Holy Cross-: John 3: 13-17

The Revd Dr Mark Bratton
Sunday 14th September, 2014


One of the items on my bucket-list of things to do before I move on from Berkswell is to lead a Church pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the political situation allowing of course. One of the sites that would undoubtedly be on the itinerary is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, perhaps the most important church in the world. According to legend, it was there on that site that in the year 326 that the Empress Helena, the mother of the first Christian Emperor of Rome, Constantine, discovered the cross of Christ, otherwise known as the Holy Cross, or True Cross. The story goes that Helena ordered the destruction of the pagan temple that the Emperor Hadrian had constructed around Calvary and they had site carefully excavated, in the process of which three crosses were discovered. In order to identify the True Cross, she had a mortally ill women brought to her who touched two of the Crosses to no effect but who experienced complete recovery when she touched the third. The True Cross became one of the most prized relics in medieval Christianity, with innumerable churches claiming to have a portion. Indeed, the great Reformer John Calvin said that "if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load."

Today, the Church celebrates Holy Cross Day. It was on this date, the 14th September, in the year 335 that the site of the True Cross, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was dedicated. Today is therefore a very good day to ask: What, if anything, did the Cross achieve? Does the killing of Jesus on the Cross really matter?


It is clear that the Cross was a matter of absolutely central importance for the earliest Christians. However, it is difficult for us two thousand years later to fully appreciate how unpromising this now non-negotiable tenet of Christian belief was for a nascent community that was appealing to both a Jewish and a Greco-Roman audience. For a Jewish audience, the idea that the Jewish Messiah would achieve his central objectives for Israel by dying what all Jews at the time would have regarded an accursed death was patently absurd: “Accursed is he who hangs on a tree”. For a non-Jewish constituency, the notion that the grisly execution of a Jewish criminal might have significance for the whole cosmos was sheer silliness. As the Apostle Paul so succinctly puts it, the Cross is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

Yet this is precisely what the first Christians insisted upon, that the death on the Cross of this particular Galilean prophet, was of universal significance, fundamentally altering the terms of the relationship between God and humankind. However, the NT does not explain exactly how this changed relationship comes about. All we are really told is that the spilling of Jesus’ blood somehow enables God to forgive our sins and to liberate us from the dark forces which have power over us and keep us in oppression.

As a result, a number of different theories have been advanced to explain how Jesus’ death on the Cross functions to save us. The earliest theory, saw the Cross as a victory over the powers of evil that exercise dominion over humankind and keep humanity in subjection. So the theory goes, Adam and Eve make humanity subject to the devil as a result of their initial act of disobedience. In order to save humankind from the devil, God sends Jesus into the world in order to dupe the devil into killing him, so that when Jesus rose again, the devil would lose all rights over humanity.

This particular theory, sometimes called the ‘ransom’ theory of the Cross was dominant for over a thousand years. However, it was replaced in the Middle Ages by a much more sophisticated theory called the ‘satisfaction’ theory, first associated with the great medieval theologian St. Anselm. Because human sinfulness dishonours God, God demands satisfaction, which human beings, because of their sinfulness, by definition, can’t supply. However, Jesus can because he’s God, and he does so, by taking on himself, as a perfect Man, the punishment which sinful human beings otherwise deserve to suffer. As a result, the demands of divine justice and God’s desire to show mercy, are reconciled.

Another theory –called the ‘moral theory’- is the idea that Jesus’ difficult and undeserved death on the Cross demonstrates how much God loves us. This example of God’s love should move us to repent of our sins and re-unite ourselves with God. The great medieval philosopher, Peter Abelard, wrote:

The Son of God took our nature, and in it took upon himself to teach us by both word and example even to the point of death, thus binding us to himself through love.


Trying to explain the way humanity is reconciled to God through his death on the Cross is vital because it raises some fundamental questions about God. Who is God really? What happens when God gets involved in the world? The trouble is that explaining the meaning of the Cross presents us in the 21st century with as much of a PR problem as it did in the first.

One of the most influential theories of modern times, especially in some evangelical circles, is the so-called theory of penal substitution or substitutionary atonement. This is basically a refinement of the ‘satisfaction’ model I described earlier. The idea here is that Jesus’ death on the Cross is a punishment by God for human wickedness. He pays the price of sin on our behalf. God stands where we should have done, as a substitute. When God punishes, he demonstrates his justice. When he takes that punishment himself, he shows his love.

However, many people find this account of God’s saving action deeply problematic. For a start, it seems to turn it into an equation or symbol or some sort of mathematical operation. Secondly, they find the idea that God the Father should have been prepared to brutalise his Son in this way deeply offensive. Indeed, the prominent evangelical pastor Steve Chalke has decried penal substitution as ‘cosmic child abuse’. Thirdly, it doesn’t seem to leave much room for the Resurrection in the economy of salvation.

Perhaps in our attempt to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s saving work we should examine our Gospel passage a little more closely. Our Gospel reading goes deeper by placing love at the very centre of the process of atonement, a love that desires our continued existence and flourishing: For God so love the world that he sent his one and only Son so that all who should believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life. To that end the Son of Man is lifted up on the Cross. To be lifted up also means resurrection and life with God in the future. Jesus is at the same time crucified and exalted. Moreover, God is with us in our weakness. The Cross saves us in our vulnerability, at our point of sickness and fragility.

The meaning of the Cross - like quicksand - you can signpost the crux but the moment you try and define it, you sink.


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