Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Persecution of the Cross

Gone from the western church

“What is gone,” you ask, “the persecution or the cross?” Both. They have a symbiotic relationship. When the church preaches and lives the cross it will always have spiritual power, but it will also endure persecution. The cross is both a stumbling block and foolishness to the lost world, and in this age of human intellect and technology the cross is little more than a fable and a religious talisman. But because of the absence of the cross in the western church, the pews are filled with all kinds of unregenerate sinners who love the shows and are aided by the good advice coming from the pulpit.

It has become patriotic to attend church and be seen as “God fearing”, whatever that means these days. I mean who fears God anymore? The church has become a three ring circus complete with celebrations of the national origins, sensationalism, and all kinds of special days. And although the cross sometimes makes a cameo in the statement of faith, and even sometimes is spoken of from the pulpit, it no longer is where we take our spiritual stand. Abortion, gay marriage, morality, and some other issues are now what elicit our warfare.

But let us examine the origins of the faith rather than the origins of any nation. When we say “the cross” we mean the sacrifice that Jesus made upon those Roman planks. Either He did die for a payment for the sins of the world or He did not, and if He did, than the cross must be the foundation for our faith. The resurrection substantiated the victory, but the sufferings on the cross satisfied the justice of Almighty God. But somewhere along the line the cross became an aside as the church battled for control of the culture and the nation at large.

But a church without the cross is not a church at all. It may be religious, and it may even help people get earthly victory from various addictions and sins, but it still is not a Christian church. Without the cross all these little local assemblies are little more than watering holes for goats and centers of religious affiliations where people can gather periodically and feel good. And even though by God’s amazing grace some people get saved, that still does not justify their spiritual existence. The cross must be at the heart of everything the church does as well as we as individual believers.

But who really dwells and meditates upon the cross anymore? Our minds are consumed with earthly issues and earthly endeavors. Saving a nation is more important than the cross. Your personal finances are more important than the cross. Iran is more important than the cross. The election is way more important than the cross. Almost anything is now more important than the cross. And because of that, the average believer lives with different levels of discontent and is always open to something new to energize and excite him.

But professing ourselves to be wise, we have become fools. Our church growth strategies are cross-less. Our debt ridden buildings are cross-less. Our capital raising schemes are cross-less. Our political activities are cross-less. Our marriage conferences are cross-less. The western church has left the glory and the persecution of the cross and has headed for greener and more sophisticated pastures. And the masses do not desire to feast at Golgotha. We want the leeks and garlic of this hedonistic culture and with that we are satisfied for a moment. It is all so carnal.

But Paul preached Christ and Him crucified. How quaint. How Neanderthal. How archaic. Surely we have moved beyond that kind of preaching. This post modern age requires much more than an old fashioned, cross centered theology. How can Jesus help me succeed here and now. Oh we do not deny the cross outwardly, but with our preaching and practice we have relegated it to the back of the doctrinal bus. We are attacked because of our pro-life convictions or our traditional marriage stand, but who scolds the church because of our love for the cross? Let us be honest, the church has become embarrassed by the cross in this sophisticated society.

Just listen to the moralist and capitalist rhetoric offered by so many in the evangelical camp. It is a cross-less brand of religion that champions the Ten Commandments instead of the bloody sacrifice at Calvary. It heralds capitalism and prosperity rather than His crimson stripes. It calls for the spreading of Americanism rather than the everlasting gospel. The church is wandering in spiritual darkness and the absence of the cross in preaching and in lives gives undisputable evidence of this blindness.

Gal.6:14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.

Who says such a thing anymore? Who lives their lives daily with a view toward that cross? Who denies themselves, not just in material luxuries, but denies themselves in thought, word, and deed in deference to His thoughts, His Word, and His very life? The western Christian life as it is now defined and accepted has no room for the cross except in a quick appearance in salvation and then is hidden away like an embarrassing uncle. And when the cross is treated like so much fringe theology what you have is no longer the Christian faith.

The cross must be our life. But how, you ask, can we incorporate an event which took place thousands of years ago? And there is the problem. We no longer even ask that question much less seek it. What effect should the cross of Jesus Christ have on the life of a believing follower of Jesus Christ? Paul says that he glories in that cross and in that glory the world is crucified unto him. So when a person places the cross of Christ as his life in principle and in substance, then the desires of this world fall powerless. His life is empowered by the sheer force of that cross and he walks in a different spirit and kingdom.

The cross is the portal through which a sinner can gain eternal life. This is no religious perspective that can be discussed or diluted or compromised. This is the foundation upon which our faith is built, and after a sinner has come to faith in Christ and been redeemed through that cross, well, his journey has only just begun. Now we are exhorted to pick up that cross as if it were our very own. The sacrifice, the self denial, the humility, and the love must now be the distinguishing features of our earthly lives. And our message must always be that the cross alone is God’s offer of redemption for mankind.

Gal.6: 17 From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.

The word “marks” in the Greek is our word “stigma”. Paul says that in his body he bears the stigma of the cross. Oh my, what a glorious thought! And yet there were no nail scars on Paul’s hands and feet, so what is he saying to and for us? Well first we must take a look, a gaze, a concentration, and a personal witness in the spirit of the cross. The word “cross” seems so antiseptic and doctrinal, but please allow me a humble and painfully incomplete attempt to unfold the reality contained in that one word, the “cross”.

