Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

The Scandal of the Cross (Jan-Feb 2001)

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by Mike Cope
January – February, 2001

Philip Yancey has recently written about a weekly “Christian circle” held at a nursing home that is led by his wife, Janet. One of the regulars at the gathering is an Alzheimer’s patient named Betsy. Each week Betsy arrives, as if for the first time. She introduces herself to everyone and responds as if they are complete strangers. She sits through most meetings with a vacant, no-one-is-home stare.

After learning that Betsy can still read, despite her inability to comprehend, Janet began asking her to read passages for the group. One Friday, Betsy was given an old hymn to read. So she began:

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of shuffering and shame.

Betsy stopped abruptly and became agitated. “I can’t go on! It’s too sad! Too sad!”

Everyone was astonished. In all the time they had lived at the senior home with her, they’d never witnessed a moment when Betsy seemed to comprehend the words.

“That’s fine, Betsy,” the leader reassured. “You don’t have to keep reading if you don’t want to.”

But Betsy started again and came to a halt at the same place. With tears trickling, she said (not knowing it had already happened), “I can’t go on! It’s too sad.”

As the scene kept repeating, people began walking away to their rooms. Finally, Janet escorted Betsy to the elevator. And then something unbelievable happened: Betsy began singing the hymn from memory.

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame. And I love that old cross where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain. So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, Till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, And exchange it some day for a crown.

Philip Yancey reflects on this powerful moment with these words:

“Somewhere in that tattered mind, damaged neurons had tapped into a network of old connections to resurrect a pattern of meaning for Betsy. In her confusion, two things only stood out: suffering and shame. Those two words summarize the human condition, the condition she lives in every day of her sad life. Who knows more about suffering and shame than Betsy? For her the hymn answered that question: Jesus does.”

It’s essential for us to remember that at the center of our faith is an old, rugged cross, and that this cross was a place of suffering and shame.

This message – the message of a crucified Christ which Paul preached (1 Corinthians 2:2) – was a stumbling block to the Jews. First-century Jews expected a Suffering Servant to come, and they expected a Messiah. But these were to be two very distinct persons. The Messiah was to follow in the victorious steps of David and Solomon. He was to be an earthly leader who’d recapture the throne in Jerusalem and restore the promised land to the promised people.

With those expectations, who could believe the message of a Christ who had been crucified? Hadn’t the word of God said that “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23)? A crucified, cursed Messiah was an oxymoron to Jews.

And this message was foolishness to Gentiles. Their concept of a leader was someone who was powerful – especially someone who was rhetorically skilled. The notion that God’s Son would come down to earth and be crucified in shame was ridiculous. Crucifixion was a vile, offensive act that was preserved for the most extreme criminals and slaves. As one of their senators said a few decades before Jesus was born:

“To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder. To crucify him is – What? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed.”

To the Jews, the message of the cross was a stumbling block. How could the Messiah have died on a cursed tree? To the Gentiles, the message was foolishness. How could God’s Son have been put to death like a criminal?

It’s hard for us today to understand how scandalous this message was. For one thing, we’ve never seen someone nailed to a cross. (It might change our perspective if one Sunday morning on our way to the church building we passed several people hanging, bleeding, dying on crosses.)

For us the cross has become a symbol for love. It’s even fashionable (a fashion I don’t mind if we can remember the truth of the symbol) to wear crosses in jewelry. What would you think of someone who showed up with a new necklace that contained an electric chair? That’s more the shocking way the cross would have been perceived in the first century.

Now imagine what it would be like if the death of Jesus on the cross became the lens through which we evaluated everything.

What if our discussion of salvation began at the cross? What a scandal! It’s a vivid reminder that we can’t save ourselves. Salvation results not from human insight, human orthodoxy, or human work, but from divine power and mercy in the sacrifice of Christ.

What if our understanding of faith began at the cross? Is it possible we’d quit expecting faith to result in prosperity, happiness, and fulfillment? How can a faith become overly triumphal when the focus of that faith is a cross?

What if our view of leadership began at the cross? Could we see a position of leadership as a place to practice taking up the cross daily and following Christ? Would it be possible to set aside our bitterness and pride and lead with forgiveness and humility?

The words of George MacDonald still ring true for us:

“I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, on the town garbage heap … at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died and that is what he died about.”Wineskins Magazine

Mike Cope

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