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Pastor Glenn McDonald: A Symbol Like No Other

The world’s most powerful brands, as represented by their familiar logos, are famously effective at influencing our thoughts.


When I see the stylized words “Coca-Cola” – white on a sea of red or red on a sea of white – I imagine popping the top on a chilled soda can. When I catch sight of the Golden Arches, I can almost taste the fries. If I pick up a piece of technology with the Apple logo, I automatically assume it will work. When I encounter apparel with the Nike swoosh, I irrationally believe it must be well made, and that now I can “just do it” – although probably with less grace than Michael Jordan.


Great symbols are considered great because they are so effective. They stir something within us. 


That might be an invitation, a reassurance, or an association. Try this and you’ll be happy. Buy this as a way to demonstrate you’re a smart person. Wear this as your “cool group” membership badge.


Which brings us to what everyone – believers and skeptics alike – agree is the most powerful symbol in the world.


That would be the cross. 


When you see a cross, what are you inspired to think, feel, or do?


Let’s begin by affirming that the cross is not a marketing symbol for Christianity that appeared on the scene only recently. There are strong reasons to believe it was front and center from day one. The apostle Paul declared, “May I never boast except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). Historians agree that Paul wrote those words to the Galatians no more than 20 years after Jesus’ death.


In the first century, the cross was not the way to identify a church building (there were no such things), nor was it a shiny piece of personal jewelry.


It was an instrument of public torture and humiliation. It was Rome’s way of saying, “We win and you lose. We have the power to take everything away from you, slowly and painfully.” Crucifixion was reserved for slaves and traitors – those deserving the most intense shame and suffering. By law, no Roman citizen could be executed in such a manner.


Crucifixion became a way to express tyrannical power. At one point the Romans crucified more than 10,000 rebellious Jews, lining Israel’s highways and byways with their crosses.


From the Jewish perspective, every crucified wannabe Messiah – and we know of at least a dozen such individuals prior to Jesus – was automatically assigned the status of Failure. If your candidate ended up on a cross, it meant you had backed the wrong horse. It was assumed God’s Chosen One could never die, let alone by such horrific means.


No wonder Jesus’ disciples fled the scene of Jesus’ death. They had apparently been wrong about him, and now everyone knew it. And if they displayed so much as a shred of sympathy or outrage, they just might end up crosses, too. 


So put yourself in the sandals of someone living in the Mediterranean world at that time. Here comes this Jewish teacher named Paul who is saying, “I’m representing the most important person who has ever lived. He died just a few years ago. On a cross.” 


Let the laughter begin.


As Bible scholar N.T. Wright puts it, “Any self-respecting Greek or Roman with even a smattering of the noble philosophical traditions would be horrified at the idea that the ultimate revelation of the one true God might be the judicial lynching of a young Jew.”


From the beginning, the symbol of the cross was a tough sell. As Paul told the young believers in Corinth, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:22-23).


Over time, the cross became a way to say, “Jesus took the worst the world could ever throw at someone. Yet he prevailed. God won his greatest victory by walking the lowest road.”


That’s why the cross stirs within us such extraordinary associations: God’s love, God’s sacrifice, God’s victory. There is hope for all those who suffer and grieve in this world, for God doesn’t sit on the sidelines and observe human pain with detachment. He knows and shares our pain from personal experience.


There is nothing quite like this in any other religion.


Christianity is at its worst when the cross is co-opted as a symbol of ecclesiastical power – as when medieval crusaders wore the sign of the cross on their way into what they regarded as “the Lord’s battles.” Jesus made it clear that God doesn’t fight evil that way. Such conflicts only turn us into agents of evil and suffering, too.


Instead, the cross should remind us of the words Jesus directed toward his torturers: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”


The cross is likewise a not-so-subtle reminder that the Lord is calling each of us to a kind of living death. ”Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24).


This is not “seeker-sensitive” evangelism. This is insane. Imagine the impact that statement must have had on Jesus’ original audience. The only people in Israel lugging around crossbeams were on their way to capital punishment. Their own. Yet Jesus promises that crucifying our present lives – ruthlessly surrendering our “right” to always get our own way, choosing God’s ways instead – will allow us to enter what can only be described as Real Life.


Even though the cross is humanity’s most powerful symbol, it’s all too easy to transform it into a personal good luck charm – something to which we can assign our own meanings.


I might wear a cross as a private decoration. Or something that says, “I am spiritual,” or “I have values,” or “I go to church,” or “I vote for a certain political party.”


By all means, if you feel so led, wear a cross. But let it represent the richness of its original significance. Jesus’ cross is where evil did its worst – while at the same moment God was doing his best.


The late philosopher Dallas Willard suggested that we all have two choices. We can either define God according to our view of evil – which is likely to make us think God is an uncaring, unfeeling, faraway Deity, or perhaps even a monster. Or we can define evil according to our view of God – which, if our understanding of God aligns with the God of the Bible, will lead us to see evil as a defeated enemy.


Defeated on the cross.  


One day, at the end of history, that victory will be complete. Every wound will be healed, and every wrong will be made right.


Until then, we get to join God in what he is doing every day by living a cross-shaped, cross-defined, cross-blessed life.


No wonder those two wooden beams have become the world’s most powerful symbol.

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