What We See in the Cross is Love

Reading Time: 5 mins

If you want something empty, the tomb is the way to go. The point of the manger is that Jesus was in it. The point of the cross is that Jesus was on it.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:31-35).

What do you see when you look at the cross? You have the God you see there. If you see a God angry with sin, full of wrath for sinners, you have that God. It is indeed sin that put Jesus on that cross. But, on the other hand, if you see a God who loves you so much that he went to that cross, embraced it, climbed up on it and held himself there in order to keep hold of you, you have that God. You have a God of love.

I’ve noticed that the crucifix is an interesting thing in modern American Christianity. American Christians love the baby Jesus in the manger, but they sometimes don’t like Jesus on the cross. I’ve even heard some argue that an empty cross is better than a crucifix, because Jesus rose. Using that logic, though, an empty manger would be better, too. If you want something empty, the tomb is the way to go. The point of the manger is that Jesus was in it. The point of the cross is that Jesus was on it.

It’s interesting that throughout history some of the saints, our fathers and mothers in the faith, who most contemplated and embraced and confessed the cross, Christ crucified, also eagerly contemplated and embraced and confessed the manger. Why do you think that is? It’s because in both they found the same thing: love.

Christians are pretty good at the joyous exchange. Show a Christian the cross and the odds aren’t terrible that he or she can tell you that there God took our sin and gave us His righteousness. We’re pretty good at the vicarious atonement and penal, like penitentiary, substitution, too. Many can explain that Christ took our place as our substitute and paid the punishment for our sin. There’s more to the cross, however, to the crucifix, than these explanations, good and right as they are. Put simply, on the cross, in the crucifix, we see absolute proof that God loves us. Christ on the cross is God’s love for sinners posted for all to see and sing and confess for all eternity: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!”

Jesus spoke the words of our Holy Gospel right after the Lord’s Supper and right before his betrayal. His suffering and death loomed large. There were many things he could have spoken about, and yet he chose to speak about love, because he wanted his disciples to see love in what would happen to him, and he wanted them in turn to love one another.

English is sort of a crummy language for speaking about love. Most of us were taught this by that one kid on the playground in middle school. We said something like, “I love basketball,” and he said, “Why don’t you marry it, then.” We don’t miss that kid probably, but he was right.

C.S. Lewis wrote a helpful book about love called The Four Loves. I highly recommend it. The four loves are affection, eros, friendship, and charity.

Affection is what we have for siblings, roommates, and coworkers. We grow familiar with them. We get used to them. They become regular presences in our lives.

Eros is love for our spouse. It’s getting lost in your beloved. It’s more than physical. The physical is merely an expression of something deeper—an often humorous and lighthearted expression at that. Lovers laugh at each other, Lewis says, until they have a baby to laugh at.

The third love is friendship. We can get by without it, but life wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. While lovers look face to face, friends stand side by side. Their conversation never ends. It just gets interrupted, picking up even years later where it left off. Friendships have changed the world.

The fourth and final love, however, is unlike any other. This love is charity. It’s selfless love. There’s no give-and-take, no quid pro quo. This love is purely gift-love. This is God’s self-giving love for us in Christ. While were still sinners, God justified the ungodly. He saved us from the devil, the world, death, and, most importantly, from ourselves. He did this simply to do it, because we needed it. This is the love we see on the cross, in the crucifix, and it’s so great that it burst out of the tomb on the third day.

To love is to see God. And to see God is to love. To see God is to love the world he has created, to delight in the rays of the sun, the chirping of the birds, the cool touch of the breeze, the lapping of the waves. It’s to stop and appreciate the hand behind what surrounds us.

Even more, though, to see God is to love the people he has created, both your enemies and your neighbors—to appreciate their gifts, forgive their faults, recall the blood that bought them, and see the face of Christ in their own. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that whatever we do for others we do for him. Through us, Christ loves Christ. John reminds us in his first letter, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

In our second lesson, Paul writes about faith, hope, and love. These three summarize the Christian life. With all our talk about faith, we might be surprised by which Paul says is the greatest. Love is the greatest. Why is that? In heaven there will be no need for faith, because all will be seen. In heaven there will be no need for hope, as all will be realized. Only love will remain. Love indistinguishable, for God’s love and ours will be perfect.

Do you know what the first image we have of Christ is? It’s not from a church. It’s not from a Christian home. It’s not a fancy mosaic or a beautiful painting. It’s graffiti. Historians call it the “Alexamenos graffito.” It’s thought that a Roman student drew it to mock a classmate. Boys will be boys.

The Alexamenos graffito pictures a man with a donkey’s head on a cross. Some Romans had the mistaken notion that Christians, and even Jews, worshipped a God with a donkey head. It’s a long story. Anyway, the inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships his God.” This is the first image we have of Christ.

Interestingly, in the next chamber is another inscription. It says, “Alexamenos fidelis,” “Alexamenos is faithful.” Who knows who wrote it, and who knows when, but I like to think it was someone answering the mockery of the first image, commending Alexamenos for worshipping the crucified and mocked God. When Alexamenos looked at the crucifix, he saw love. He was faithful.

Seeing the love of God changes everything. It gives the world back to us. Nothing is unclean anymore. All is gift. Peter learned this in our first lesson as the sheet descended with all sorts of food. He was told, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” God has made you clean, and ge has made the world clean, so enjoy. None of it is common. All of it is the handiwork of a loving God. All of it is loved and a call to love.

God has set us free in love to love. Therese of Lisieux is a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. She was called the Little Flower. I am not endorsing all of her theology, but she did have a great saying: “Do small things with great love.”

Christ has done great things with great love. His body on a cross and not in a tomb has worked our salvation and demonstrated his love for all who walk this earth. All that is left is small things now.

Do small things with great love. Love because you were loved first. Love with great love because you are greatly loved. See Christ in your neighbor because you have seen Christ on your cross. You need not search far and wide for people to love. Love those God has put in front of you. Love in your callings. Love Christ who has loved you, and loves through you.

Alexamenos may have seemed foolish for worshiping his crucified God. But Alexamenos was no fool, except for Christ. Why? Because in Christ he saw love. He saw his Christ, and yours.

You have the God you see. See Christ, in his manger, on his cross, but not in his tomb. See that it’s all for you, divine charity, and let love have its way. Amen.