Fact is, none of us wants exactly that – the cross of Christ – as Christian life’s promise. Believe in Jesus, be Christ-like, do Godly things with a Godly attitude, love God, love others, read the Bible, go to church, be selfless, kind, obedient … and what do we get? A horrendous and humiliating public death? No thanks.
That’s not the deal anyone is looking for.
We must be especially wary, then, in our Christian witness and preaching, to be very clear what it is exactly that Jesus did on the cross. The world sees punishment, shame, payment, retribution, and maybe feels a little (or a lot of) personal sin and guilt. The neurotic Christian may wilt with remorse: “That agonizing passion on the cross is my fault! That bloody end is what I deserve!” The arrogant libertine may be repulsed and dismissive: “How can a good God allow that to happen to His son? I don’t believe any of it!” A devious theologian may see a means to control people with fear and guilt.
What we see on the cross is less a picture of God than of what a perfect human will do to glorify God. In that sense a little neurosis about our fate is quite apt. The wrathful God of the Law is the same loving and sacrificial God of the New Testament. God never changes, but the enormous gift we are given through Christ is to see the true nature of a Godly human: Jesus is our example of what a perfect human in God’s eyes actually is. Our fallenness makes it hard to see that.
We are – each of us individually – a great mess of conflicts, fear, aspirations, hope, and pain-avoidance. The sneaky truth of Christ that takes a while to truly see is that our greatest human joy – and our highest, most God-like humanity – is the picture of Christ humbly sacrificing himself for others. Seeing the cross as God’s love and mercy for us, rather than seeing it as God’s anger and wrath for our sin, changes everything about what kind of Christian we can be: loving? … or judgmental?
Our greatest joy, then, is in serving others in freedom, freedom not just from sin but freedom to be all that God created me to be… what He created each of us in His own image to be. I get that the cross is a picture of humanity’s gross failings and sinfulness, but more importantly it is the picture of God’s love, Christ’s humility, and the Spirit’s illumination of truth. In this picture are glory, love, self-sacrifice, humility, restoration, forgiveness, repaired relationship, covered sins, eternal life, the conquering of both sin and death… and overwhelming peace that exceeds all understanding.
As much as we fallen humans focus on “being forgiven,” in Jesus’s entire last prayer – indeed His final teaching we see in John 13-17 including foot-washing, the last supper, the vine, His relationship with God, the Kingdom as life, God as Father, Jesus as Son, the Spirit as comfort, plus persecution, glory, faith, and perseverance – there is not one word about forgiveness of sin. Instead, there is assurance of God’s truth.
When the chips were down and His own end was near, Jesus prayed humbly for God’s glory, His own restoration, and for our faith. So should we. It’s part of the deal.
That’s the best thing I can do for my sake; that’s what’s in it for me.