“For everyone in the ancient world, the cross was a very public display, a demonstration of the Rome’s power and judgment: this is what happens to enemies of Rome. In addition to inflicting pain, it was meant as a mark of public shame. No one would want to be associated with a crucified criminal. Russell Moore remarks that the shame of crucifixion was something like the shame we associate with being on the sex offenders list. No one would want anything to do with you. As Fleming Rutledge observes, the goal of crucifixion was nothing short of the complete annihilation of the person. It’s not surprising, then, that the cross did not appear in Christian art for the first few centuries of the church. It is even more surprising then that the apostle Paul appealed to the cross as the focal point of his theology. In his first letter to the Corinthians he wrote of his determination “to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and him crucified (2:2). This is Paul’s theology of the cross.” Rankin Wilbourne and Brian Gregor, The Cross Before Me, pp. 61-62.
From a symbol of shame to symbol of life and freedom.
If the goal of Roman crucifixion was the “annihilation of the person,” it failed with our Lord Jesus. In 2000 years of human history, Jesus is the most famous victim of crucifixion. Other than the nameless thief on a cross next to Jesus, can you recall another victim of a Roman cross? Annihilation of the person was the exact result of this practice with one exception. The resurrection of Jesus changed the outcome. The movement Jesus cultivated on earth spread the “good news” about a resurrected and ascended Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit and word of God. The cross was more than the means of Jesus’ atoning death. It is at the heart of how we become and live as a disciple of Jesus.
After the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, life rapidly and drastically changed. I deliberately took a break from weekly reflections on Wilbourne and Gregor’s excellent work on the cruciform life. Now—after our celebration of Easter—it seems fitting to re-engage the topic. How should we live as disciples of the crucified and risen Jesus? What is the path? The model of our Lord, and the shocking theology of Paul points us back to the cross.
The lunacy of the cross!
In a nutshell, what is the theology of the cross? “Instead of showing himself in glory and power, God revealed himself in humility and weakness. Instead of making the message of the cross attractive with a veneer of power and wisdom, Paul emphasizes its weakness and folly. The cross shows a God who became human, lived a life of humility and service, and who chose to suffer and die. How else could this message be heard by ancient people but as lunacy (p. 63).” Lunacy indeed (1 Cor. 1: 18-20). Reflect for a moment on how offensive and foolish the “good news” of a crucified Messiah would have been in a Roman dominated world where power, strength, and achievement were glorified. In our day, people are vilified as lunatics for believing dated stories about a Jewish Messiah who was executed and then resurrected. Then and now, the cross of Christ “is a direct challenge to the theology of glory (p. 64).”
Confronting the theology of glory.
The theology of glory is embedded in the way of the world and has seeped into the thinking and practice of the church. Wilbourne and Gregor give a few examples of the forms the theology of glory take–human reason, prosperity, self-improvement and self-making, and even spirituality itself. All have some value but easily become idols . . . substitutes that steer us clear of the theology and way of the cross. How do we walk in the way of the cross? More about this in weeks to come.
Risen and reigning Lord Jesus, thank you for setting us free from the penalty and power of sin. Because of our union with you, we are identified in your death, burial and resurrection. Help us to live in and out of this new identity. We confess that our flesh is still committed to finding life on our own terms—being smarter, more attractive, more powerful than others. Help us embrace the folly and power of the cruciform life, serving others in anonymity with costly love and service. May we do so even more in these days of purposeful isolation! Amen!