The Cross of Christ: Redemption and Pattern of Life

Note to the reader: when I arrived in the Diocese of Dallas in January, I embraced the opportunity to contribute my reflections in this blog, entitled, “Ordinarily Canonical.” (This title, of course, has a double meaning, given that I am the Canon to the Ordinary, but it also risks presumption since I dare not claim that my scattered thoughts are actually “canonical,” but only that they strive to be faithful to the canon of inspired scripture.)

As the weeks progressed my schedule filled up and I found that when the time arrived to submit my blog entries, they were not yet ready for publication. At this point I actually have several pieces in varying stages of completion. Then I had to fly back to Potsdam, NY, to empty my house so that the movers could pack their truck and cart our worldly possessions to Dallas. All that is done now, and I am hoping to continue my blog as regularly as I can.

A note on content: I had intended a series on the Cross. This has been the topic of the past few entries and also the focus of my thoughts below.  But while I have still more to say on the subject, it will have to wait. Easter is now upon us. In the weeks ahead, how can we not seize the chance to dwell on the Resurrection? So check in next week, as we grapple with the strange, wonderful - and world shattering - message of the Resurrection - Canon Christopher Brown

The Cross of Christ

Redemption and Pattern of Life

It was Spring - about this same time of year. It was starting to get hot and dry. The dust had begun to rise from the road that snaked its way from Galilee, through the hills of Samaria and down to the Jordan valley, and then up the slope from Jericho to Jerusalem. The Passover was coming. As faithful Jews, Jesus and his friends intended to fulfill the injunction of Deuteronomy to celebrate the feast at the “place of the Lord’s choosing.” (Deuteronomy 14:25) And Jesus had his own reason to be in Jerusalem, which, despite his frequent allusions to his approaching passion, remained oblique to his disciples.

It was after one such “passion prediction,” that James and James - called “Sons of Thunder” by their fellow disciples - came to Jesus with a request. They wanted to sit one at his right hand and one at his left “in his glory.” (Mark 10:37)

It is not clear how they conceived the “glory” that lay ahead. One can’t help but think that they understood it “kata sarka,” or “according to the flesh,” as St Paul would say - according to the standard of this age. Jewish belief in the Messiah tended toward the expectation that the coming Kingdom would be an actual nation state.  This anticipated kingdom would embody the covenant pattern of Torah, the Mosaic law - but it would, nonetheless, be a geo-political entity, to which all other nations would be subservient. Hence, it is as if James and John are seeking the prime appointments in Jesus’ coming regime - something akin to Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.

What these Sons of Thunder fail to grasp is that Jesus’ way to glory is to pass through weakness and suffering. The victory that Jesus is to achieve, “the cup that he will drink” and “baptism with which is to be baptized,” reverses the pattern of this age. And those who belong to him, and the Kingdom he is to bring, will also no longer conform to the pattern of this age.  This reversal of the values of the present age is to be evident not only in personal lives of holiness and compassion but it is also to encompass the full range of human experience.

Jesus indicates that this reversal extends to the prickly issue of power. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great one’s exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-43)

Lest they take this statement as a free-standing moral exhortation, he links it explicitly to the path that he himself will walk - “the cup that he will drink.” Hence, the greatest among them must be servant of all, following the example of their teacher, “for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

The Cross as the Means of our Redemption

Christians who observe Good Friday recognize that in his death on the Cross, Jesus fulfills the role of the suffering Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53 (read each year in the Good Friday liturgy). “He was despised and rejected by men,” says the prophet, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities…All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)

The Jews of Jesus’ time (as well as our Jewish friends today) never understood the account of Servant of God and his vicarious suffering for his people as a Messianic prophecy. The classic Jewish interpretation is that the passage quoted above is about the sufferings of Israel. After all, in a related passage Isaiah says, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (Isaiah 49:3) But it took the first Christians no time at all to identify the suffering servant of Isaiah with the crucified Christ.

The Ethiopian Eunuch is reading this same passage in his chariot on the way home from Jerusalem, “like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent.” Understandably puzzled he asks the key question about the servant’s identity, “about whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Luke writes, “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” (Acts 8:34-35)

Good Friday is about a divine substitution, in which one takes the place another – in this case, many, many others, as “the LORD lays on him the iniquity of us all.” Our redemption is not something we accomplish; it takes place extra nos – “outside of us.” Yet we should not push the language of substitution so far as to suggest that we are entirely disconnected from Jesus’ redemptive suffering. There is a very real sense that in Jesus bearing our humanity, we are there on the cross with him. (Perhaps you remember the song by the Police, “King of Pain,” in which Sting sings, “that’s my soul up there”; we could say the same as we gaze upon the Cross.) And what is our baptism, if not our sacramental participation in his death? As Paul says, “do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3)

The Cross as a Pattern of Life

Yet the Cross is not merely the means by which we are saved – it is not just the hinge on which the ordo salutis or the “order of salvation” turns. By linking his death as a “ransom for many” with his insistence that his disciples must not “Lord it over others” Jesus makes it clear that the Cross inscribes a way of life in our relations with others by which we participate in the pattern of his death.

Jesus insists that to walk the way of the Cross means rejecting the use of coercive power. It means refusing to “lord it over others the way the gentiles do,” in our personal interactions, in the way we order the community of faith, and in our engagement with world. 

There are those who would say that such a statement is pure hypocrisy, that Christians have frequently indulged in power politics as much as anyone else, and continue to do so. We can only admit that, sadly, this is true.  One need only to think for a minute to “fill in the blanks,” and find examples in history and in the contemporary situation. Herein lies the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s quip, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” The fact is, Jesus’ harshest words were not for unbelievers, but for the teachers and leaders of God’s covenant people. As Peter says, “judgement begins with the house of God…it begins with us.” (1 Peter 4:17)

Whatever the historical record, whatever our personal conduct may have been, there is a glaring disconnect when we celebrate Jesus’ death on the cross as our ticket to glory and fail to reject the pattern of this world and its use of coercive power. We proclaim the Good News not just by clear and compelling articulation of the ransom offered on the cross, but also by our imitation of the pattern of Jesus death, in which he came “not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 8:45)


This blog is written by the Rev. Dr. Christopher Brown, the Canon to the Ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.