What difference does the cross make?
How can a man who dies on a cross be considered influential? It goes against everything we’re taught about power, and culture, and lasting influence. Jesus had no money, no military victories, no legions of well-loved books.
It just doesn’t make any sense that a poor carpenter’s son from a backwater town would be of any consequence to the world two thousand years later. But in his book, Who is This Man?, John Ortberg lays out several of the ways that Jesus’ influence can be felt today.
It can be seen in the time table of our very lives, as we worship together during the Year of Our Lord 2016.
It can be seen in the names we have for things, whether they be cemeteries (sleeping places) or cities (San Francisco).
It can be seen in the societies and churches founded around his life and teaching, made more and more resilient in the face of persecution – as one Russian opponent of Christianity said, “Christianity is like a nail, the harder you strike it, the deeper it goes.”
It can be seen in the elevation of children and women in society, from previously marginalized and ignored to equal and powerful in countries where Christianity has had an influence.
It can be seen in the subversion of the ‘natural order’ where enemies are to be loved and cared for.
Everything about Jesus is backwards and unexpected unless you know how God works.
Many of us came here today, knowingly to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus who died on the cross. Put that aside for a minute, and imagine you don’t know what you know or what you think you know. There is just a man murdered for crimes he didn’t commit; a man who others, like the thief on the cross next to him, knowingly acknowledged was kind and good. But if it would just be his goodness and kindness, his teaching and his miracles, would we truly be celebrating anything today?
It seems… improbable.
Up until the point where Jesus died on the cross, his story was one of loving and great teaching, but it was not extraordinary in the eyes of those around him. They, like all of Jerusalem, were awaiting a Messiah who would lead an armed response to Roman oppression. The disciples were those closest to Jesus, but they still struggled with what the point was.
And then, on that Good Friday afternoon, Jesus died, on a cross, between two thieves. Jesus died, instead of inciting the people around him to riot. Jesus died, while his friends watched, or worse, ran. Jesus died, so that a convicted terrorist named Barabbas wouldn’t.
Jesus died on a Friday, when most people are ending their work week, when publicists publish stories they want to be buried before people turn their attention to the news on Monday morning, when it was expected that the Roman and Jewish governments would get their closure on this “silly Jesus of Nazareth” business. Jesus died, and it was over.
Saturday happened. It came next, bumping into Friday, but proving to only be the next day of the rest of the disciples’ lives. We know it’s the day after that but the day before this (Ortberg). But the disciples don’t know that. Maybe somewhere Romans or Jewish leaders celebrated; maybe they thought about how Jesus had died quietly and without screaming obscenities at the world around him, almost gracefully.
Those on the peripheries drifted away. The casual ‘fans’ of Jesus knew he’d never perform another miracle or spit out a quote they could use at a later date. The story was over, the dead were buried, and an empty cross stood on a hill. In that moment, the history of Jesus Christ had come to a screeching halt, and all that remained was the symbol of torture and pain.
Sunday morning comes, and the disciples slowly awake. First to the tomb are the women. What are they expecting? Nothing! They expect to care for Jesus’ body, to provide the care of the funeral arrangements deprived them on Friday after Sabbath had begun. They come on the second day of their life without Jesus — not on the first day of anything new — not expecting anything.
But then Jesus isn’t dead. Not anymore. It’s not that they realize that he didn’t really die, but they who saw him die, who saw him dead, they realize that he is alive again. The first witnesses to Jesus’ new life were the last witnesses to his death.
What does Jesus say? What grand pronouncement does he make about chemistry or physics or magic to explain how he rose again? He doesn’t! He quite simply seems to show up and say, “Ta-da! Time to get the band back together.”
Can you imagine? I can’t! I don’t even begin to understand how they could wrap their minds around this – other than that everything fell into place for them in those moments. Every lesson, every prophecy, every loving reminder that Jesus was not of this world.
These people get it because they saw. But what difference does it make?
Later that first Easter, two disciples of Jesus are traveling to Emmaus, still mourning the death of Jesus. Jesus approaches them and they walk together. Jesus hears how they have been told of Jesus’ resurrection but it still doesn’t impact their lives. They still live as if Jesus died, as if the story ended on Good Friday.
These two men are blinded to the fact that Jesus is alive, to the way that the cross wasn’t the end of the story. Jesus is right in front of them and still, they can’t see him. For these two men, it is as if Jesus has not been resurrected.
Ask yourself: if Jesus stood in front of you today, would you recognize him? Would you be changed by Jesus’ resurrection?
The truth is that the cross doesn’t make a difference in your life, unless you let it. The cross is the place, that moment in time, when God’s son died a death he didn’t deserve for me… and for you. It’s that moment when God chose to abandon heaven and come to earth to make things right. Yes, he died even for those who didn’t and don’t believe – for everyone – but it won’t change us unless we accept it for ourselves, by faith.
By faith, we believe he died…
To forgive us for the sins we had committed.
To pay the price of our words in anger and our selfish actions.
To show us once and for all that God is with us and we are not alone.
To show us that Christmas was the beginning…
That the cross was the middle…
That the end of the story is as unexpected and unrivaled as any story we have ever heard…
Because the story of Easter and the story of the cross are about beauty out of ashes, of comfort out of tears, of forgiveness out of pain, of hope even in the face of evil like we’ve seen in Paris, or Brussels, in our city streets, in our neighborhoods, in our own hearts.
So what difference does the cross make?
It makes no difference unless we let it. It makes a difference if we accept the gift of God’s love, of forgiveness, of hope – and we let it change our hearts to seek God, to forgive others, to fight injustice, to embrace mercy.
Too many people around us are living in a Good Friday world, and we recognize the difference it would make for them to move past that. But too often, we settle for living in a Saturday world, where Jesus is dead – and we know he’s risen – but we’re stuck with misunderstanding (or worse, misrepresenting) what Jesus’ resurrection means.
Certainly, there is still pain and hardship. Yes, the disciples still lived out their faith in awareness of persecution and trouble. But in the world of Sunday Easter morning, the disciples told anyone and everyone that Jesus was not just the good teacher, not just the Messiah, but that Jesus was Lord of heaven and earth.
That’s why Jesus’ life – and the cross – matter more than anyone expected.
Because Jesus changed the cross from a symbol of despair and disdain, from torture and punishment, to life-changing salvation.
Because Jesus took death, and nailed it to the cross, once and for all.
Because Jesus asks us to embrace what he taught, to accept forgiveness, and to live a life committed to God.
This is the good news of the resurrection: sin and death permeated our world from the moment when Adam and Eve chose to sin against God and disobey him. From that moment on we were condemned by the law to die. But God in his infinite wisdom, mercy, grace and love sacrificed his one and only son so that we might see his love and be forgiven. Through his son’s resurrection, we are resurrected by his side, forgiven and claimed as children of God.
Thanks be to God, who enters the world as a little baby, willing dies that we might be forgiven, and bursts forth from the tomb with enough love to conquer the whole world and make it his own. In Jesus’ name. Amen.