The shame of the cross

Lee Gatiss

The Apostle Paul talks about not being ashamed of the gospel (Romans 1:16). He also encourages his co-worker Timothy not to be ashamed of Jesus or of Paul himself, when he is in prison (2 Timothy 1:8). I've often wondered how that kind of shame might manifest itself, both then and now in us (musing on it in my expositions of 2 Timothy 1, for example). Especially in a culture where we have celebrity atheists scoffing at Christianity because they say it's so petty, it's so trivial, it's so local, it's so earth-bound, it's so unworthy. How can a man dying as a criminal, nailed up on a piece of wood, naked before the crowds, be anything special or anything to me?

I think one reaction we sometimes have is to hide the shame and apparent powerlessness of the cross.  Many of us are tempted do it, for instance, intellectually.  We want to grasp the logic of God, to see behind what's going on at the cross and consider God's plan just in the abstract or the long term, and not in the blood and the guts and the pain. We even talk about "the atonement" or "the cross", in the abstract like I just did, as if it were just a concept, and not an horrific instrument of torture and barbaric cruelty.

But that is to miss something vitally important.  Seeing through the cross to what's behind it - focusing just on the mechanics of atonement - can be a way of avoiding looking directly at it, in all its weakness, ugliness, powerlessness, and silliness.  Sometimes our doctrinal defensiveness can be just another form of self-defence - if we can neatly fold the cross into a nice orderly framework of thinking, then it won't hurt us.  It won't challenge us.  We've got it sussed.

A true theologian of the cross has to look at the cross as it is, not look behind it.  The message of Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, Paul told the Corinthians.  But sometimes as Christians, although we know somehow that it's the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24) we don't like it, we don't want it to be weak and stupid.  We don't want people to think we are weak and stupid...

That's what was going on in Corinth I think. There was too much Corinth in the Corinthian church. They were far too interested in outward appearance.  After all, the word of the cross and the way of the cross was nonsensical in their environment.  Can you imagine the PR men in Corinth chatting it over with Paul?  "Not a good marketing strategy for your product, old boy, talking about a man dying on a cross.  Might work with some weak-minded folks who need a crutch and an inspiring example of suffering.  But not here in Corinth.  Gotta be more upbeat, old chap.  Go for the glory rather than the gory.  That'll work better here, according to our focus groups."

Which of course was exactly the strategy the devil had offered Jesus.  When he tempted him in the desert he offered Jesus all the glory, all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:8), without a cross, without pain, without suffering.  But he chose a different way.  He turned down the chance of conventional power and influence when it was offered to him on a plate.  And he succeeded in winning our salvation and glory for himself, seated on a throne made of roughly-cut wood and smeared in his own bodily fluids. Nasty.

But the Corinthian idea of success, and too often the evangelical idea of success is measured in terms of worldly indicators isn't it?  Bums on pews (as we Anglicans sometimes put it), performance style/liturgical correctness, popularity, money, Twitter followers, number of franchises opened in the last 10 years, prestige of location, publishing deals. Are we so busy building marbled platforms for ourselves, that we've forgotten what the cross is really all about?

Revd Gatiss denies he is just giving out extracts from his new book The Forgotten Cross (published by Evangelical Press) as a way of raising awareness of this ideal Lent book or "Book of the Term" for small groups...


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