Crossfunction: August 2007

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Preaching Christ crucified

A Christian friend who describes himself as "non-denominational" mentioned that Protestant churches usually display a cross, not a crucifix, and that some Protestants "have a problem" with Catholic churches displaying a crucifix. 'After all, Jesus isn't on the cross any more, is He? He rose from the dead. That's the whole point, isn't it?'

Now wait just a second. How does a crucifix -a cross with an image of Christ crucified- deny the resurrection? A crucifix doesn't deny the resurrection any more than a bare cross denies the crucifixion. Clearly neither is the case. So why do some Protestants object to a crucifix, which preaches visually what words often struggle to express about the depth of Christ's love? I'm at a loss to find a good reason to object to an image of Jesus dying for my sins.

Saint Paul didn't seem to think it inappropriate to point to the historical event of the crucifixion as a central reality of the faith. In his words,

"we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."
-1 Corinthians 1:23-24 RSV

Paul acknowledges that "Christ crucified" is indeed a cause for offense, but not among "those who are called", not among those willing to accept "the power of God and the wisdom of God" on God's terms.

During that same conversation, my friend expressed reservations about the idea that God may use created objects as instruments of transmitting grace. Take for example, the woman who was healed of a hemorrhage upon touching Jesus' cloak. Or, those who were healed upon contact with Paul's handkerchief or Peter's shadow. Or Naaman's healing from leprosy upon bathing in the Jordan -despite his complaints about having to submit to such a ritual (cf. 2 Kings 5). Don't these incidents suggest the participants were swayed by superstition, wrongly attaching spiritual significance to material objects? Don't such things take our eyes away from God and toward created things?

Come on. If this is the case then the cross of Christ is a distraction that takes our eyes off Christ, and Christian churches should refuse to display crosses. But Saint Paul wrote,

"...far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."
-Galatians 6:14 RSV

It is not wrong to glory "in the cross of our Lord", for God made the cross to be an instrument of our salvation. Drawing near the cross we draw near Christ,

"...and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me."
-Matthew 10:38 RSV

Jesus did not despise the lowliness of His wooden cross, this key instrument of our salvation. He could have saved us without the cross, but in the wisdom of God even the lowliest and most despised elements of creation take on huge importance in the economy of salvation. In His desire to unite us to Himself, He not only condescends to man, but teaches man to condescend to receive help through the vessels He has chosen. This truth reflects the humility and glory of our Savior:

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: 'The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?"
-Matthew 21:42 RSV

Does Paul confuse Christ with the cross, or attribute the power of God to the cross itself? Of course not. But nor does he fail to recognize that God has incorporated into His plan of salvation the material universe which He Himself created. He has used and continues to use created things as instruments of salvation, conduits of grace, and vessels of honor. This is what He made them for! And this is how we should regard them... and use them.

Similarly, people whose faith was great enough to recognize God's eagerness to involve His own creatures in the salvation of the world overcame any pride or hesitation they may have felt, and reached out for contact with that cloak or handkerchief, that shadow, or that river... and through these things encountered the divine. And thousands were healed both in spirit and flesh.