Movement 1: Powerful Ideas – Snakes
I heard a parable recently, not from Jesus but from Buddha. It’s a timely one, especially considering what we just heard in our Old Testament reading about fiery serpents.
“The buddha once warned 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. If you pick the snake up in the middle of its body, it won’t go well for either you or anyone near you. If you get a forked stick and pick it up just behind its jaws, you’ll have the snake in hand and be safe.
Likewise, when it comes to understanding my teachings,” Buddha said, “hold them wrong, and they can bite. It’s surprisingly easy to interpret the teaching as opposite of what I intend.”1
These words came from Buddha, but they could’ve just as easily come from Jesus.
Our Christian faith is full of powerful ideas…ideas that if held the wrong way, can bite and harm.
This all came to mind for me this week as we make the turn past the midway point of Lent. As we find our eyes lifting to the cross waiting for us at the end of this journey.
Movement 1.5: John 3:16
As we stumble towards it, we hear some of the most well-known words of all of Scripture today, John 3:16.
For centuries, this verse has served as a condensed nutshell of Christian beliefs:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”John 3:16
Central to this verse is the moment on the cross when God gave his Son as a price to pay for our sins.
Here, while encountering the famous words of the Gospel, we find ourselves, perhaps without even meaning to, holding the powerful snake that is the idea of the cross.
The cross is so ubiquitous in our architecture and worship and jewelry that sometimes we fail to remember how powerful and potentially dangerous it can be.
Today I’d like to linger here a moment, surveying the wondrous cross, and how it could still hurt or heal us through our interpretations of it.
Movement 2: Substitutionary Atonement
If you were to turn to a theology textbook, the first explanation of Jesus’ death on the cross would probably be something like this:
Because of the mistakes of Adam and Eve, we live as people of sin. Jesus came into the world to save us from this sin. He accomplished that salvation by and dying on the cross for us.2
It was a transaction of sorts. If you took a closer look, the heading on that section of the textbook might say: “Substitutionary atonement.”
Instead of God punishing us, Jesus stepped in, and took the blow for us. This is one of the most prevalent understandings of what happened on the cross. Indeed, many people might think this is the only understanding of it.
Movement 3: What this theology means (positive & negative)
In some ways, this theology liberates us:
We’re known as worthy of someone’s death to protect us and forgiven of the wrongs we’ve done.
But even as the words hang in the air,
I can feel the undercurrents of what this teaching is also saying:
This message that says that a gruesome, public death at the hands of the government was what God wanted. Or at least was what God felt was necessary.
And as I stumble through the ongoing wilderness of Lent, I find this message hard to bear.
As I hold the snake that is this powerful idea, I see how clearly it can bite.
For some, especially for feminist and womanist theologians of the past few decades, these ideas of the cross effectively say that Jesus was murdered in lieu of us.
And then we’re also, in a subtle yet potent way, saying that violence is God’s way.
That violence is holy.
And lest you think theology is reserved just for a textbook,
Think of the real-life implications of this kind of belief, especially when unexamined:
God is appeased by cruelty.
And thus we too can use cruelty and punishment as a means for justice.
Think of the implications for victims of abuse.
Who might look to the cross and understand that their submission to pain is what Jesus would have wanted, what Jesus modeled himself.
Lest you think it’s just a modern phenomenon to struggle with this image of the violent cross, hear the words of Peter Abelard, a theologian from the 1100s, when he wrote:
How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything…worse still that God should consider the death of his son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world!”3
Even Jesus stumbles on this journey: “Going a little farther,” towards the cross, the Gospel of Mark tells us, “[Jesus] fell on his face, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him…Abba Father,” he said, “for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:35-36).
Movement 4: Conclusion – More interpretations – Cruciform Cathedral
As the Buddha alluded to in his parable, there are multiple ways of holding those snakes that are the powerful ideas of faith.
Likewise, there are many, many different ways of understanding the cross…
This theory of substitution is but one.
One sermon couldn’t hope to cover all of the teachings, but consider in brief how some have interpreted the cross differently…
…In Latin America, tied up with the Liberation Theology movement, some interpret Jesus dying on the cross as the act of Jesus liberating people from oppressive systems. Jesus as rebel and liberator.
…Others have used our Gospel passage for today to focus on Jesus’ death not for its violence, but as an example of the most self-sacrificial love there could ever be. The cross then, represents love.
…For me personally, I’ve found the mystical interpretations of the cross the most appealing, as it draws us in through our own “dark nights of the soul,” to realize that Jesus has been to that place of darkness before and has overcome it, and so will we.
Throughout history, ecumenical councils have been called to clarify the church’s position on certain topics, like the Trinity, the Creed, icons in churches, and more.
But notably, no council has ever been held to clarify the church’s understanding of the cross.
As one Harvard Divinity Professor said recently,
Perhaps the remainder of this Lenten season can be for you an opportunity to enter the cruciform cathedral that is contemplating the cross.
Believing the words of our tradition when we say that those who walk “in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”4
This way of the Cross we walk, while not easy, is a central path in our life of faith,
And walk it we must. Amen.
 From SALT Podcast by Matthew Myer Boulton, https://www.saltproject.org/podcast-strange-new-world/2021/2/23/understanding-easter-part-two-ten-ways-of-looking-at-the-cross
 See chapter 1 (p. 29ff) of Proverbs of Ashes by Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Ann Parker for more on this interpretation.
 Ibid, 30.
 BCP 220, Collect for Monday in Holy Week