We are a small Episcopal Church on the banks of the Rappahannock in Port Royal, Virginia. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the first people of Port Royal, the Nandtaughtacund, and we respect and honor with gratitude the land itself, the legacy of the ancestors, and the life of the Rappahannock Tribe. Our mission statement is to do God’s Will in all that we do.

Understanding the Cross

The Buddha once warned his disciples that understanding his teaching is a dangerous business, like trying to pick up a poisonous snake in the wild.
Powerful ideas are like that. If you don’t hold them in the right way, they can bite. Suppose you grasp and lift the snake in the middle of its body.
You’ll have picked it up all right, but it will not go well. Not for you and not for anyone near you. Instead said the Buddha, if you get a forked stick and put it  right behind the snake’s head and then pick it up just behind its jaws, then you’ll have the snake in hand and you and your companions will be safe and sound. 

Likewise the Buddha continued when it comes to understanding my teachings.
Hold them wrong and they can bite.
In fact, the Buddha goes so far as to say that it’s surprisingly easy to misinterpret
his teachings to mean the opposite of what he actually intends.
Not 10 degrees to the left or 20 degrees to the right, but 180 degrees off target.
The reverse of what he means.
To shift the metaphor, a surgeon’s scalpel can be used to save life or to end it.
Powerful ideas are dangerous things.
And they can do significant damage if they aren’t handled with care.
Perhaps the most difficult and potentially dangerous idea in Christianity is right there
in the middle of Easter.
It’s the cross.
And in particular, it’s Jesus’ teaching that he must suffer and die and rise again
and that anyone who seeks to be his disciple must quote, deny themselves and take up their
cross and follow me unquote.
We must tread carefully here.
As Mark tells it, when the disciples first hear of this teaching, they’re understandably
perplexed and offended and Jesus takes them to task for misunderstanding him.
So we best be cautious about whether we understand him either.
There are snakes slithering here in the grass.
For the course of a couple of thousand years, Christians have understood the cross on a
whole host of ways.
And in this episode, we’ll look at ten of the most influential.
Make sure you keep that forked stick handy for the mysteries of Easter.
Can bite.
Here we go.
I’m Matthew Meyer Bolton and this is Strange New World, a show about understanding the
Bible for skeptics, believers, and everybody in between.
This is part two of our seven-part series on understanding Easter.
Periodically in Christian history, the church as a whole has called together ecumenical
councils or authoritative gatherings held in order to agree upon and announce a definitive
statement on a particular theological question or controversy.
Say how to understand the divinity of Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity or whether
or not it’s all right to use icons and worship.
No such counsel has ever been called about how to understand the cross.
And so, over the centuries, any number of theories have been proposed.
This is the first big idea to keep in mind, that there are lots of options and no single
one of them is necessarily the right answer.
And that our ancestors saw fit to keep the question open, as if to say that the mystery
of the cross is like a great cruciform cathedral with many entrances and side chapels, many
avenues of approach, and perhaps many different kinds of gifts to offer.
Let’s start with the one that prevails today in many Christian circles, especially in the
western world, so much so that some mistakenly believe it’s the only answer available.
Call it the Jesus pays the price for our sins, theory of the cross.
Sound familiar?
The idea is that humanity deserves punishment for sin, that every crime deserves proportional
punishment if justice is to be served.
The problem is that because sin is such a grievous crime against both God and neighbor, and because
every human being is complicit in it, humanity’s sin is a crime for which there is no proportional
The price that must be paid is simply too steep for humanity to ever afford it.
In this sense, humanity is hopelessly in debt, locked in a kind of debtor’s prison.
But God, graciously, mercifully, sends Jesus to pay the price on our behalf, to step into
our place as a substitute, and take the punishment for us.
Thus, Jesus pays the price for our sins.
The doctrine of the Trinity says that God the Father or God the Mother, God the Son,
and God the Spirit are not three separate gods, but rather are united as one God, such
that anything Jesus does is in fact something that God does.
This is important to the theory because it means that when Jesus surrenders or sacrifices
his life on the cross, he’s effectively sacrificing the divine life, a sacrifice of infinite worth,
and therefore a punishment adequate, indeed more than adequate, to the crime of humanity’s
Justice is served, and humanity is saved.
From this point of view, the preacher proclaims the good news this way.
That has mercifully paid the price on your behalf, your debts are canceled, you are forgiven.
Now over the years, this has been a controversial theory, especially in recent decades.
For one, some have pointed out that the very idea that God would require suffering and
death in order for justice to be served is a pretty ugly, repugnant notion on its face,
and seems to suggest a kind of divine child abuse with God the Father sending Jesus off
to torture and death.
