Making Sense of the Cross: Event and Experience

Romans 8:31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


1 Corinthians 1:18, 1:27-2:2

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

For the past six weeks, we have been trying to make sense of the cross. Why? Because the cross is at the center of our lives and our faith. And remember, we talked about how the whole entire New Testament exists because of the cross. The entire New Testament is trying to make sense of what happened when Jesus, the Messiah, was crucified and then raised from the dead. If you’ll recall, no one expected the cross. No one expected the long awaited Messiah, who was supposed to come and save the world, to die a criminal’s death.

After that, we spent sometime looking at the four different images of Jesus that each of the four gospels paints. Jesus as the very human one who suffers with us. Jesus as the compassion and forgiving one. Jesus as the strong and confident one.

And then we looked at three different theories on atonement – how the cross solves the problem of separation between God and humanity. The first theory is that Jesus recues us from the hands of the devil. The second is that Jesus pays our debts of sin to God. The third is that Jesus teaches us how to love one another. Each theory has its strengths. But each one also has its limitations.

The primary limitation that they all share is that they all are….well, theories. None of them completely satisfies or does the trick. We have just spent the last three weeks talking about and thinking about the cross, but have we actually experienced the cross? In a way that actually makes a difference in our life? Not in theory but in actuality? Not just in our head, but also in our heart?

For example, let’s say you are going to go on your very first date ever. You can read all the magazines and books on dating and finding the right person. Meaning you can learn about dating in theory, but until you actually go on a date and experience it, you’ll never know what it’s like. I recently heard a story about a guy who would bring spreadsheet of characteristics he wanted in a partner to every date he went on. And at the end of the date, he would grade the person in each category to see if they were worth going out with again. It sounds a little ridiculous doesn’t it? I get the sense that he is trying to take a theory of dating and make it work in real life.

It’s the same way with sports. You can read all the books you want about basketball, but the only way you learn how to play basketball is by playing it. By experiencing it.

And in these theories there is a sense that we miss experiencing the full weight of the cross. It is like the cross is just a tool in God’s larger plan for the world. And all of the plans or theories we come up with, none of them seem to fully make sense. When the truth is, in the story of Jesus found in the gospels, the cross is a messy, scary, and tragic event. An experience.

There is a sense that we have all heard about these theories now, but that doesn’t mean we are going home any different or changed. The theories end up explaining the solution to the problem, but do they actually solve the problem. Do they actually heal our relationship with God in anyway? Do we walk away any different?

So, I want to see if there is a way we can experience the cross, rather try to explain it. I think it begins by going back to the Biblical story. If we were to summarize the story of Jesus, we could say, “Jesus bears God’s presence and love to the world by preaching the coming kingdom of God, teaching people to love each other, doing miracles to feed and heal people, and forgiving people their sins.” Does that sound about right?

But there’s one more thing. The people kill him for it. And I think it is the forgiveness part that is the real reason. The fact that Jesus goes around forgiving people.

You see we often think of forgiveness as a good thing. But forgiveness also implies judgment. So image with me for a moment. Let’s say Lauren and I have a big argument one night. And we both go to bed angry. Then the next, Lauren comes up to me and says, “Honey, about last night…” and I immediately say, “I know, I know. It’s okay. I forgive you.” How do you think Lauren is going to feel? She is going to be angry because I just said that she is the one who did something wrong, right?

To forgive someone always implies judgment or what you’ve done wrong. It points it out; it shines a light on it. And we as human beings don’t like it when other point out our faults or wrongdoings or sinful behavior do we?

When a hospital makes a medical mistake, almost everyone, including the hospital’s insurance want to cover up and hide the mistake as quickly as possible, right? When a person blows the whistle on a politicians for fraudulent or illegal activity, the whistleblower is either paid off or threaten in order to be quiet, right? And it is true in our own lives. Think of a time when you got caught doing something you shouldn’t have done. How did you feel about the person who caught you or told on you? We don’t like it when people point out the wrongs that we have done, do we? To some extent we all participate in crucifying Jesus.

Or think about a time when you felt like someone was judging you. Regardless of whether their judgment was right, I think we could say that to be caught, to be accused, to be judged can feel like dying. It can feel like someone is putting to you to death. It feels awful. We hate it.

But then, when we do come to terms with that fact that we do things in our life that need to be forgiven – when we have done things that hurt other people, or hurt creation – then forgiveness also sounds like the greatest words in the world. Think of a time when someone forgave you for what you did, especially when you thought you didn’t deserve forgiveness. I think we can say that to be forgiven for something that you know you have done can feel like being raised to new life. It can feel like resurrection.

Jesus was put to death because he dared to tell the truth about the sin of those around him. Jesus’ cross reminds us of what we as human beings are capable of. Of the hurt, pain, and destruction we can cause in our own lives but also in the lives of those around us. But then, Jesus comes back again. Why? Because God’s love, and more specifically God’s love for you, is stronger than death. And Jesus once again proclaims forgiveness to us, showing that God’s love for us is bigger than anything we can do.

Jesus’ cross and resurrection do two things. First, they show us our brokenness. What are capable of doing. It shows us that we really are dependent on God, that we can’t just do this all on our own, not needing anyone. Which puts us to death. But the cross and resurrection also show us that all of the awful things  we do can never kill God’s love for us. As Paul says in Romans, nothing, not what we do and not even death can separate us from the love of God. Which then kind of resurrects us, doesn’t it? That makes us come alive again. That we will always be loved.

Or maybe put another way, Jesus’ cross and resurrection tell us two truths from God. The first is this: God says, I know you. I know who you are. I know what you’ve done. I know your hurts and I know your struggles. I know your confusion. Which can feel like death – you know me? Which means you know things that I think. You know what I did last week? How I treated that person at work? What I said to my parents?

But then the cross and resurrection tell us a second truth from God. I love you, God says. I know you and I love you. I know what you’ve done and said in your life, but I still love you. I don’t love the person you hope to be. Or the person you promise to be. I don’t love only your best self. I love you. Exactly as you are today. Here and now. God loves us and will hold on to us no matter what. And that brings us back to life.

For God, law and rules are not more important than love. For God, good behavior is not more important than the relationship itself. And that is not just talking and thinking about Jesus’ cross and resurrection. That is experiencing Jesus cross and resurrection. That is not talking about atonement, that is doing atonement. Practicing it. Thinking about where in our own life we are experiencing death and resurrection.

And that, as Paul says, is the foolishness of the Crucified Christ. That in your life, God will continue to say, “I know you. And I love you.” God will never not say those words to you.

And now, knowing that you forever have God’s promise of love and life, you are free. You are free to be who God created you to be. God will work through you as God sends you out to go and make a difference in the world. Knowing that you will make mistakes. You will screw up. But that God will love you still. You are free to love, forgive, and care for others because you have been loved, forgiven, and taken care of. And then, not only do we experience atonement, but we become a community of atonement. A community that says, “I know you. I know what you’ve done in your life….AND I love you.” And in that community, the god found in the vulnerable Jesus, the man hanging on a tree, the god who was crucified but also raised from the dead, the god who is like a foolish parent that just can’t stop loving the children of God, that God will be present in that community. Loving, forgiving, sustaining and creating new life. May we be a community of the Cross. Thanks be to God. Amen


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