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Why is the Cross a Symbol of Christianity? It Didn’t Used to Be!

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/28/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 8:31-9:1. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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The early Christian church didn’t use the cross as a religious symbol. The cross didn’t appear in the Christian art and artifacts that we have from before the reign of Emperor Constantine in the 300s AD. For the first three hundred years of the church, Christians used the image of fishes and shepherds, doves, and even boat anchors – but never the cross. The cross didn’t become a logo for Christianity until after the Roman Empire began to be Christianized and crucifixion was banned as a form of execution.

So why not? Given how central Jesus’ death on the cross is to the Christian faith, why wasn’t the cross a cherished symbol from the very beginning?

Maybe we ought to ask Peter. In the text of Mark that comes just before our reading this morning, the soon-to-be-apostle Peter has just confessed the identity of Jesus as the Christ, the Jewish messiah. This is the correct answer, and Jesus doesn’t deny it. But Jesus silences Peter and orders the disciples not to tell anyone.

That’s weird enough. But what comes next is even more unexpected.

The Jewish messiah is supposed to be the person that sets the world right, kicks out the foreign invaders, and re-establishes the kingdom of David in Jerusalem – this time forever!

But immediately after Peter confesses Jesus as that very messiah, Jesus launches into a frank discussion with the disciples. He tells them, to paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, that he is not the droid they are looking for. He is the messiah, but this messiah is not the conquering king that the disciples expected. He is the suffering servant that Isaiah prophesied, saying about him:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

    crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

    and by his bruises we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

    we have all turned to our own way,

and the Lord has laid on him

    the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:5-6)

Mark says that Jesus, “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Now, Peter thought that Jesus was going to lead him and the other disciples to victory. He thought that they were going to be doing the killing! They were going to be ruling in a kingdom of justice and peace, like the reign of Solomon, but even better. What was this craziness about being killed?

So Peter says, “Hey, Jesus, lemme talk to you for a minute.” And he speaks to him privately. I imagine it went something like this: “Come on, teacher. I know you must not mean what you are saying – you’re always talking in parables after all. But just in case I misunderstood – you know that you can’t be going up to Jerusalem to die, right? We are going up to conquer

When we get to the holy city, we are going to set all those priests and rulers straight. We’re going to get God’s house in order. And then we’re going to kick those wicked Romans out once and for all. Maybe crucify a few of them for once! Am I right, or am I right?”

Peter thought he was giving Jesus a private pep talk, but Jesus isn’t having it. He turns away from Peter and faces all of the disciples, and he says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

“Get behind me, Satan.” Wow. Can you imagine how crushing it would be to have Jesus say that to you? And not just in private, but in front of everybody? I feel sorry for Peter.

But for all his good intentions, Peter was the mouthpiece of the evil one in that moment. The Tempter was speaking through him, just like in Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness beyond the Jordan. The devil said to him, “If you will only bow down and worship me, all the kingdoms of the world can be yours.”

And so Jesus calls everybody together. Peter, the disciples, the crowds – everyone. And he tells them: “If you want to follow me, deny yourself and take up the cross. Embrace shame and execution. Accept death. Because that’s the only way to truly live. If you are not ashamed of me, you will walk with me in this path of the cross. But if you are ashamed of me, I will be ashamed of you when I come into my kingdom.”

So ask Peter about the cross. Ask him why it wasn’t a religious symbol for the early church. Because it was a stumbling block to him. It was a scandal to everyone who heard Jesus’ words that day. 

The Roman cross was a horrifying evil, and for centuries the Christian church did not center it as a symbol. It took the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the ending of crucifixion as a punishment for the church to begin to see the cross as anything other than unalloyed horror.

That’s how we should view the cross, too. That’s the key to understanding Jesus’ words to us in the gospel of Mark. Because Jesus wasn’t using the image of “taking up your cross” as a pious metaphor. He was being literal. He was talking about the shocking, excruciating, public execution that he and many others would endure for their faith.

It’s easy to lose sight of that today, seventeen hundred years after crucifixion was consigned to the dustbin of history. It might be easier for us to hear Jesus telling us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and get strapped into the electric chair.” Or, “those who want to be my followers have to be ready for the gas chamber.” 

To be a disciple of Jesus is to face the firing squad. It is to be counted as a mortal enemy of this world. It is to face the wrath of society. It is to become a scapegoat. It is to become that suffering servant with Jesus, just like Isaiah foretold, one who “makes many righteous” and “bears their iniquities.”

We can’t step back from this message. As friends and followers of Jesus, we can’t look away from the cross, as truly horrible as it is. We can’t pretty it up, and make it just about some pious, private, “spiritual” reality. To walk with Jesus is a public and literal act. It means embracing his path of downward mobility and suffering for the love of those around us – especially those who hate us.

The early church was right. The cross isn’t a symbol of glory; it is a signet of suffering. It is what Christ suffered in order to give us life, to show God’s love to us when we hated him.

Jesus is saying to us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for his life. We are each offered the same bargain. But Jesus reminds us that the devil is a liar, and his bargain is a scam: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

What Jesus offers us is life and truth. “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” but in the way of the cross, “those who lose their life for [his] sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Will we be ashamed of Jesus and his words? Will we cling to the life that we have? Will we scratch and claw and kill to defend it? 

Or will we embrace the way of our crucified messiah, the suffering servant, who has promised us that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power”?