And the theory has other problems too.
First, when you and I speak of a payment, typically we mean, you know, you pay me $20
and now I have $20 that I didn’t have before because you paid it to me.
If I take a $20 bill out of my right pocket and put it into my left pocket, that’s not
really a payment, it’s just me moving money from pocket to pocket.
But remember, the doctrine of the Trinity says that whatever Jesus does is an action
of God, so it’s not clear how Jesus could pay God because Jesus is God.
And if no payment is actually made, then the theory seems to fall apart since its starting
point is that there needs to be a payment.
Finally, there’s at least one other problem.
This one pointed out by a 16th century Swiss theologian, John Calvin, who was by the way
an advocate for this theory, but he was also candid enough to recognize the following contradiction.
Listen to this.
He says, all right, on the one hand, the theory seems to say that God cannot be merciful to
humankind unless and until a great price is paid, a great punishment through suffering
and death.
So before that payment is made, no mercy.
And yet on the other hand, the theory also seems to say that God mercifully sends Jesus
to mercifully pay that price.
That is the price that supposedly makes the mercy possible.
In other words, it would seem that God is already loving and merciful toward humanity
at Christmas.
So what sense does it make to say that only Jesus is suffering and death on the cross
on good Friday makes God’s mercy possible?
Now, Calvin’s answer to this conundrum is interesting.
Remember, he’s an advocate for this theory.
He says in effect that, sure, God is already merciful to humankind before the cross, but
the cross is God’s way of dramatizing this mercy, this forgiveness, this canceling of
humanity’s debt.
God could have simply announced that the debt is canceled, but that would be rather anticlimactic
and not particularly compelling and might well be received in the wrong spirit.
Perhaps in an entitled or ungrateful way, just announcing it wouldn’t be fitting given
the devastating gravity of sin and the astounding gift of God’s forgiveness.
How much better says Calvin, how much more deeply moved would we be if instead God announces
the merciful forgiveness through the vivid harrowing events of the cross, dramatizing
the stakes and the love God’s mercy entails.
Remember, Calvin, Jesus doesn’t die on the cross because God needs it.
Jesus dies on the cross because we need it to fully understand and appreciate the astonishing
thing that God has done in forgiving humanity’s sin.
We can take Calvin’s thinking here one step further than he did by putting it this way.
The whole notion that every crime deserves a punishment, that every sin creates a price
that must be paid, that every offense must be avenged or countered an eye for an eye,
a tooth for a tooth, that grim philosophy belongs to us, not to God.
And in fact, God is trying to free us from it, to persuade us to set it aside.
It’s as if the preacher says to us, look, there is no price that needs to be paid.
If you insist that there’s a price, fine, tell you what, God has paid it.
God has paid every price.
You think you owe God some astronomical debt?
Well, God has taken an astronomical amount out of one pocket and put it into another
There, voila, the price is paid.
Now, let’s start again.
The accounts are clear.
Let’s live together with God in love and justice.
As we saw in the last episode, God is a God of forgiveness, not payment.
Forgiveness is priceless.
It’s price less.
It’s one person saying to another, look, I know you’ve wronged me and I know that in
the economy of tit for tat that seems to run the world, that means there’s a price you
have to pay, but I’m canceling that claim.
I’m moving beyond the tit for tat economy, into a world of forgiveness, which doesn’t
keep accounts.
My focus instead is on living together, moving forward together and enjoying each other’s
company in love and justice.
I will insist on those things.
I insist on love and I insist on justice, but I will not let the past lock us in a prison
of hatred or resentment.
I forgive you.
In the last episode, we saw how the rainbow covenant, the original covenant between God
and humanity and between God and every living creature is at its heart a covenant of peace,
a covenant of forgiveness.
And Jesus on the eve of the crucifixion declares that the Lord supper a new covenant for the
forgiveness of sins.
This is no payment system.
This is God’s way of saying, there’s no payment necessary.
Please, my children, set aside your obsession with payments and punishments.
There was no payment involved in the original rainbow covenant, which I established knowing
full well that the descendants of Noah and Nama were still inclined towards sin, and
yet I nevertheless put my bow in the clouds and promised never to destroy.
And there’s no payment involved in this new covenant at the Lord’s Supper, this renewal
of the original covenant, which I establish with you in the midst of betrayal and desertion.
Remember, the Lord’s Supper is precisely the point in the story when Jesus goes out
of his way to name the fact that the disciples are about to betray and desert him.
And still, he establishes the new covenant with them.
It’s a covenant of forgiveness, not payment.
