very challenging. But nonetheless this is what we are called to do, and so let us do so by relying on God’s grace and the help of his Spirit.

Four, I wonder what teaching we receive in our churches and on the Internet today? Do we still focus on the Scripture? Do we challenge Christians to focus on the cross and be faithful to God? I hope we do.

Fifth, I really hope that Christians in the West do not export a truncated understanding of the cross to other parts of the world. I mean, we need to present and live out a gospel message that truly reflect the meaning of the cross. The cross is about the good news of the Jesus for humanity, and at the same time it demands Christ-followers to embody the self-giving love of Jesus in the world.

Let me close by citing the words of Miroslav Volf.

In a world of violence, the Cross, that eminently counter-cultural symbol that lives at the heart of the Christian faith, is a scandal . . . there is no genuinely Christian way around the scandal. In the final analysis, the only available options are either to reject the cross and with it the core of the Christian faith or to take up one’s cross, follow the Crucified—and be scandalized ever anew by the challenge. (in Volfs book, Exclusion and Embrace, page 26)

I find this very challenging. May God give us the courage and grace to follow Jesus.

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Paul’s spirituality and a cross-shaped Christian life (wisdom from Michael Gorman)

How does crucified Christ and risen Lord shape our lives? How do we understand the apostle Paul’s spirituality in relation to our daily life? These are important questions for every follower of Jesus.

Here are some excerpts from an article written by Prof Michael Gorman, which help to answer the above questions.

Cruciformity is the spiritual-moral dimension of the theology of the death of Jesus by crucifixion found in Paul, in the rest of the New Testament, and throughout much of the Christian tradition. With respect to Paul, at least, this conformity to the crucified Messiah is not an abstract moral principle but a spiritual. Or even mystical, reality. This mystical reality is rooted, paradoxically, in a profoundly this-worldly reality (Jesus’ crucifixion) and produces, no less paradoxically, a variety of very this-worldly results. (p. 66)

For Paul, Jesus is the crucified Messiah whom God raised from the dead, vindicating him as Messiah, validating his path of lifelong, self-giving, faithful obedience that led to the cross, and establishing him as the Lord of all who shares in the divine name, glory, and worship. As the resurrected, glorified, and living Lord, Jesus remains the crucified Messiah. (p. 66)

Cruciformity, then is cross-shaped existence in Jesus the Messiah. It is letting the cross of the crucified Messiah be the shape, as well as the source, of life in him. It is participating in and embodying the cross. Paul himself might put all this together this way (a paraphrase of Gal 2:19-20): “It is no longer I or we who live our own lives, but it is God’s crucified and resurrected Messiah who lives in me and in us by his Spirit, empowering us to embody his kind of faithfulness and love.” Because of the relational quality of this reality, we must be careful (as others have said) not to focus on “the cross” per se but  on “the crucified.” Further, although Paul can use the language of imitation (e.g., 1 Cor 11:1), we must distinguish this Pauline spirituality from a simple ethic of imitation Christi, since Paul’s focus is on the activity of the living, indwelling Messiah, which is at the same time the work of God’s indwelling Spirit. (p. 67)

As we will now see, the events that are repeated are constituted by the narrative of Christ’s self-giving faith and love that were quintessentially expressed in his (incarnation and) death on the cross. Crucifiormity is, therefore, a narrative spirituality, a spirituality that tells a story, the story of Christi crucified. (p. 67)

Source: Michael J. Gorman, “Paul and the Cruciform Way of God in Christ,” Journal of Moral Theology, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2013): 64-83. (The journal article can be accessed here and here.)