The Meaning of the Cross in the Twenty-First Century: A Lenten Study

The Meaning of the Cross in the Twenty-First Century
A Lenten Series
Tuesday Evenings—March 7-April 4
7:00 pm
Grace Church Guild Hall 

Session I. The Death of Jesus in the New Testament


  1. Read Mark 1:1-16:8, or Mark 14-15
  2. Read Philippians 2:5-11, I Corinthians 1:18-31, I Corinthians 15:3-4
  3. Read Hebrews 5:1-10, 9:1-23

Reflection Questions:

  1. How would you characterize Mark’s portrayal of Jesus? What are some of the key aspects of his ministry and activity?
  2. Looking closely at Mark’s depiction of the crucifixion, what is the meaning of Jesus’ death for Mark?
  3. What are some of the central elements of Paul’s understanding of the cross? What sort of “problem” does the cross present for Paul?
  4. What are some of the dominant images and words used for Jesus Christ in Hebrews?


Session II. The Meaning of the Cross in the Christian Tradition

Preparation. Read the following hymns from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982

Reflection Questions:
1) What are some of the themes or images that dominate these hymns? What understanding of the crucifixion is reflected in the hymns?
2) Compare the imagery across the four hymns. What differences and similarities do you notice?
3) What attitude or experience of the crucifixion is implied for the writer/singer of the hymn?


Session III. The Cross in Feminist Perspective:

Preparation: Read the selection from Elisabeth SchusslerFiorenza’s Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet.

Session IV. The Cross and the Lynching Tree:

Preparation: Read the selections from James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Session V. Exploring the violence of the cross

Preparation: Read the selection from J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 2nd Edition.


Martin Luther, 1483-1546

Today is the commemoration of Martin Luther in the Episcopal Church’s calendar. He died on this day in 1546.

My sermon on Sunday elicited two lengthy written comments, both of them addressing what I take to be Christian misinterpretations of the Sermon on the Mount (1–that it is meant only for a spiritual elite, and 2–that it is intended to show us the folly of attempting to live according to good works and thus forces us to ask for God’s grace). I made an offhand (and unscripted comment) critical of Luther on the latter point which elicited both of the replies.

So I want to briefly lay out my gratitude and indebtedness to Luther and take issue with some of his central theological concerns.

I am an Episcopal priest because of Martin Luther. As a young man, I struggled to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition in which I was raised. Reading Luther’s early works helped me to come to a new understanding of faith. Instead of assent to a series of propositions, or a commitment to follow Jesus Christ in a certain way, for Luther, faith is not something we need to do. It is a gift from God, God’s work in us, justifying us before God. Our only task is to trust in God’s promise that God will save us.

Luther opened me to the power of God and the power of God’s grace. Over the years, I’ve come to know and experience God’s grace in my life and in the lives of others. I’ve come to trust in God’s promises and to trust that God can work a new thing in me.

If my personal religious experience and theology were profoundly shaped by Luther, there are also important divergences. I find his focus on God’s grace and on human sinfulness ultimately somewhat narrow and only partially adequate for making sense of God, the world, and humanity. He is too critical of the created world, too quick to see evil in it and to see evil in human effort and accomplishment. He was also too critical of the scholastic tradition and not able to see his own dependence on it.

Reading extensively in Augustine of Hippo deepened my experience and knowledge of the grace of God. Augustine also helped me to think of the relationship between God and humans more three-dimensionally, attributing goodness and beauty to creation in ways that Luther could not.

Why am I an Episcopal priest because of Luther? He provided me with the theological and spiritual tools to begin to recconstruct my Christian faith out of my broken experience as a child and young adult. He gave me the tools to build a bridge from my past Christian life to the present. There were many other tools and building blocks, including many that I brought with me from the church of my upbringing, but Luther helped me see and experience the way forward, to imagine the possibility of a way to cross the river that blocked my path. The path on the other side of the river ultimately led toward the Episcopal Church but without Luther, I couldn’t have begun the journey.

Unapologetic: Francis Spufford on Religious Belief

Francis Spufford has a new book. It’s excerpted at The Guardian. It looks to be an innovative defense of Christian faith:

a defence of Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. The book is called Unapologetic because it isn’t giving an “apologia”, the technical term for a defence of the ideas.

And also because I’m not sorry.

On belief:

The funny thing is that, to me, it’s belief that involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable. Belief demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires continual, fluffy pretending – pretending that might as well be systematic, it’s so thoroughly incentivised by our culture.

