Living the Story of the Cross - An Excerpt from What Christians Ought to Believe
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
In today’s excerpt from What Christians Ought to Believe, Michael F. Bird reflects on these few--but essential--words from the Apostles’ Creed, and what they mean for those seeking to live out the pattern of the cross in their own lives.
The reason why the cross was etched onto the walls of catacombs, drawn on the margins of manuscripts, and sung about in ancient hymns was because it was paramount for the church’s faith. For the early church, the cross was the paradigmatic symbol of what it believed, why it behaved as it did, and what it stood for. The church was not a religious club interested in the minutia of Hebrew exegesis and maintaining purity from the unclean masses. It was not a Judean liberation movement preaching a mixture of apocalyptic revival and armed revolution with the Torah in one hand and a sword in the other. It was not an association of Roman gentry who liked to pass the time discussing philosophy, politics, and religion in between drinking games and sex with concubines. Nor was the church interested in ingratiating itself into the benefaction of imperial elites by casting itself as dependents of the Roman gods and their emperor. Instead the early Christians were focused on telling the story that the God of Israel had launched the long-awaited rescue of his people through the cross of the Messiah. While quite cognizant of the shame and scandal of the crucifixion in the surrounding culture, the church’s project, if we can speak coherently of one, was to proclaim the good news of the cross of Jesus and to live out the pattern of the cross in their own lives.
The cross is not merely a tenet of faith that we are required to assent to; it is a manifesto we are to follow. Christians are not called merely to believe in the cross but more properly to live it out. We are to live lives that are patterned after and shaped by the cross. Michael Gorman has a great word for this. He calls it “cruciformity.” Gorman defines it like this: “Cruciformity is an ongoing pattern of living in Christ and of dying with him that produces a Christ-like (cruciform) person,” and “cruciformity misunderstood as the human imitation of Christ is indeed an impossibility. However, cruciformity is the initial and ongoing work of Christ himself—by his Spirit sent by God—who dwells within each believer and believing community, shaping them to carry on the story.” In practice this means that the cross must shape our spirituality, our vision, our values, our attitudes, our behavior, our goals, our ministry, what we fear, what we flee from, and what we try to be as individual Christians and as churches. There is so much we could say here, yet suffice for now we’ll abbreviate it under the headings of identity, imitation, and resistance.
Identity: “I Have Been Crucified with Christ”
To begin with, cruciformity means that our sense of identity is determined by our relationship to the cross of Christ. The English church historian David Bebbington noted that in the nineteenth-century interdenominational newspaper, The British Weekly, the most frequently preached text for sermons was Galatians 2:20. You don’t have to like cricket and crumpets to know that those Victorian-era Brits were probably onto something. The passage reads, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Paul is saying here that he has no independent existence and no separate identity apart from the crucified and risen Jesus. The entire scope of his bodily existence is singularly determined by the fact that the body of the Son of God was crucified for him, and the Son of God now lives in him. Think about that. If we take Paul’s self-description as our own, it means that the only life in me is Christ living through me. It means that I am who I am only as I am in Christ Jesus. The significance of Paul’s self-description in Galatians 2:20 is that when I know who I am in Christ, then I know my place in this world and the purpose of my life.
Even more so today, we are constantly being defined by peers, employers, agencies, and social conventions. People will try to define us by our occupation, our gender, our race, our nationality, our language, our politics, our marital status, even our sexuality. While any of that might be true of us, and much of it can legitimately remain meaningful for us, yet none of it ultimately defines who we are. Paul says that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Being part of the Messiah means the negation of anything that either elevates us over others or belittles us before others. If the cross counts, then labels don’t matter. You are defined by your faith in the crucified and risen Son of God. You are saved and signed by the cross. In case you haven’t heard, in liturgical churches there is a particular role called a crucifer. (Not to be mistaken for crucifiers—those
who crucify other people; the additional “i” makes a big, big difference!) A crucifer is a person who is appointed to carry the cross, a crucifix mounted on top of a processional staff, into the church at the beginning of a worship service. He or she is literally a “crossbearer.” So if you want to know who you are, then know this: if you believe in Jesus, if you have any affection for him, if you cling to his cross for dear life, then you are a crucifer, a crossbearer. By baptism you are dipped and dyed into the cross, by the Lord’s Supper you are fed and blessed by the cross, by the Holy Spirit you are united with the Son of God, who was crucified, buried, risen, and ascended for you.
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