I teach a class at Fuller called, “The Cross in the New Testament.” We talk a lot about atonement. But as we talk about atonement, a funny thing happens: we start to realize that the questions we tend to ask about “how the cross works to save us” are not the questions that the NT spends a lot of time answering.
And yet, this does not minimize the centrality of the cross in the NT. Instead, it tells us that our cross is much too small. Or, we’ve gotten our story wrong. Or, to put it another way, we’ve forgotten that we’re a story people and have started acting instead like we are a theology people.
Flannery O’Connor (blessed be her name) gives us a peek into the mind of the master storyteller:
A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.
When we approach the story of Jesus, the story of the cross, we too often think that the story is there for the purpose of having theological data extracted from it–as though the purpose of the story is to point beyond itself to the abstract system enthroned with God in the heavenly places, unmarred by human contact. But that’s not how stories work.
We discover in the story that the very act of Jesus’ crucifixion is an expression of life lived in opposition to the coming reign of God. Jesus creates enemies by exerting a personal authority for overturning social mores, encroaching on the prerogatives of God, and refusing to raise up the Law as the highest measure of humanity’s good.
The story of the Kingdom is in conflict with the story of the world–even as that world is inhabited by people upon whom God has set God’s name.
To be a Jesus follower is to participate in a narrative that denies the narrative of the world: denies the narrative of scarcity in favor of a narrative of abundance; denies the narrative of socially defined holiness in favor of a narrative of Christ-defined righteousness.
It is a narrative that insists that anyone who is not against us is, in fact for us (we don’t have the right to circumscribe the people to those who are just like us).
And at the end, it is the Kingdom that insists that the power of God is the power to give life to the dead.
And here is where the Kingdom of the world begins to crumble under the weight of God’s greater power.
For the Babylons, Greeces, and Romes of the world, the ultimate power of coercion is the power of death. Oppose Rome and meet its sword. Rebel against Rome and meet its legions. Fail to hail Caesar and prepare to greet his gladiators. Exalt yourself as king and prepare to meet its cross.
And here is where Jesus comes in.
The life of Jesus is a testimony to a different kind of people and a different kind of power. Not the power of the life-taking king, but the power of self-giving love. More than this–not the power of the Romans in taking life on the cross, but the power of the One True God in giving life to the truly dead.
God’s reversal of the imperial death sentence was not merely the reversal of the verdict of the earth that Jesus was guilty. It was that. It was Jesus’ justification.
But it was also the warning that the ultimate power of the earth is weakness before God. It was also the warning that the ultimate wisdom of the earth is foolishness before God. Readily conquered. Easily befuddled.
That Jesus comes as a self-giving king, an embracing king, a king who refuses to take up the sword–this is the story of the Kingdom of God. This is the economy of the Kingdom. This is the world we are called to realize, to live, to story, in our life together.
This is why Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Because we are the cross people. And enacting the story of God is what the cross of Christ calls and enables us to do.