On the emotions:

It’s got itself established in our culture, relatively recently, that the emotions involved in religious belief must be different from the ones involved in all the other kinds of continuous imagining, hoping, dreaming, and so on, that humans do. These emotions must be alien, freakish, sad, embarrassing, humiliating, immature, pathetic. These emotions must be quite separate from commonsensical us. But they aren’t. The emotions that sustain religious belief are all, in fact, deeply ordinary and deeply recognisable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult.

Mark Vernon reviews Spufford’s book (and Rowan Williams’ volume on C.S. Lewis) here.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologian and Martyr 1945

Today marks the 66th anniversary of the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There’s a brief bio on the Holy Women, Holy Men blog. Bonhoeffer was both a powerful witness and martyr to the faith, and a challenging theologian.

A recent book by Martin Marty explores the history of his Letters and Papers from Prison, which his close friend, confidant, and biographer Eberhard Bethge edited and published. Here’s an excerpt. Here’s more on the series “The Lives of Great Religious Books” to which Marty’s book belongs.

Included in the Letters and Papers is the poem “Who am I.” Here’s an English translation that first appeared in the March 4, 1946 issue of Christianity and Crisis:

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equally, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were

compressing my throat,

Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!

From Religion Online.

More on Rob Bell

Brian McLaren’s Huffington Post essay in defense of Rob Bell and rebutting Al Mohler. In the context of dealing with Mohler’s attacks, McLaren also asks some pointed questions about “the decline of mainline Protestantism.” Perhaps the most salient concerns the conservative argument that mainline Protestants succumbed to secular culture. Here’s his response:

To more and more of us these days, conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist theology looks and sounds more and more like secular conservatism — economic and political — simply dressed up in religious language. If that’s the case, even if Dr. Mohler is right in every detail of his critique, he’d still be wise to apply the flip side of his warning to his own beloved community.

In another blog post, McLaren points out other evangelical voices who support Bell, if even only partially.

Rob Bell himself gives some background on why he wrote the book here.

My friend (and former student!) the Very Rev’d Jake Owensby, Dean of the Cathedral of St. Mark in Baton Rouge, has written a thoughtful series of posts on heaven and hell. You can read it here.


To Change the World

I’m working through James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.

I’ve been carrying it around in my bag for the last few weeks, in hopes of cracking it open. I finally did today. It’s quite interesting. Hunter is a Professor at the University of Virginia. The book is an analysis and critique of the ways in which Christians, left and right, have approached cultural change. Hunter argues that change in culture occurs largely by means of networked elites, i.e., top-down, rather than bottom-up. He points out that for all of their efforts in the second half of the twentieth century, Christians were unable to effect much cultural change at all. Take a hot-button issue like same-sex marriage. Recent polls suggest that in spite of all of the efforts against it, a majority of Americans now support it in some form.

I’m not all the way through, but it’s clear where Hunter is headed. He starts, not with Jesus’ teachings, but with creation: “In the Christian view, then, human beings are, by divine intent and their very nature, world-makers.” He argues against the politicization of Christianity, either by left and right, and seeks to place Christianity’s role in “faithful presence.” I will say more about this idea in a later post.

It’s interesting reading in the context of what is taking place in Madison right now. I have made the case that Grace Church, by its very presence on the square, is an actor in the current drama. Whatever we do or don’t do sends a message. Hunter, I’m sure, would agree, because of his perception that politics (power) has become all-pervasive in our culture. Yet what should I or Grace do?

We have opened our doors, welcoming in those who are protesting in the streets, offering hospitality, a place to warm up and rest. As we open our doors, we offer something else, too. Grace is a beautiful space. As I’ve said here before, people sense its beauty, experience it, and for many who enter, they have never experienced anything quite like it before.

This weekend we will be doing a couple of other things. First, we will make more room for prayer. I don’t know how many people will come in tomorrow, but we will offer our chapel as a place where those who seek silence and prayer can find it.

Serendipitously, we will also be offering two musical experiences that will also evoke the beautiful. The first is a concert Saturday night by Seraphic Fire. The second is a performance in the liturgy at 10:00 on Sunday morning of a missa brevis by Haydn. Each will be an opportunity to encounter beauty. Whatever else we might do this weekend, we can do that. We can invite people to encounter beauty, and through beauty, to encounter God.

I don’t mean this as a distraction from what’s taking place on the streets. Rather, it seems to me that beauty can put everything else into its proper perspective, and by helping us touch the divine, help to ground us when all around seems to be chaos.


More on the Atonement–update on McCormack’s Croall lectures.