And so if the cross is to be understood as Jesus paying the price for our sins, then
it must be not because God insists on payment, but because we do.
Because we, lost as we are in our economy of tit for tat and I for an eye, a tooth for
a tooth, need to see at least the vivid dramatization of a price being paid in order to be persuaded
that we really are forgiven, that the door to the debtor’s prison, the jailhouse of shame
that we have built for ourselves and for each other really has been unlocked and that we
really can step out into the light of mercy and begin a new life.
Now, the snake in the grass here is that if we hold this theory of the cross in the wrong
way, it can lead to the disastrous idea that no one can be held accountable for anything
or that people in situations of abuse should endlessly forgive and therefore enable their
But no, forgiveness need not mean continuing situations of injury or degradation.
There’s a difference between forgiving someone, letting go of hatred or resentment or a need
for payment or revenge, and deciding whether or not to be in physical proximity to them,
both for the sake of the victims of abuse and for the sake of the abusers, since the
ongoing abuse also does damage to them.
After all, Jesus doesn’t say, seek out a cross or create a cross and follow me, but
rather take up your cross and follow me.
His teaching isn’t to court or prolong suffering, but rather to face whatever unavoidable suffering
there is in our lives and to take it up with courage as an active protagonist, not a passive
object, in the drama of our lives.
So that’s a look at one prevalent way of understanding the cross.
Now let’s look briefly at nine others, several of which we’ll come back to in later episodes
of this series.
The first is one we just touched upon, the idea of a covenant or agreement to live together,
God with us and us with God.
As we saw in the last episode, the original covenant was sealed with a sign.
God’s archers bow set in the clouds as a vivid gesture of peace, red and green and blue.
In the ancient world, covenants were typically sealed or established or renewed with some
sort of tangible sign, some precious gift.
And in those days, the most precious thing was thought to be life, and life was thought
to reside in the blood.
And so a classic gift to God in the context of covenantal renewal was the life and blood
of an animal, an animal sacrifice.
Accordingly, the covenant with Abraham, for example, in the 15th chapter of Genesis is
sealed through a ceremony involving animal sacrifice, breaking the bodies of a few select
animals into two.
And at the last supper, Jesus picks up on this primordial poetry, renewing the ancient
covenant, but this time it won’t be a ram’s body or a goat’s body, but rather God’s body.
Jesus’ body that will be broken.
This renewed covenant, Jesus says, will be in my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins.
This way of understanding the cross frames it as a ceremony, renewing the covenant with
Its point is not to pay a price, but rather to renew and reset a relationship, a covenant
of breathtaking forgiveness and grace.
A third theory is a variation on this theme.
In all four gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion is said to occur on or around the day that the
Passover lamb is sacrificed, a clear indication that in some sense Jesus is to be understood
as himself a Passover lamb.
Now, the Passover lamb is not a payment or offering for sin, but rather a sacrifice made
as part of the Israelites’ liberation from bondage and injustice in Egypt.
The blood of the lamb protects Israelite families from the tenth plague that convinces Pharaoh
to release them from enslavement.
From this angle, the cross frees us not so much from the guilt of sin is from the bondage
of sin and the wages of sin, the death dealing in slaving forces of injustice, hatred, greed.
Understood this way, taking up our cross and following Jesus means joining him in the liberating
healing work of the journey from captivity to freedom.
Alright, that’s three ways of understanding the cross.
Here’s the fourth.
The idea that the cross involves Jesus undergoing a punishment meant for us actually doesn’t
even appear on the scene until the eleventh century.
For the first thousand years of Christian history, the cross was understood in other
ways, many of which circled around the notion of Jesus’ life serving as a ransom for humanity’s
salvation, a ransom paid to the devil.
We can catch a glimpse of this way of thinking in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
In the lion the witch in the wardrobe, the boy Edmund, who represents humanity in the
story, falls into the sway of the white witch, the one who’s made Narnia always winter and
never Christmas.
And Azlán, the great lion who represents Jesus, makes the white witch an offer.
Release Edmund and you can do what you will with me.
The white witch takes the deal, kills the great lion, but doesn’t bargain for the rest of
the story when Azlán rises from the dead and leads a great battle in which good is ultimately
victorious over evil.
Many theories of the cross during the first thousand years of Christian history were variations
on this Christus victor or Christ victorious interpretation, emphasizing how God outwits
or outmaneuvers the devil through the events of the cross and the resurrection.
A snake bite with these theories is that they seem to cast God and the devil as closely
matched adversaries and seem to suggest that the devil has certain rights to humanity that
God is bound to respect.
