Some of you know that I drove across a large portion of our country this past week. My almost 94-year old dad decided to relocate from Philadelphia to Tulsa, Oklahoma to live near my sister. I appointed myself as chauffer of my dad’s Buick, and together we successfully crossed seven states in two and a half days. On Friday I flew back to Colorado. I really do enjoy road trips, and this one was an opportunity hear stories and share memories and family history. Apart from one unintended detour of my own making when I missed a route marker, we took the fastest and most direct route possible. There is a whole lot that I missed along the way, because all that really mattered in terms of geography last week was getting from point A to point B and getting back here for Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday is about a road trip, albeit a very short one. Jesus and the disciples took the winding road from Bethany on the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. It’s really the next week, though, that involved detours and important sights along the way. That’s the week we call Holy Week, and our commemoration of that week stretches before us for the next several days. It’s easy to jump from point A to point B, in other words from Palm Sunday to Easter. Not everyone comes out to Holy Week services, and honestly the events of Thursday and especially Friday are uncomfortable. It’s human nature to avoid suffering and death, and, for progressive Christians, the theological and practical questions attached to the cross can be challenging.
On Tuesday of last week, I stayed in Effingham, Illinois, which for the last fifteen years has been the site of the tallest cross in the world. It is described in the online journal “Roadside America” in this way: “Lording over Interstate highways 57 and 70, the ‘Cross at the Crossroads’ was built for broadly noble religious reasons -- and to out-size every other big American cross out there, especially the giant cross in Groom, Texas, which was both its inspiration and its toughest competition. 198 feet tall and 113 feet wide, forged out of over 180 tons of steel anchored in untold fathoms of cement, the cross can withstand winds hurled by the evilest of forces at up to 145 mph. Its stark, slab-sided design conveys the corporate utility of a logo -- no distracting crucifixion blandishments, just the plainest symbol of Christianity.”
The cross is the symbol of our faith, but not every Christian has the same understanding of the meaning of the cross, or more specifically Jesus death on the cross. Driving across the Midwestern United States, I saw what seemed like countless billboards warning people about the danger of spending in hell. Blue skies and beautiful clouds were on the left side of a particularly large sign next to the highway, and vivid flames and smoke were on the right. The two sides were helpfully labelled “heaven” and “hell” for the sake of passersby. For many people, the Christian faith is essentially a way to escape the flames and enjoy an afterlife free from suffering. The cross for them is what makes that possible.
Growing up in a conservative religious environment, I never questioned simple statements like “Jesus died for my sins.” I knew that Jesus was killed on a cross on Good Friday before Easter and that his death was called a sacrifice that acted to wiped out any sins I might ever commit as long as I asked God to forgive me. That is what Christianity meant to me, and that understanding of the cross remains unquestioned for many if not most Christians. What is not widely known is that not all Christians have believed that historically, and in fact that particular view of Jesus’ death was not prevalent for many years after the crucifixion.
If you visit Jerusalem during Holy Week, you can rent a wooden cross made out of two-by-fours and follow the fourteen Stations of the Cross through the old city. The stations attempt to harmonize the various Gospel accounts by highlighting various moments between Jesus’ trial and his burial. Our Scripture reading today began with Station Five as Simon was forced to carry the cross for Jesus and ends with Station Twelve as Jesus took his last breath. The cross that Jesus and Simon dragged through the rough streets of Jerusalem wasn’t made of light lumber like the crosses rented today to tourists. It was heavy, and its heaviness is a metaphor even today for its profound significance in the Christian church.
There have always been different theories about the cross and the meaning of Jesus’ death, too many to review here in a sermon. It seems to me, though, that they fall into three primary categories. The first I’ll mention is the most recently developed in Christian history and is largely credited to the 11th century theologian Anselm. One of the phrases used for theory is “substitutionary atonement.” It is what is usually meant when someone says “Jesus died for our sins.” The idea is that a holy God is deeply offended by sin to the point that a sacrifice is required to appease God’s anger. Although we individually deserve eternal death, Jesus became a substitute for us and his death was in our place so that we can avoid hell through personally accepting his sacrifice on our behalf. Again, that view has become so much a part of Christian thinking and culture that it is rarely questioned.
Another view, much older, goes back to the second century and was first championed by one of the early church fathers by the name of Irenaeus. It is known by various titles included “Christus victor,” meaning Christ is victorious. This understanding of Jesus’ death is set in the context of a cosmic battle between good and evil. Satan wants to defeat God’s good purposes, and Jesus is victorious over Satan by offering his own self in exchange for the lives of imperfect human beings.
If we go even further back in time, we see another historic view of the cross that is especially common among progressive Christians today. It appears to have been the predominant belief through the earliest centuries of Christianity and is known as the Moral Influence theory. In simple terms, it means that Jesus’s life of love and sacrifice and self-giving was most clearly seen in his death for crimes for which he was innocent. The moral influence theory places great emphasis on the life and the ethical teachings of Jesus found in the gospels. His martyrdom stands as an example of perfect love as well as a reminder of the cost that doing the work of justice may require.
Some people cling strongly to one of these theories and reject others. Some see compatibility at points. What is clear is that not all Christians agree now, nor have they ever in the past, about the deepest meaning of the cross. I’m OK with that, and I simply encourage people to explore their faith and ask questions and consider what seems to make the most sense to them. In my own spiritual journeying, I have found theories that major on punishment and Jesus’ sacrifice as a payment demanded by an angry God unsatisfactory. Others have drawn different conclusions, though, and certainly within our church there is room for different beliefs.
This week a young father was shown on film after his wife and nine month old twins died in the chemical weapons attack in Syria. He rode in a van, holding the bodies of his infant daughter and son as a family member videotaped him saying goodbye to them. He told reporters later that he thought his wife and children were ok and went to find other family members, twenty of whom perished in all. While he was away, his children took their last breaths and succumbed to the poison. I think many were moved by the obvious, deep love of a father for his children. People talk about God as a loving parent, and then in the next breath speak of an enraged deity turning away from the son, Jesus, as he suffered on the cross. Our Gospel reading ends with the words, “Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.” My picture of God in that moment is of the father in Syria, holding his children tightly and weeping. Jesus’ death was a grave injustice, and those who loved him and knew he was the victim of others’ hate also stood by and wept.
This morning we learned of more victims of hatred on the news as dozens of Christians in Egypt were killed by bombs set off during Palm Sunday services. When will bombs and chemical weapons and electric chairs and automatic rifles and other means of violence cease to kill people created in God’s image? The story of Palm Sunday in the gospels tells of crowds that got worked up over a potential messiah and shouted in excitement and waved branches to welcome the new king. And within days they shouted for his death and welcomed his execution. The cross is a tragic reminder of the human impulse to inflict violence. That cross is also a reminder that love can be so deep and so strong that it will not be stopped even when faced with the possibility of suffering and death.
May this week be holy for you. May you find comfort during difficult days, knowing that Jesus also suffered. And may you find hope in the promise of renewed life just ahead. Amen.