As we begin our season of Lent, let’s look ahead to Good Friday, the event that the whole of Lent points us toward. Let’s go to Calvary and look closely at the cross of Christ.
This cross is far more than two beams of wood pieced together. It’s far more than the piece of jewelry that so many people wear today. This cross is big enough and important enough to encompass the whole of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. It is the central point, in fact, of our whole Christian life. So during this season of rebirth and renewal, let’s fix our eyes on Jesus and his cross.
We are not alone in this devotion and attention to the cross. St. Paul himself considered it to be the most important part of his faith. “May I never boast,” he said, “except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). By boasting in the cross, Paul meant taking pride in it, finding in it the reason for his joy and fulfillment, and placing great value in it. When Paul wrote these words, he was both boasting in the cross and rejecting the thought of boasting, or finding great value, in his own ability.
When Paul gloried in the cross, he was placing his own achievements—and they were plentiful—on a lower, secondary level. He was saying that the glory of the cross supercedes everything. He could make this claim because he saw how this event—Jesus’ death on a cross—saved us from eternal death and brought us everlasting life.
Seeing a Greater Good. When something good comes along, we tend to appreciate it to the degree that we understand how good it is. The larger the positive impact, the more we talk about it and, essentially, “glory” in it.
St. Paul could have gloried in any number of things—and especially in any number of his own gifts, talents, and attributes. He could have boasted about his exciting conversion and the way the Lord chose him for a particularly high-profile ministry. He could have boasted about his education or his dedication as a Pharisee. He could have boasted about the way he built so many churches during his missionary journeys or about the way he trained servants of the Lord like Timothy, Silas, Lydia, and Luke. Instead, he chose to boast about the glory of the cross because he saw it as a far greater thing than anything he could accomplish.
The cross stands at the heart of our faith and as our highest boast because we believe that we are all sinners who cannot save ourselves. We believe that sin separated all of us from God. And we believe that God sent his Son into the world to do what we could not do. Without the cross, there would be no resurrection. Without the cross, there would be no salvation. And without the cross, there would be no hope for eternal life.
The Paradox of the Cross. Jesus’ cross is one of the great paradoxes of all time. His death has brought us life. His crown of thorns has become our crown of glory. His pierced heart has given us a new heart. His abject humiliation has brought us unimaginable dignity. To the unbelieving eye, the cross appears to be nothing more than a foolish exercise in suffering. But to those who believe, the cross is worthy of all honor because it is the instrument of salvation, nothing less than the very “power of God” for our lives (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Contemplating the cross moves us to see two truths. First, we can see how God did not want to be divided from his beloved people, but that injustice could not coexist with perfect justice. Our sin was offensive to God, and it separated us from him. Only Jesus’ death could reconcile us fully. And this leads to our second truth: Our sin, our separation from God, was not trivial. The stain of original sin wasn’t something that could be overcome with just a minor remedy. It required nothing short of the death of the Son of God.
These two truths tell us that the cross was at the center of God’s plan for all of humanity. It wasn’t just a fluke of history or the case of a bad thing happening to a good person. Jesus himself told his disciples that he had to suffer, be put to death, and then rise from the dead (Matthew 16:21). He knew that he had to embrace this suffering, humiliation, and death because nothing else was sufficient to wipe away sin and disarm the devil. Because of his love for his Father—and his love for us—Jesus freely accepted the cross.
If we want to draw closer to Jesus during this season of Lent, we need to understand this important point: Jesus had to die for our sake. What Peter eventually came to understand we also must come to understand: Jesus Christ “bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). By his death, Jesus set us free from our disobedience, our pride, our angers, and our self-centeredness. His death on the cross brought us victory over our sins—every one of them.
Don’t Stumble! When we choose to act in a way that is opposed to Jesus, the cross becomes a stumbling block to us. When Peter heard Jesus talking about the cross, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” But Jesus turned around and rebuked him, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:22-23).
Did Peter stumble here because he loved Jesus? Or was it because things were going so well he didn’t want to see it come to an end? We don’t know for sure, but we do know this: We have to embrace the cross. We have to wholeheartedly accept Jesus and not try to tell him what we will do and what we will not do.
When we look at the cross of Christ, we are actually looking at two realities: the facts of the cross and the application of the cross. The fact is this: Jesus died once, for all of our sins. The application is this: Even though Jesus has died for all of our sins, we experience his grace and mercy only when we take hold of, or apply, the power of the cross. We will not experience this freedom from sin very deeply if we knowingly allow sin to rule our lives.
We need to be careful here. It is not a matter of whether we will commit sins. Of course we will sin. We are weak and we live in a fallen world. God is rich in mercy, and he does forgive us and heal our weaknesses. The real issue is this: We make the cross a stumbling block when we think and act in ways that encourage sin—when we know what we are doing and yet take no steps to counteract the sin. It is one thing to fall prey to a sin and repent, knowing we have done wrong. It is another thing altogether to let a pattern of sin have free rein in our lives—especially when we know that we are offending the Lord.
We live in a world that condones lying, manipulation, and deception; a world that approves of abortion, same-sex marriage, and living together out of wedlock. According to the philosophy of this world, there is nothing wrong with extreme self-centeredness as long as it doesn’t hurt or impose on anyone else. Patterns of behavior like these run contrary to the message of the cross, which is a message of laying down our lives to serve God and his people. When we condone sinful behavior—trying to keep the “flesh-life” active in us—we will stumble in our desire to embrace the cross.
Jesus told Peter and the others: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matthew 16:25-26). What does it profit us to hold positions and views that are opposed to Jesus, that separate us from him, that make us less loving toward others, and that drag our spirituality down?
The Victory Is Ours. Jesus came into this world so that he could lay down his life for us on the cross. His victory is our victory. His resurrection is our resurrection. His triumph over sin and death is our triumph. How can we ever honor him for what he has done? By meditating on the cross every day. By turning to him in prayer every day this Lent. Let’s tell Jesus that we are sinners and that we are grateful for the price he paid on the cross. Let’s look to the power of his cross to set us free from those nagging sin patterns that still keep us bound. There is power in Jesus’ cross—a power available to everyone who asks. So let’s glory in the cross of Christ so that we can live in the victory that Jesus won for us!