The Dirty Cross
A few weeks ago, as we were trying to keep the sanctuary straight through all this construction mess, we were moving the cross from the information table to the coffee table.
When we went to move it, we noticed it was pretty scarred. Someone said, “This cross really needs cleaning!” I almost agreed out of rote, until I looked at the cross, and for some reason, it just struck me as appropriately dirty. You know?
Our cross is silver, so it’s now all tarnished and fingerprinted. We’ve been in the middle of remodeling our new space for about a year. During that time, we’ve had to move the altar, the band, the chairs, slide projectors and sound equipment nearly every week.
To be honest, over the course of remodeling we’ve neglected our cross a bit.
I hadn’t thought about the cross in such a long time, that seeing it now, all messed up, kind of bloodied, gave it a meaning I’d never considered before: The Cross is supposed to be dirty.
Now, I’ve struggled to identify with the cross. For most of my spiritual journey, I’ve seen it as a repugnant symbol of the worst aspects of our inhumanity to each other. I thought it detracted from Jesus’ message of love and service. To me, Christians focused too much on Jesus’ death and not enough on the resurrection. Furthermore, the cross is and always has been a symbol of the ancient Roman Empire, then the “holy” Roman Empire. Considering that the Empire has done Christianity no favors—in fact, it was Roman thought that polluted Jesus’ original message, I admit I have purposefully neglected the cross as a symbol of my fellowship with Jesus.
But, as it is with anything you chew on for years, I think I am finally starting to understand what all the fuss is about. At least, I’m finding a way for the cross to be powerfully symbolic without it having to be about God dying on the cross to save our souls from an eternity in Hell.
Let me be clear about this. In my way of thinking (and the thinking of other modern theologians) Jesus did not die on the cross in some sort of cosmic murder-suicide pact with God, as a ransom for all human sin. This is Paul’s interpretation, and it became the standard interpretation in a world ruled by the oppressive, cruel, and often debauched Roman Empire.
Now, I know some of you are hearing Paul’s voice in your heads. “Jesus died to sin once for all” (Romans 6). It’s the idea that Jesus was a ransom to God for our errant human ways.
While this has become “creedal” for many Christian sects, the truth is that atonement was simply how early followers of Jesus reconciled the death of their Messiah in the most ignominious way: on the Roman instrument of torture reserved for traitors. The cross. Early Jewish-Christians felt that Jesus’ death must have had cosmic significance because they couldn’t otherwise comprehend how the Messiah could be killed in such a demeaning manner.
Paul carried this idea even further by creating a systematic view of Jesus’ death that’s come to be known as substitutionary atonement.
For Paul, Jesus’ death isn’t just a cosmic event, it’s the cosmic event—an “out with the old, bad world, in with the new, Christ-like world,” and he expected this major change—this major change in human nature, during his lifetime.
But the truth is that Jesus died for treason—that’s the official charge recorded in The Bible. Jesus died for treason caused by his willingness to go to the cross in service to God. It is this dedicated, single-minded service to his vision of a world of peace, love and mutual human respect that leaves the cross a bloody mess.
Jesus doesn’t pay a high price for our redemption. He pays a high price for speaking out against injustice and being completely loyal to his vision of a just and forgiving God—a God of unconditional, absolute love.
The cross is supposed to be dirty.
How do we reconcile Jesus’ teaching of a God of grace and love with Paul’s idea that God demanded a human sacrifice? If we’re honest, we can’t. We cannot reconcile those diametrically opposed ideas. So, me, I’ll go with Jesus’ view of God, rather than Paul’s theories about the meaning of Jesus’ death.
This freedom from Paul’s theology—appropriate for his era but inappropriate for ours—allows us to rethink the meaning of the cross not as an act God committed through Jesus “once for all,” but instead as an act Jesus once committed as an example for all.
No, the cross is not where a petty God demands the death of “his only begotten son,” it’s where humanity intersects with divinity.
The cross is where human being and God consciousness become one. The cross is where Christ is in Jesus is in us, inseparable, a single, unified entity of love.
The cross is the place where God meets us as we are, all our faults, all our sins—absolutely our sins, and then, without judgment, washes it all away. Washes all our human suffering, our faults, our mistakes and missteps all onto that cross. This is why the cross is supposed to be dirty.