God is a spirit and even that cannot be defined with human minds and words. He is above all things and he has created all things. The Word, now who is called Yeshua or Jesus, created us knowing our plight. Who makes something they know will become their enemy? But even before creation, in a profound mystery, the Word had already seen Himself upon that cross. In Bethlehem He enters a body that had been prepared for Him. There are volumes written about the nature of the incarnation, but in some ways they are finite guesses. What the Scripture tell us is that Jesus was God in the flesh and God with us. The invisible God put on the clothing of human flesh and was revealed in the likeness of sinful flesh. Would you put on a Charles Manson face? Would you put on a Jerry Sandusky mask? And yet God so loved the world that He put on our mask. Just that concept alone is unthinkable.

But as He walked this earth He did many miracles of compassion and love. But do not expect applause and appreciation, and if there was some appreciation it was fleeting. In the end He walked a path which would end alone. He enters Jerusalem with the shouts and praises of people who had their own desires in mind. They desired to use Jesus and would have been shocked and repulsed if they knew what events would befall Him. Nothing has changed through the centuries.

We are allowed a sacred seat in Gethsemane’s garden as we watch and hear the agony which He now experiences. Alone in the world, He begins to sense an impending separation from His Father, with whom He shares the divine essence along with the Spirit. He prays alone and sweats blood, The sacrifice has begun. Is this story boring? Has it lost its luster? Does it now seem stale and archaic? Make no mistake, this garden was the sacred place of preparation and the Spirit has offered us a privileged vision. This is no story, this is life everlasting.

The Shepherd is arrested in front of His sheep and taken away to be judged and condemned by wicked men. Yes, the men for whom He will give His life will now mock Him and condemn Him to death. But before He is even allowed to be condemned they must prepare Him. And how do they prepare Him who created and loved them? His back is laid bare and becomes a place for flesh shredding lashes. Over and over again they beat him until His back is nothing more than a bloody mess. They punch His face and pluck at His beard. His face swells and His eyes become slits. Could you bear to watch this even if the man was a criminal? It would be most excruciating to witness, and yet this was the sinless Lamb.

He is being mocked and made a laughing stock, and they put a robe around Him and press down a crown of thorns and mock Him unmercilessly. And there he stands, barely. The Creator of the Universe, battered and bruised and bloodied. A pitiful spectacle to be sure. This Author of Love has willingly submitted Himself into the hands of wicked men, and given His face for their fallen spittle. He is disgusting to behold. Repulsive, loathsome, and sickening. And this is supposed to be our Rescuer, our Messiah? Oh, but there is more, much more.

You see, this is the kind of rhetoric which turns off the modern crowd. And even to the average church crowd it is mostly sentimental. It elicits some sympathy, but only as fleeting doses. But now He is made to drag His own cross to the place of His death, only helped by one lowly man. He arrives on the small hill know as Golgotha, the place of the skull. Perhaps this is where it got its name.

The sweaty workers quickly go about their ghastly business. The hands and feet of Jesus are nailed to two boards, and with a thud He is raised up off the earth. He made those planks, He made those nails, He made those soldiers, and yet there He is. Gasping for breath and writhing in pain, the blood continues to cover His being. He is dying. The guiltless dies for the guilty, the sinless for the sinful. Just what mystery is contained in this death? Here we have a dying Jew and yet there is something that surpasses human knowledge occurring here. The suffering is immeasurable, the pain unbearable, and yet there He dies publicly.

What transpired in the spirit for those hours changed the universe. And at the end, He breathes His last, lowers His head, and dies. He is dead. The glory of God, wrapped in blood and death, and shrouded in mystery. Human words can only give structure to this narrative, but only the Spirit can lead us into a piece of this redemptive reality. Man searches for meaning, and he looks to connect intellectually to the universe, but rarely does he pause to consider what has happened at Calvary.

Does a man addicted to heroin look at a comet and is set free? Does a woman who cuts herself study geology and is released from her self mutilation? Does a man who cannot control his violence read about human cells and is suddenly transformed? Do degrees from universities create new human beings who are now free from the ravages of the fallen condition? Have all the nutritious foods and all the vitamins and all the exercise given mankind eternal life? And yet millions have taken a vicarious journey to the cross and believed that the Jew they see is God in the bloody flesh paying for their sins, and in a moment in time they were changed forever.

And this is the cross which we are called to champion, embrace, emulate, and live. This is no stagnant doctrine of the faith which is dusted off on Easter. This is more than a church pageant. This cross in all its brutal glory must be our passion. But the church has lost the stigma of the cross. Oh we are castigated for our moral stands and our overtures to return to days gone by. We are reviled for our Judeo-Christian ethics and our support for traditional marriage. Issues we have in abundance, and we are well informed and well versed in those issues. And we do not shrink when it comes to voicing these and other issues. In those we are bold moral and political witnesses.

But when it comes to the cross we will show our doctrinal card if we must, but we are embarrassed to speak openly and with specificity about that bloody tree. An innocuous mention once in a while in church must suffice, but in public we must relate to the world on their ground. We love to argue, but we hate to die. We love to complain, but we hate to die. We love to organize, but we hate to die. We love to vote, but we hate to die. We love to condemn, but we hate to die. We love America, but we hate to die.

And if we do not die, then we do not love the cross. And if we do not love the cross, then we do not love Jesus. And if we do not love Jesus, then we only love ourselves. And if we love ourselves, then we need not die anyway, because we were never alive in the first place. And the death in which the church now walks is not the death of His cross, it is the death of trespasses and sins. And in that death there is no resurrection. We have become demonstrative corpses. Without the cross as a living template the church is a religious mausoleum full of dead men’s bones. These bones speak and prosper and work and build and have activities and present doctrines and statements of faith. These bones are evangelical bones, but they cannot eradicate the smell of spiritual death without the cross.

God help us to allow the Spirit to awaken us once again the source of all life, both here and forever, the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

Nina Stone said...

POWERFUL. Thank you.