Special: belonging specifically to a particular person
What is the purpose and meaning of the cross? Like all questions where we’ve heard the answer so many times that it has become like a ringing in our ears that we don’t even notice anymore, it’s important to step back and re-ask the question and consider the fact that we might be forgetting - or even missing - some things.
For many (I’m tempted to write most, but I may be off base) evangelicals, the answer is, “The cross was a special calling for Jesus alone. He came to die on it, and it is nothing more than the means of our salvation.” They may not put it in those words, but that is generally what it boils down to. This doesn’t mean they are disregarding the cross. Quite the contrary. They usually emphasize it above all else.
I want to modify that answer, not because it's a lie, but because it isn't the full truth. Jesus' death on the cross was indeed his calling, and it was definitely unique. The title of this article is a play on words. I absolutely believe that Jesus' death was special in the first definition of the word: "better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual." But it also made a fundamental change in the world, and it is now a calling for all of us, not just him alone. So in the second definition of the word, it isn't strictly special. The cross is partially about the means of our salvation, but it is also about so much more.
The problem is that most of us have got our Christology (theology of Christ) all wrong. We have made Jesus so much God that we have forgotten he was completely human. Now, you’ll never hear that taught in any self-respecting evangelical church. “Fully God, fully man,” they say - and that’s why he could take on the sins of humanity. But when you look deeper at our teachings, many churches who claim to have the absolute highest and purest Christologies are actually operating with very low ones. The Bible and early church were clear: Jesus is the “new Adam,” the complete picture of restored humanity in the image of God and the fullest demonstration of what it looks like for man to be united with God. The problem is, when we use “special calling” language, we are often making Jesus more God than man, which makes him the exception instead of the rule. Even while we pray “make us look more like Jesus,” this kind of theology insulates us from being exactly that.
A calling for all of us
First, the cross is far more than only a unique calling for Jesus to "get us saved." It is also our example. It is the picture of what following Jesus looks like. Jesus said so himself, and he was very clear about it, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25) The word here is “cruciform” - in the shape of the cross. If our discipleship and our theology are not cruciform, then they aren’t really Christian. His words, not mine.
Cruciformity means recognizing that God works in and through suffering. It means that he stands and suffers with those who suffer most - the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized - against the systems and people who impoverish, oppress, and marginalize them; and therefore, we should too. It means being willing to die to ourselves - our disordered desires, limited perspectives, and preconceived ideas of how things are meant to be - and say “not my will, but yours be done.”
A picture of the Kingdom
Second, the cross isn’t just the way in which God defeated sin and death at one time in history. It is a picture of the way that God deals with all sin and all death (at least until the time of judgment, and we can debate what that means and looks like some other time). Therefore, the cross is the clearest picture we have of how we are to deal with sin and death in the broken world around us - not as the angry mob or the nail-driving centurions, but as the accused, the rejected, and the crucified one who said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The cross of Christ is an intentional example of what it looks like to live according to the Sermon on the Mount, that lengthy text that I have called the Constitution of the Kingdom of God. Found in Matthew 5-7, this set of teachings is the fullest and most systematic presentation we have of the nonviolent, enemy loving, power structure reversing, all-forgiving, sacrificial, upside-down and cruciform Kingdom of God that we have. And the cross is the main example of what it looks like when it is lived out.
A challenge to Empire
Third, we forget that the cross was a political symbol, not a religious one. Crucifixion was reserved for political rebels, insurrectionists, and other threats to the state. If God truly could have “saved the world in whatever way he wanted to,” as I have heard many Christians say, then what can we learn from the fact that the way he wanted to do it was to die at the hands of imperial executioners for threatening both the abusive religious establishment and the totalitarian, “sovereign” rule of Caesar? (John 19:7-16) What about the fact that he refused to offer violent resistance, telling his best friend Peter to put away the sword when he tried defending him? (John 18:11) Instead, when he embraced the title of king at his trial before Pilate, he made it clear that “my kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight.” (John 18:36)
I am not suggesting we cast aside proclaiming truth or bearing witness to the reality of the Kingdom. I’m saying the opposite: living a cruciform faith is the proclamation of truth and the witness to the Kingdom. There’s a reason the word “martyr” literally means “witness,” and that early church father Tertullian beautifully said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
You can’t be serious, right?
Now, I can already hear the voices protesting. “You can’t seriously be suggesting we seek to be killed, right?” No. Of course not. The early church considered martyrdom to be the highest gift a person could receive (seriously, fact check me on that), because it allowed them to join Christ in his sufferings and die for their belief in him. But they all explicitly agreed that if you wanted to be a martyr or you were seeking to be executed, then you were completely missing the point. They also noted that those kinds of people were the most likely to back down and bail on the whole thing once their lives were actually on the line.
It’s true: the cross is a spiritual example. But that does not mean it isn’t “literal.” I’m always hesitant to “spiritualize” things, because usually this comes with watering them down. “Turn the other cheek,” “love your enemies,” and “do not [violently] resist an evildoer” are some of the most commonly spiritualized teachings. “Well,” we are taught, “it’s not literal. It’s more of just a general spiritual principal.” And then we’re stuck with 1500 years of the Church justifying violence and cooperation with Empire - a 180-degree spin from everything that had been taught in Jesus’ name for the previous five centuries.
So no, you don’t literally have to go seek to be killed. But at the very least, we need to take the cross seriously for what it teaches us about being disciples, and not just how it gets us saved or clears up our balance with God (a metaphor I’ll never really understand, and one that came about much later than the New Testament).
We also need to take Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the religious establishment and ruling Empire very seriously when we consider our relationship to our own Empire.
And we need to remember the things that got him there: empowering the poor and oppressed, dining with the corrupt and the hated, and throwing a wrench in the daily operations of the religious-industrial complex.
And that, my friends, is certainly not a “special calling” for Jesus alone.