We all look forward to Lent’s conclusion and the celebration of Resurrection Sunday. This is the Sunday of victory and joy as the Church enters into the reality that Christ has defeated death and hell, declared victory over such enemies and set history on its final course of consummation. But there is a danger that the joy of Easter will shine with such brightness that it will outshine the cross.

The cross and resurrection are not two independent events. They are forever connected, while distinct, as two sides of a coin can be called, “heads” and “tails” but remain a unified treasure. But there is a danger forever threatening the cross and its power. That danger has traditionally been called a Theology of Glory. The main premise of this false theology is that the cross is a necessary evil. In this view the cross is something we pass on through in order to get to the real point: the resurrection. This view is deeply dangerous because it makes the cross a means to a greater end instead of the end itself. Jesus says, “It is finished” on the cross, not, “Stage one complete, onto stage two”. The Theology of Glory is dangerous in a practical way too because it robs the cross of its power and therefore robs us of our joy and hope.

Stated plainly, the cross is the central hub from which all the spokes of the wheel of theology are enjoined. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he made a striking statement, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.[1]” Can it really be that Paul wanted them to know nothing else but Jesus on the cross? For Paul, the understanding of Christ on the Cross is the gospel. It is of “first importance”.[2] The cross and resurrection are not two independent events. They are forever connected.

He is not the only one to stress the centrality of the cross. All four Gospels move quickly towards the passion narrative where this single event is given the majority of time. More real estate is taken up in the Gospels with Jesus’ death than his resurrection. Mark, for example, runs quickly through Jesus’ life and teachings giving broad details and quick-moving stories[3] but essentially hits the breaks for the chapters about the Passion. His narrative slows down and describes things more dramatically. Matthew will spend two long chapters on the Passion and only 15 verses on the resurrection. John is generous with 29 verses on the resurrection but has 2-3 chapters on the Passion, depending if you count the High Priestly Prayer or not. And Luke spends two chapters on the Passion and only one on the resurrection-and that’s if you choose to count all of Jesus’ appearances, not just the time at the tomb and upper room. The emphasis in all four Gospels is on Jesus’ death. Why is that?

When Paul writes to the Romans he says, “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son,[4]” and in Romans 6:3 he writes that we were, “baptized into his [Christ’s] death”. Peter makes the stunning claim, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.[5]” Mark tells us Jesus came to serve and “give his life as a ransom for many[6]” and the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “He has appeared once for all at the end of ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.[7]” Everywhere the Scriptures proclaim the centrality of the cross.

But what about the resurrection? When Paul speaks of things of “first importance” he speaks of the cross but also the need of the resurrection. In I Corinthians 15:14 he writes, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” He goes on to explain that without the resurrection we are still in our sins. Again, the resurrection and the cross are not independent events, they remain forever connected. But when Paul and other writers stress the gospel, the emphasis almost always does not fall on the resurrection but on the cross. Why is that?

All analogies fall short, but perhaps this will help? We can think of the resurrection as the victory parade of a great general. Jesus wins salvation on the cross but he declares victory in the resurrection. The resurrection is the legitimation of the cross, it is the guarantee that the work of the cross is finished and won. This is the connection, the resurrection points us back to the work of the cross and that is why the cross is emphasized and why Paul can have the Corinthians know nothing apart from it. It is the foundation upon which all other things grow[8]. But we do not like the gory cross. It is the place of suffering and shame. I know many Christians who tell me they do not like to think of Jesus on the cross because, “My savior isn’t on that cross anymore, he is risen!” I understand their sentiment. But it also betrays an aversion to the very place God is displayed in power. Power for our sake.

Fleming Rutledge, in her magisterial book, The Crucifixion writes,

In the letter to the Romans Paul seems to assume that his hearers will know what it means when he says, [I am not] not ashamed [of the Gospel]”. About the Corinthians, however he can’t be so certain, so he goes into more detail. It is the crucifixion as a means of execution he says, that would normally cause shame to anyone associated with the victim. Paul is quite specific about this in the Corinthian letter: “It pleased God, through the foolishness that we preach to save those who believe, Paul writes. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and a foolishness to Gentiles”….The words are piled up by Paul to remind the Corinthian Christians of the scandalous nature of the faith they claim. Their braggadocio is misplaced, Paul tells them, “For the word of the cross, in its very scandalousness, is the only legitimate ground for Christian confidence.”

The foolishness of the cross is the reality that God is most predominately seen there, hidden in gore and shame. The power of God is most known in His apparent weakness, the victory of God in His apparent failure, the salvation of God, for us, in this apparent destruction of God, by us. Paul makes the argument that it is here, at this point of utter failure and real history, that God reveals himself in power. That is why people get saved by the preaching of cross. It is the message of the Cross that saves. When are we going to believe that? It is Christ crucified for us that gives life. We want, so often, to desperately move immediately beyond the cross. We talk of God’s love and his care. We tell people about His victorious defeat of death and his power to help us in our sufferings. The God we tell others about is too often docile and emaciated. We have robbed him of his power. He is a genie, a kindly old man, a provider and helper. He has become indistinguishable from the panoply of all other gods whose stories regale us with their dominance, overwhelming power and unmatchable glory. Rarely is Christ confessed to be the man on the cross. The Theology of Glory is dangerous because the cross is only a means to an end, a checkpoint on the highway to salvation, a story we avoid because we do not think it can convince others to repent and believe.

This is a tragic mistake! When Paul reminds the Corinthian church about their own salvation story he says, “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth.[9]” They were they “despised” by the elites of culture. Further still, the message of the cross unites unlikely partners in that both Jews and Gentiles, who agree on little else, agree about the foolishness of our message.[10] The cross has no apparent persuasive power. Yet!....and this is Paul’s whole argument-but to those who are being saved this message is the power of God that saves! In other words, the persuasive power of the cross is in the One who comes with it, not in its rational or magisterial claims. The cross is power because it is God’s word, not because it convinces the minds and hearts of men to trust it by its logic. When we neglect the telling of the cross, when we trade the cross for glory, when we move right to the resurrection and tarry not at the cross, we forget:

“For the Word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who being saved, it is the power of God...And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”[11]

[1] I Corinthians 2:2

[2] I Corinthians 15:3-8

[3] One of Mark’s most used words is “immediately” He races to the Passion.

[4] Romans 5:10

[5] I Peter 2:24, italics mine.

[6] Mark 10:45

[7] Hebrews 9:26

[8] The Resurrection is not a purely passive event, however. As Paul says in I Corinthians 15:20-22 the resurrection is the beginning of a new era, because Christ is the first-fruits of those raised from the dead, so we too will be raised. The Resurrection gives us confidence in a bodily resurrection and our own eventual glorification. Just as the incarnation of Jesus Christ saw the forever merging of God and man so the resurrection promises this merging in reverse: Born again into Christ’s body we share in the Divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) which is the basis for our eternal life and sanctification. As the Church Father Athanasius so succinctly put it, “For the Son of Man became man that man might become God.”

[9] I Corinthians 1:26

[10] I Corinthians 1:22

[11] I Corinthians 1:18, 2:3-5