But as long as we keep the white witch out of it, so to speak, the cross can be understood
as part of God’s victory over the world’s death-dealing powers, betrayal and violence
and cruelty and contempt.
The story of the cross then becomes an icon for how God can make a way out of no way,
creating victory even in circumstances that look for all the world like utter defeat.
Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says, that is, follow me to the victory and the
hope of the resurrection.
A fifth way of understanding the cross develops this basic idea in the direction of jujitsu,
the art of redirecting and transforming an attacker’s energy in such a way that it neutralizes
the attack.
For Jews in 1st century Palestine, the cross was pretty much the worst thing in the world-a
Roman imperial instrument of torture, execution, intimidation and disgrace.
But God transforms it into a graceful means of forgiveness, healing and hope, a sword
into a plowshare.
Jesus’ enemies plot against him, but God actually makes use of their plots in order
to save, incorporating the machinations of evil into the larger transformative choreography
of redemption.
And if God has remade and redeemed the cross the worst thing in the world, just think of
what God will do with the rest.
A sixth way of understanding the cross zeroes in on how scapegoating pervades our lives,
from the playground to the boardroom.
But in the story of the cross, God steps into the role of the scapegoat, the one marginalized,
blamed and sacrificed by the powers that be, an act that simultaneously exposes our tendency
towards scapegoating, makes clear that God stands in solidarity with the supposed outsider,
and calls us to build a new kind of community.
One not built on us and them, but rather on an ever-expanding us.
God’s beloved children, all of us, all creatures great and small.
From this angle, the cross is an indictment, a challenge, and a summons to a new way of
Speaking of solidarity, a seventh theory interprets the cross as God’s solidarity with all those
who suffer, all those who are oppressed, all those who are betrayed, were excluded, or
tortured, or left behind.
In this regard, the cross has been compared by James Cone and others to a lynching tree,
a place of mob of violence.
After the good news of the cross is both that we are never alone, that God is always
with us, even when we feel God forsaken, even when we suffer, and that this divine solidarity
ultimately will mean that God will deliver us, that we will rise with God.
The resurrection becomes a shining, inspiring icon of hope for the promise of new life.
In the hereafter, yes, but also in the here and now.
An eighth approach understands Jesus’ obedience to essentially undo Adam’s disobedience, recapitulating
and transforming a life of sin into a life of salvation.
A ninth approach sees the crucifixion as the death of the old way of life caught up
in sin and resurrection as the rise of a new way of life in communion with the risen Christ.
Finally, a tenth theory interprets Jesus’ merciful non-violence throughout his ordeal
as eloquent testimony to the depth and strength of his love for us.
Though we betrayed and deserted him, scapegoated and mocked him, tortured and destroyed him,
he remained steadfast in love and mercy.
From this angle, the cross is testimony that the way of love and mercy is the way of life
to which God calls us every day.
Make up your cross and follow me.
So which is it?
Which theory?
Which way of understanding the cross is the best?
For me, the act of surveying this wide range of options, and there are other options, of
course, beyond these ten, is eye-opening in itself.
Each theory has its virtues and its shadows, its gifts and its dangers.
Some of them can be blended or combined, so it’s clear we don’t have to pick only one.
And at the same time, some of them are really quite different, so much so that at times
they can act as counterpoints to each other.
In the end, thinking with our ancestors, this range of options seems designed to keep our
minds open.
That’s one of the things, after all, that mysteries are for, to keep our minds open.
The theories that attract us can act as invitations to go deeper, and the theories that don’t
can act as invitations to wrestle, to explore, to find common ground with other people who
see the cross in other ways.
For wouldn’t it be a shame, a snake-bite, a 180-degree reversal of what God intends,
if our ideas about the cross serve to divide us?
What’s the good news of the gospel on Good Friday and Easter Sunday?
Is it that Jesus, through the cross, shows us love and mercy even unto death?
Is it that Jesus, by rising from the dead, defeats death-dealing forces once and for
Is it that Jesus, by paying every price, cancels all debts and sets us free?
Is it that he subversively transforms some of the worst things in the world, the Roman
cross and betrayal among friends into some of the best things in the world, the tree
of life and forgiveness among enemies, thus effectively proclaiming that God will redeem
everything in the end?
Is it that the cross declares God’s compassionate solidarity with all those who suffer?
Is it that, to borrow a phrase from the poet Mary Oliver, this story will break our hearts
open never to close again to the rest of the world?
Is it all of these things and more?
Strange New World is a salt project production written and produced by me, Matthew Meyer
Bolton, with help from Elizabeth Meyer Bolton and Gretchen Summers.
Music is by Blue Dot Sessions.
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Thanks for listening and see you next time.