It is so much easier to float through life, letting things lie right where you left them, status quo, and unquestioned. Harder is asking why. Why is something the same after so long, when so many other things have changed around it, and not only the world, but you have changed. It is hard to ask the Lutheran question “what does this mean?” when we are likely to be unhappy, or uncomfortable, with the answer. Asking questions of faith also taps into a larger insecurity with many people and they are unwilling to discuss, and especially allow examination of, things that are deeply rooted in tradition or their expression of faith. The Cross is one such thing. When we ask “What does the cross mean?“ our answers reveal something of our faith, and that may reveal more about us than we are willing to admit. Here are some honest answers, but none of them are easy.
Grace – This is the safest of answers because all Christians are fans of grace. And it is true that we understand our forgiveness, and God’s grace in giving it, through Jesus’ death on the cross. But it is not an easy answer because it leads to other questions. Why? Why did God choose such a gruesome expression of love? Grace is given not earned, and if Jesus’ death was substitutionary then does that make God’s grace earned not given, even though it wasn’t earned by us?
Tool – It may be the best illustration or teaching tool about love in our faith. For we are all familiar with “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13) If the question were only about love we could leave it at that. But this symbol of cruel torture has much more of a central place in our worship, devotion and expression of faith. And it carries much more baggage than a one-use sermon illustration.
Burden – This may be a summary of our understanding of discipleship. And it is true that being a person of faith in a secular world has challenges. Matthew, Mark and Luke all quote Jesus as saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Lk 9:23) Every disciple knows times where the slog of following feels like this all the time. But if this is all there is then we are simply masochists.
Identity – Many times a symbol will be the identifying marker for a group, and the cross of Jesus certainly identifies Christians. But Christians in every generation have made their identity an “over against” identity. Taking Paul’s letter to the Philippians and making it a battle cry. “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18) Christian identity does not require oppositional relationship with others. In fact the Christian call to pray and care for others, even enemies, is far more of a mandate.
Decoration – Symbols can become like furniture. When we use them more to adorn our spaces, our buildings or ourselves, our consideration of the symbol becomes a focus on how to display it rather than what it means. And a question about your cross necklace is answered with information about your church, instead of an introduction to the one who died and was raised.
Joy – Christian understanding of God is all tied up in our understanding of Jesus, and of course that includes the cross. Jesus died on the cross, was raised from the dead, and promised that we would experience the same. There is hope in this symbol. “[Jesus], who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2) But even joy may be a hard emotion to reconcile with this symbol.
When you answer “What does the Cross mean?” your answer may be one of these, it may be all of these, or it may be none of these. But your answer still matters. Asking the questions that evaluate the things of faith can be uncomfortable, but to not ask and stay with “the way we’ve always done things” is not faithful. Ask the question, own your answer, then share your answer with others.