The Church exists to call the whole world into a reconciled relationship with God through a relationship with Jesus Christ by the way of the cross. Everything that we say and do is accountable to this identity. Yet as a practical matter, we have spent centuries trying to fully understand the implications of this identity and this mission.
Although each part of this identity deserves discussion and explication, in my pastoral experience the most paradoxical, and countercultural element continues to be what we mean by “the way of the cross,” and as I begin my term as Bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, I would like to spend some time sharing my own thoughts about it.
Because the cross embodies the grace of God, it is essential to understand that “grace” actually has a two-part definition. Grace is:
- The love of God accepting us unconditionally as we are; AND
- The love of God calling us to become more than we have ever been before.
Both components of this definition are necessary and they must be understood in this sequence. If we are required to “become something more” in order to be acceptable grace collapses into simple moralism or works righteousness. But if grace is merely unconditional acceptance, the transformational power of grace is lost. Grace collapses into what Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace,” or what might now be called co-dependent enabling. Jesus did not die a horrible death on the cross because everything was just fine the way it was. The cross changes the world; it does not keep the world from changing.
The “first face” of the cross, which emphasizes just how complete and unconditional God’s love and acceptance is, is the face best known to Lutherans, primarily because in the polemic of his time, this was the face that Martin Luther wrote about most frequently and passionately. But the letters of St. Paul, from which Luther derived much of his theology, never speak of this without returning to the “second face” of the cross; namely, the call to become children of light and spirit, transformed, and transcending what we were before our encounter with Christ crucified. The perennial threat to Protestant theology is the bifurcation of grace into benign acceptance without a clear call to change.
This second face of the cross, our response to God’s acceptance, is a rejection and reversal of the arrogance of human ego, which deludes us into believing that we can be God apart from God. In a more specific way, if the four arms of the cross are seen as vectors or arrows pointing away from the center, these arms represent four impulses that always trip us up:
1. Ego teaches us to condemn all that is strange, alien, or different from ourselves
2. Ego teaches us to deny our own guilt and finitude
3. Ego teaches us to cling to illusion and false sources of security and life
4. Ego teaches us to flee from that which we fear or do not understand
The cross calls us to reverse the direction of each of these vectors and points us once again to the center of the cross:
1. The cross teaches us to forgive that which we are inclined to condemn
2. The cross teaches us to confess that which we would rather deny
3. The cross teaches us to surrender the very thing to which we desperately cling
4. The cross teaches us to confront what we are trying so hard to run away from
As a practical daily discipline then, both for individual Christians, and perhaps for congregations, synods, and church bodies as well, the cross calls us to fearlessly ask four questions:
1. What am I condemning today that I need to forgive?
2. What am I denying today that I need to confess?
3. What am I clinging to today that I need to let go?
4. What am I running from that I need to turn around and face?
But once we have returned to this center, the cross does not hold us there. The cross sends us out again in all directions:
1. We are sent out to work for justice and peace in the world
2. We are sent out in compassion to serve the needs of others
3. We are sent out in gratitude and generosity to share what is entrusted to us
4. We are sent out to bear witness to the power of the cross in the larger world
Unfortunately, of course, sin is still at work in our members and our virtuous and joyous commission finds itself transformed yet again:
1. Our justice work almost immediately leads us into a posture of rage and condemnation of our enemies
2. Our compassion slips into “there but for the grace of God go I,” which is a denial of our own need and solidarity with the suffering of others
3. Our gratitude subtly slips into clinging tighter to the things we are grateful for
4. Our passion for saving the big world out there becomes flight from the things we need to attend to in our own back yard
And so the Cross of Christ breathes us in and breathes us out; every day we die to sin and rise with Christ… only to rediscover the need to die to sin once again.
The way of the cross is not a theological abstract. It is a lifestyle. It is a lifestyle that seems every bit as foolish and scandalous here in the American Empire as it appeared to those in the Roman Empire. But for those who are called, it is still the wisdom of God and the power of God. And the challenge before us today as a Church in the midst of a society with many saviors and many gospels, our very being may well depend on our willingness and ability to hold to this and this alone as the center.