The Cross: Its Place in the Church
Text: 1:Corinthians 1:18-23a
Rev. Garry E. McCaffery
Last week we began our series on the aim of Lent: knowing Christ and His Cross. The cross holds a preeminent position in the Christian church and in the Christian faith. No Christian should be ashamed of the cross because it is the great symbol of Christ and His redemptive work. Admittedly, the cross, as a symbol, has been abused. There are those who have made a mere charm, idol, or ornament of it. They wear the cross as a necklace, earrings, and some even wear one as a tattoo, void of any meaning outside of decoration. Mind you, there are those of us who wear the cross in these ways knowing full well its meaning, wearing it boldly as a statement of faith. There are still others who, of course, have gone to the opposite extreme of setting aside the cross altogether. There is one instance where the story was told of a congregation that was ready to split in the bitter debate as to whether or not the church steeple should be adorned with a cross. One of the concerns: what if someone was offended by the image?
Since apostolic days, Christianity has been symbolized by the cross. Whenever a church in the world has obscured the cross, there you have found a dying church. But wherever the cross has been lifted high, there you find a living and dynamic church.
Because of the significance and importance of the cross it is fitting that our altars have gold, silver, or brass crosses on them. Since our sacraments are meaningless apart from the cross, we indicate the connection by decorating our baptismal fonts and communion vessels with emblems of the cross. Because the altar is a symbol of the mercy seat of God made approachable by the atoning work of Christ, it is fitting that our altars should be appropriately adorned with carved, hewn, or molded crosses. The symbol of the cross is highly valuable to the Christian church.
But symbolism is valuable only in so far as it is a constant reminder of the real message. A symbol is like a pane of glass, something to be seen through, not the goal of sight. When it becomes covered with dirt and grime it becomes the object instead of the medium by which the real object is viewed. A mere symbol, without respect to that for which it stands, is worthless. The American flag is only a rag if it does not stand for liberty and democracy. A paper dollar would have no value were it not for our faith in the government that printed it. So it is with the cross. If we carry a cross on our necklace or in our pocket but refuse to carry the cross of Christ in daily life, we are false disciples. If we decorate our churches with many crosses, but are never reminded by them of the loving Savior dying for a sinning world, they miss their true purpose. If the cross does not remind us of the salvation that has been purchased for us through the blood of Christ it profits us nothing.
The full significance of the cross must shine forth. Faith, centered in the cross of Christ, is basic to evangelical Christianity. Basic to our life together as a people called Methodist. Immediately, we see that all forms of salvation by mere human power, by simply being moral and upright citizens, or by doing the best we can, find no place in the cross of Christ. Christianity roots itself deep in the soul of humanity, deeper than emotion and deeper than ethics.
Out of the Reformation sprang three great truths, not necessarily new truths, but clarified truths. The first was that the Bible was the only norm, or standard, of the Christian faith. The second was that salvation was the gift of God’s grace. The third was that this salvation was gained by faith alone. In the light of these great teachings of the church, the cross holds an important place.
Take away the passion history from the Gospels and little is left. The letters of Paul and others glory in the cross of Christ. The book of Revelation depicts the glorious triumph of the saints washed in the blood of the Lamb, because of His sacrifice on the cross. The whole Bible works up to or out from Christ, and the most significant aspect of the earthly life of Christ is the cross.
God’s love and justice meet at the cross. From our own Communion Liturgy we find these words, “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy…”
Based on this confession we have no right to expect salvation from a just God. Based on our own merits we cannot measure up. Humanity is tainted with sin, and sin has far removed us from God’s holiness. Humanity is imperfection and God is perfection.
Nevertheless, God is Love. God is love as well as infinite justice. The meeting place of God’s love and justice is at the cross. On the cross was the fulfillment of the statement, “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
The teaching of Christ suffering on behalf of us all, suffering on the cross for our sins, is often pictured as a horrible and monstrous thing by non-Christians. They cannot believe in a suffering Messiah. Those who do not believe have made such statements as Christ on the cross as being Divine child abuse. They say this because they cannot understand the idea of vicarious suffering, that is someone else, in this case the Son of God, suffering on behalf of us all. Which is odd that this is not understood. After all, isn’t our whole existence based on vicarious suffering? The mothers who gave us birth, they suffered through delivery to give us life. The parents who raised us, they suffered and sacrificed for our benefit. The soldiers who are at this very moment active defending our freedoms and the lives and freedoms of others. These are but a few examples of this universal fact of vicarious suffering. Why, then, should we deny in the spiritual realm what we blindly accept in the physical, material realm?
To win salvation by attaining a state of sinlessness in this life is impossible for us. We cannot do it. For God to blot out our need for Jesus or grant us salvation because God decides to let anything go, doesn’t matter what we do or how we act, or whatever sin we want to be involved in, is impossible for a just and holy God. God’s holiness demands a penalty to be paid for sin. Is there then, any reconciling of these two attributes of God, that is, His love and His justice? Yes, at the cross, where the Son of God and Savior of humanity endured shame, suffering, and death as the price of divine grace toward sinful humanity.
We gain salvation only by faith. Our best efforts can not save us any more than a struggling mouse caught in a trap can save itself. Nor is our salvation conditioned by our intellectual grasp of it. We must believe in Christ, trust in His power to save us, and willingly take on the cross he calls us to bear. The Bible tells us in unmistakable terms that we are to believe that “He was made sin for us,” and that “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin,” and that “by His stripes we are healed.” What the Bible claims, believers have experienced in their own souls.
Critics of Christianity, and there are many, are horrified at the idea of being saved by faith. Actually, they are finding fault with the barren profession, those professing Christ but living as though they’ve never heard of him, living without bearing any fruit; not with genuine faith. Christian faith is the most fruitful thing in the world. A person’s faith must affect their life and a person’s life will certainly reflect their faith.
The cross has taught the world the practice of self-denial, the showing of perseverance in the most intense trials, the lesson of absolute obedience to God’s will, and the hope of a more blessed future with God.
The song I sang this morning has the chorus that affirms Christ is “mighty to save.” Wherever people have placed their trust in Christ and His cross, they have tasted the sweetness of all that is embraced in the word, “salvation.” Look up to the cross, the symbol of the price of our freedom from sin and the symbol of God’s love for you and for me.
Let us pray…
Lord, quite often we look at the cross and fail to see the value that it holds for us. We fail to see and remember the price that was paid when Jesus was nailed to it. Help us Lord, in this Lenten season, to recall the cross as the symbol of your great love for us, and to never take that meaning for granted. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.