Why the Cross?

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion – April 19, 2019

St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 31:2, 6, 12-13, 15-17, 25; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-19; John 18:1-19:42

“He surrendered himself to death

and was counted among the wicked;

and he shall take away the sins of many,

and win pardon for their offenses.” (Isaiah 53:12)

Why did the Lord have to die on the cross? Why did the Lord have to die at all?

We think the answer to this is easy. We think, “He died on the cross to save us from sin,” or, “He died on the cross to show us how much he loved us,” or, “On the cross he bore our punishment,” or, “On the cross he paid the price for our salvation.” And there are elements of truth to each of these. But think for a moment! How does dying on a cross save us from sin? What kind of God sends his son to die on the cross just to show us he loves us? Is God an angry God who needs to punish us, but Jesus stepped in and took the punishment for us? And if so, why is there still so much suffering in the world? Is the price of our salvation the shedding of innocent blood? Is God a bloodthirsty God who needs blood to be shed in order to forgive us?

And so the question remains: Why did the Lord have to die on the cross?

At their core, the story the Gospels tell us is how all the powers of evil and darkness are drawn to the cross. The cross was the most brutal, vile, and evil death imaginable. Throughout the Roman Empire, the cross was “the most cruel and terrifying punishment” (Cicero), the “most pitiable of deaths” (Josephus), the “most shameful form of death” (Origen). The leaders of the People of God, the high priests and the scribes and the pharisees, plot Jesus’ death. His own friends fall asleep in his hour of need; they abandoned him. His own disciple betrays him. His own disciple denies that he knows him. His own people cry out for his death. Pilate, a foreign ruler, condemns him to death. He is mocked and beaten. He dies.

Over and over, the Gospels share the story of the most terrible form of evil and shame and fear—and how they all come together in the cross of Jesus Christ. What is it that we fear the most? Death. Or if you’re younger, what do you fear the most? Humiliation. The cross is just that: humiliation and death wrapped into one. On the cross, all the powers of evil and darkness converge.

And on the cross, Jesus’ humanity is overwhelmed by these powers. He dies. He really dies. Crushed, abandoned, overwhelmed, he “hands over his spirit,” and dies. On the cross of Jesus Christ, you see the sin of the world, all gathered into one place. On the cross, you see the powers of this world destroy our humanity.

But in their apparent victory comes their defeat. These powers, the “sin of the world,” are swallowed up and conquered by the love and mercy of God. Through death comes life.

We think of sin as breaking rules. But in Scripture, in the mind of Jesus and the Jewish people, sin is nothing more than “idolatry, worshiping and serving anything in place of the one true God” (Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 102). In other words, sin is when we give other things power over us, anything besides the one true God. But the whole time we like to think that we are in charge, that we are making our own decisions, that we are free! But look at our sin. Over and over, sin doesn’t leave us more free, more happy, more fulfilled. No, sin leaves us empty and defeated. The idols we think we control take over our lives.

The most common “idols” are money, sex and power. We think, “Once I have enough money, or a new car, or a new phone, or a bigger house, or more clothes…then I will be free and happy and alive.” Or we think, “Once that person likes me, once I’m in a relationship, once we get married, or once I have enough girls, or once I can have as many girls as I want and never get married…then I’ll be free and happy and alive.” Or we think, “Once I’m in charge, or when I get to make the decisions, or when my parents can’t tell me what to do anymore…then I’ll be free and happy and alive.” In these and so many other ways, we fall into sin, into idolatry. We think we are in charge. But think of your own experience, of your own sins. Think! Were you in charge, or did your sins have power over you? Think, because just like on the cross, these powers will destroy us.

So why do we have any hope? Why do we come today to adore the cross? We have hope, the cross is the sign of our hope, because even though these powers will, in the end, overwhelm our humanity, consume our humanity, leave us abandoned and crushed—in the end we can say with St. Paul, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:35). The cross is the sign of the defeat of these powers by the love of God, by God’s beloved Son. On the cross, God deals with sin; sin and death are condemned on the cross. With us too, when we follow in the shadow of the cross, when we place all of our idolatry on the cross and give our lives to the one true God, then the love of God is able to conquer sin in us. With St. Paul, we too can be convinced “that neither death, nor life,…nor powers,…nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

In Christ Jesus, in a life lived in Christ, nothing can separate us from the love of God. That is why the cross is necessary. That is why the cross saves us. That is why we hold up the cross today and say, “This is the cross on which hung the salvation of the world.”

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