[The following Good Friday meditation is extracted and slightly adapted from my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic, pp. 17-22. This post was truncated at some point in the history of this blog. This is a restoration of the content on January 6, 2018.]
There might be many reasons why someone would be ashamed of the good news about God that is represented in what we call the “gospel.”
Historically, the shame was in worshipping a convicted and executed criminal, calling him God and following his teachings. Very few people doubt that Jesus died, and that he was executed by the barbaric method of crucifixion. Raised from the dead, alive today—that’s another matter entirely. But the death is the best established thing about Jesus. I’ve entered into debates about whether such a person as Jesus existed historically. All of these debates start—must start—with a list of things that I will demonstrate limiting myself strictly to the tools of a historian, to the extent that past events can be demonstrated. These are the things that Jesus did or that happened to him. Many scholars have created such lists. Invariably, “crucified by the Romans” is on them. Jesus’ death by crucifixion is as established as a historical fact gets.
It seems remote and distant to us. If we have shame in anything about Jesus or Christianity, it is something different than it was for Paul and other early disciples. For us, the cross is the symbol of a religion, a person, or a faith system. We see it on churches every day. We have pictures of crosses, sometimes with a figure of Jesus hanging on them. Sometimes the figure will be portrayed with a halo. We make earrings and necklaces with crosses. We know the crucifixion is a horrible thing, but the symbols involved in it have become commonplace and familiar, and they are objects involved in the rituals of the church, not in execution.
We may be ashamed of some of the people who carry crosses, or of some of the groups that worship in buildings with crosses on them. We may object to where crosses are placed, such as on the lawns of public buildings. But none of this is quite what the “shame of the cross” would have been for the early followers of Jesus.
Put yourself back in Paul’s time. Jesus was recently executed. The one political power in the world was the authority by which that execution was carried out. That particular form of execution was one reserved for the worst, and especially for rebels and political offenders. There was a shame in worshipping someone who had been crucified. It had the aura and the stigma of worshipping a mass murderer, perhaps a bit like modern Americans would feel about a cult worshipping Charles Manson.
But in addition, it was something dangerous. The followers of Jesus were proclaiming as divine someone executed by the Roman authorities. Divinity was being carried by someone who was a rebel and a dangerous character. Proclaiming the kingdom of a rebel was an act of rebellion in and of itself.
And here we have Paul proclaiming that he is not ashamed of this good news. He glories in the cross, glories in an instrument of shame. In disaster, he finds good news.
One of the key elements of that good news lies in the fact that you see a cross with much different emotions than did the people of Paul’s day. That element is transformation. The symbol of the cross has been transformed from one of disaster, death, agony, shame, and despair into one of hope for many people. Not all people, and we’ll discuss that as well.
That transformation comes from the way in which God used the experience of the cross. God came to the earth in the human form of Jesus. God experienced life with us. He took action as we might need to take action under the circumstances of our lives. He found himself in an occupied country, living under cruel foreign domination. He didn’t just come and appear on a mountaintop. He got involved in human experiences, human emotions, human weaknesses, and yes, human strengths as well. When it came down to it, he died a death in just the way that a human would have to do it in that time and place.
The first part, then, of the transformation was involvement. The cross would never have been transformed as a symbol without the involvement. God, the infinite gap-crosser, crossed the gap and stayed on our side long enough to experience the worst of the worst.
But not only did he get involved, he stayed involved. The second part of that transformation was endurance. God didn’t quit. He carried through. If he had not, we could think of the wonderful time when God was with people, lived with us, talked with us, worked with us, but we would always have a distance from him, because he would never have experienced the one thing that seems to terrify most of us—death. “Through death, he destroyed the one who had the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). “He endured the cross; he treated the shame with contempt” (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus knew when to ignore what others thought was shame. The shame was intended to fall on the one who was punished. But Jesus had no reason to be ashamed and he knew it. Knowing what one should ignore is an important part of living in this imperfect world. Many people, Christians and others, have endured torture and death with dignity and even peace because they knew this lesson. What was intended to bring shame on them instead became a source of glory.
The transformation that Jesus accomplished on the cross, symbolized by the transformation of the cross itself, is something that we all can grasp. Circumstances and our environment are not fixed things that we have to take as they are. They can be transformed by our attitude and by the way that we deal with them. Every cross in your life, everything that you would prefer not to have done or not to have encountered can be transformed. When we give testimonies of things that have happened to us, this is what we are doing. Some think that testimony meetings are about telling how dark our lives were before God intervened. And sometimes they are. But if you are focusing on the darkness, and the negative things that have happened, perhaps you haven’t let those things be transformed yet. Did you become involved, stay involved, and endure? Did you have contempt for the supposed shame? The real point of a testimony, a witness, is to present how things have changed, not how much they are the same.
But there’s one more part of this process. Some of you may be wondering whether I’m going to ignore it.
Jesus triumphed over the adversity. He rose again from the dead. His movement should have died. It came back to life. Without this, the transformation could not have taken place. In this sense, only one who was God, or totally in tune with God’s spirit, could have triumphed. We daily deal with circumstances and troubles. Jesus was dealing with the nastiest circumstance of all—death. He was there to deny and destroy the one who had the power over death.
I’m not going to argue here about the physical resurrection of Jesus. It’s very hard, if not impossible to prove a miracle. But I do think the greatest evidence that something different happened that day in Palestine is that the movement surrounding Jesus didn’t go away. Having seen Jesus crucified, his movement should have failed, but it didn’t.
But the critical element in transforming the symbol of the cross from one of shame to one of hope and glory was simply that the followers of Jesus believed that he had conquered death. You may debate me about the idea that without something special happening on the morning of the resurrection, the followers of Jesus would simply have scattered. You may have another explanation you think works as well. But I think there can be no doubt that unless the followers of Jesus believed that something had happened, there would have been no transformation, no Jesus movement, no Christianity, and the cross would forever have remained a symbol of shame, or passed into history as an example of the barbarism of ancient cultures.
But the fact is that those followers did believe, they didn’t scatter, but continued to proclaim the victory of the person the Romans had crucified. And it was in that proclamation that the cross was transformed.
Jesus could have died with dignity, endured the shame, and risen from the dead, but if nobody had arisen to proclaim those facts, no transformation would have taken place. It took human beings getting involved, carrying the message, and acting on the good news. I’m sometimes accused of being very human oriented in my religious beliefs. But I believe that this orientation toward what people do and how they respond is thoroughly Biblical. Not only did God accomplish reconciliation through Christ, but he gave us the same ministry. In other words, God knows and intends the human element to be critical in carrying out his mission on earth.