Jesus taught about a God of forgiveness. There’s no indication in any spiritual text I’ve ever seen that there is a limit on how often we can be forgiven. Nor have I ever seen anything that indicates God, even after Jesus, doesn’t expect us to mess up—frequently.
We are invited to visit the cross often and lay bare our souls because the cross is supposed to be dirty.
Whether, like Paul, we believe there was a cosmic event at Jesus’ crucifixion, or we interpret the cross more spiritually as the place we leave all our guilt, regret and sorrow—our sin—to God’s unconditional, forgiving, grace, then the cross is supposed to be dirty.
That’s still a fairly traditional interpretation of the cross. Jesus died to atone for our sins. I don’t take that literally, of course, but I certainly understand and appreciate the idea that we, like Jesus, should bare our souls to God.
We also need to atone—become at one with God, and what better place to do that than at that special meeting place where God Consciousness and human being intersect—the cross?
The Cross is where human and Divine meet as one.
Ever think about the cross that way? As a crossroads? The place where the divine Christ and the human Jesus intersect to change the world, to turn everything we think of as worldly power on its head?
How many times have we found ourselves at a crossroads, too afraid to lay bare our souls to God? To leave it all on the cross, to dirty it all up? How often have we obsessively polished our crosses because we’re afraid to mess them up? Well, stop it. The cross is supposed to be dirty.
Jesus bares his soul on the cross. He gives it all to God in an anguished plea for forgiveness. He asks God’s forgiveness for himself and, importantly, for his tormentors.
Jesus dirties it up real good because the cross is supposed to be dirty.
If we are to carry on as Jesus did, if we are to carry the cross—the intersection of God Consciousness and human being, then we are tasked to live with the same forgiving, self-sacrificing love of Jesus—even for those—especially for those—who would crucify us.
The cross—the dirty cross, shows we must be intentional about our relationship with God. We need to lay bare our souls often, and let God resurrect us, just like Jesus, ready for another day of simply being our best human selves.
Perhaps this is what is ultimately meant by the idea of “taking up the cross.”
We typically interpret that phrase to mean we are supposed to help someone with the “burden” of their cross. What if the cross is not a burden, but a blessing?
While we always want to serve those in need, I think Jesus also makes it clear that before we can help someone with their dirty cross, we need to get our own cleaned up first. Then we are to get it dirty again and release ourselves to God (atone) for cleansing, over and over and over again because, well, because we’re not Jesus. We’re not going to get it right the first time. We need that crossroads, and we need to visit it often, to release everything we’re carrying around to God.
We’re still working on knowing God as intimately as Jesus. And that’s okay. That’s what the cross is for—a place for us to meet our divine selves and get spiritually cleansed.
I don’t think this is as difficult to accomplish as we’ve been led to believe. James makes it pretty clear how we might go about leaving our dirt on the cross (James 1.19-21, NIV):
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
Pretty straight-ahead. Be patient, be kind, keep cool. When we find that difficult to do, then James suggests we “get rid of all moral filth.” I love that term, “moral filth.” I can picture it all over the cross.
James says to get rid of our “moral filth” by not merely listening to the words of Jesus, but by doing what Jesus says.
And Jesus tells us to go to the cross with 100% trust that it is not the end of life. Instead, it’s the beginning of an entirely new life. A new way of being. Being at one with God.
Jesus tells us to lay all our fear on that cross. He tells us to go to the cross, to dirty it up with all our pain and suffering, and to leave it there, where God intersects and inspires us to be better, to achieve greater, to change the world one person at a time not by worshipping a crucifix or worshipping at the feet of Jesus, but by being Jesus in the world.
By taking up his cross.
By carrying on his tradition of peaceful resistance against an empire of fear and loathing.
And most importantly, Jesus tells us to visit our own cross, often, so we can lay bare our souls to our God who has already forgiven us, who cherishes the person covered in dirt and filth, who promises to meet us every time we visit the cross, and who transforms us into the light of hope in a world encrusted in darkness.
So, go ahead. Lay bare your soul to God. Meet God at that intersection, that crossroads, and remember: The cross is supposed to be dirty.
Meditation: I am meeting God at the crossroads today.