The cross was one of the most shameful and disgusting symbols of the ancient world. It was how the Romans would quell insurrections and it served as a powerful message: the Roman Empire is not to be trifled with. In 73 BC, if you were to walk the Appian Way, a highway leading from Rome to Capua, you would have encountered 6,000 bodies writhing in agony on wooden crosses. This was the conclusion of the famous slave revolt lead by Spartacus. And this is what happened when you took on Rome. This is the message Rome wanted you to hear. Bodies were often left on the cross until they completely deteriorated so that all who passed by would see, smell, and never forget this message. The cross was the symbol of the power and might of the Roman Empire. It was a vivid illustration of the power of death.
The cross was a huge hurdle to overcome in early Christian evangelism because it was the very symbol of failure, defeat, and death. The cross meant you lost to Rome. It meant the world won. And this is the symbol that Christians adopted as their own. Paul writes, “we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). The success of early Christian evangelism is one of the greatest evidences of the Spirit’s power to convict through the Christian message. The cross was not an easy message to accept.
But today when we think of the cross, we don’t usually view it with such difficulty. When we see a cross we don’t think of the greatness and fierceness of Rome. We don’t think of the failure of Jesus. Rather, we are reminded of Jesus’ love and sacrifice. We think of the grace of God. We think of a revolution that changed the world. The cross, which was Rome’s symbol of power, became their very undoing. Jesus hijacked the cross and changed its meaning entirely.
In 2018, at the Jackson Street church of Christ, we will focus on the cross of Jesus. But we will try to emphasize it in a way that is sometimes tragically neglected. Absolutely, the cross is our hope of salvation and forgiveness. On the cross, Jesus died for our sins. This is an essential, foundational Christian message. But the cross also came to be something else. The cross became the paradigm in which early Christian communities lived. The cross became the symbol, not only of our forgiveness before God, but also for how we ought to treat one another.
Ephesians 4:32-5:2, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”
Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”
Philippians 2:3-11, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for our own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
1 John 3:16-18, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”
Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
These are just a sampling of the many passages where the death of Jesus is used as the example that we are to follow in the way we treat others. The cross is certainly the means by which we are forgiven. But it is also the means by which we forgive others. The cross is how husbands ought to treat their wives. The cross is how to solve disputes in the Lord’s body. The cross is the way of unity between Jew and Gentile. The cross is how we show our love for each other.
The cross is the ultimate display of living out the Sermon on the Mount. It is the foundational Christian ethic. It is the most sincere presentation of self-sacrificial love that the world has ever seen. And that love is the foundation of our Christian community. We want to grow as a community in 2018. We want to grow in our love. That only happens when we become a “Community of the Cross.”