Darren at Via Crucis has given us summaries of Bruce McCormack’s lectures. I’m not going to go into great detail because much of the material relates to theological debates in which I have little interest. However, it seems to me the fourth and fifth lectures do provide some food for thought. In the fourth, McCormack deals with the views of Barth and von Balthasar as examples of his typology of theories of the atonement “which order the person of Christ to his work.”

According to MCcormack, no theologian has stressed so highly as Barth the importance for understanding the meaning of the cross of Jesus’ last words in Matthew and Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

For Barth, what is most important in the cross is the death of the sinner in the person of the God-Human.


Again, it is vital for the ontology undergirding Barth’s soteriology that the subject of the cross is God – not in a qualified or diminished sense, but really God. God hands Himself over to man’s contradiction of Him, places Himself under judgment. If this is really so, then the cry of dereliction holds the key to the meaning of the Incarnation: God the Son has taken the place of women and men by enduring the deepest and most extreme consequence of sin, which is separation from God.

For McCormack:

Barth is suggesting that the passion and death of Jesus are human experiences which God does not simply find a way to go and do, but which take place in God’s own life (without compromising the being of God). If His being is in His act, then it must be in the act of suffering and dying a reconciling death, as well – no, God’s being is especially this being.

Balthasar does something similar by focusing not on the cross, or Jesus’ dying, but on his death, on Holy Saturday:

the descent is the final moment in Christ’s defeat, and its significance is found in the depth to which he goes in separation from God the Father – the full separation that we are due in our death for sin.

In lecture 5, McCormack turns to his own view. He begins again with Jesus’ last words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” McCormack says what I think has to be said about Mark and Matthew:

If we deal with the cry seriously, without trying to explain it away, McCormack says, we must face the fact that Mark and Matthew seem to want to say that God remained silent when called upon.

He then  makes a move I’m not sure I find convincing, arguing that “Jesus fears not death itself but the eschatological tribulation that is sure to accompany it.” God had to judge and condemn sin, in doing so, had to abandon Jesus so that the Son might die. In the end, the gradual withdrawal of the Holy Spirit from Jesus in the passion, with its culmination in Jesus’ cry, “Into your hands I commend my spirit is a loss of communion with the Father.

I do think that an adequate theory of the Atonement must begin with Mark’s gospel, with Jesus’ sense of abandonment by God, and God’s silence. That silence was temporary and in the resurrection we see both the vindication of Jesus, and humanity restored.

Incomprehensible Theology

Michael Jinkins challenges the “dumbing-down of theology, taking off from the following research:

Last fall “The Economist” reported on new research by Daniel Oppenheimer, a Princeton University psychologist, which suggests that if you want people to learn something “make the text conveying the information harder to read.” “The Economist” comments that one of the perennial paradoxes of education “is that presenting information in a way that looks easy to learn often has the opposite effect. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when people are forced to think hard about what they are shown they remember it better.”

Money quote:

This is the great adventure of theological education. I’m talking about the kind of theological education we do in our congregations, in Sunday schools, and in our homes, and not only the kind we do in graduate theological schools. It invites us to comprehend that which cannot be comprehended, to interrogate that which provokes ever new questions, to engage with our whole hearts and minds the God who created us out of nothing, though of course we have no real conception of what it means to say “out of nothing.” There’s no way to appreciate the fact that God numbers every hair on our heads without appreciating the endless expanse of a universe that is a Tinker Toy to God.

It kind of reminds of one of the greatest compliments paid me by a student (though I doubt she meant it that way): “Dr. Grieser, your class makes my head hurt. I have to think too hard.” And that was at the end of an hour of Intro to Biblical Literature.

New perspectives on the Atonement

I was interested to observe that during the Trinity Institute, both in the televised conversations, and in our discussions at Luther Memorial, the Atonement came under close scrutiny. Ben Myers points to Bruce McCormack’s 2011 Croall Lectures which set out a new typology of the Atonement. There’s reporting, with theological reflection here. When people ask me about the Atonement, and I’m always surprised when they do, I refer them to Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor. I read it for the first time as an undergraduate; came back to it when I was preparing a course on the Theological Anthropology in the Christian Tradition. On second reading, I found it both interesting and troubling. I didn’t find it particularly helpful in understanding the perspectives of thinkers, either ancient, medieval, or early modern. That’s always the problem with typologies of course. Perhaps McCormack’s alternative will be more compelling, intellectually and theologically.

But what fascinates me most, as a theologian and as a pastor, is the continuing power of Atonement theory. Christians and seekers both struggle with the meaning of the cross for their lives. That came out in our conversations this week; I also encounter it in conversations with thoughtful parishioners. We still have work to do.