It's Easter. So the airwaves are full of religious leaders telling us the true meaning. Like the minister on the BBC on Maundy Thursday declaring "– the true meaning of Easter is that love is stronger than hate, that forgiveness is stronger than revenge, that we can rise up and live different lives, where that sense of justice and peace is lived out...it is an important message that resonates for people of the Christian faith and of all faiths – that's something to celebrate.....There is no doubt that this is a country where Christianity and Christian values have helped shape society and that's to be celebrated and for many many people their Christian faith impacts and inspires them....for many people of different faiths their beliefs do the same....but these are not values that are unique to any one faith, but represent the best ideals we all share. This is a country that is built on faith and faith in each other and our desire to live in justice, and peace and love, and I think that's what we really need to focus on. That's the message of Easter."
Why is that message offensive? For most non-Christians it's not offensive at all. In fact on the news programme that that message was aired the atheist humanist spokesman said how wonderful it was. It seems that the establishment really does after all, love Christianity. David Cameron has garnered headlines this week stating how we, as Christians, should be 'evangelical' about our faith. "The heart of Christianity is to love thy neighbour and millions really do live that out," declared our Prime Minister.
And yet I read in the Bible that "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing" (1 Corinthians 1:18), and that there is such a thing as 'the offence of the cross' (Galatians 5:11).
Was the Bible wrong? Was it only first century Gentiles and Jews who thought the cross foolishness? Are we all now modern Christians who find the message of Easter one that is agreeable across all sections of society? Does the Church not need just to capitalise on the fact that everyone really deep down has 'Christian values'? Is the cross no longer an offence?
Not in my experience. I recently wrote an http://www.scotsman.com/news/the-cross-is-a-symbol-we-should-all-bear-1-3371408" target="_blank">article in the Scotsman newspaper on the Cross that got an interesting reaction to say the least. Whilst there were those who appreciated that biblical teaching was allowed in the national press, there were others who were vehement in their opposition: "Listening to DAR is like listening to someone who has a psychosis. As long as he it not harming anyone I just hope he will snap out of his delusion someday. I'm not a doctor by I am curious what drives these delusions." "It's a given that DAR is incapable of telling the truth. He's a paid liar." "I find the cross repellent because of the adoration of pain & death which is central to Christianity." And much in similar vein.
Why do so many people find the cross so offensive? Perhaps you can understand it when you consider the meaning of the words that are often used to describe the cross. I have recently been reading a wonderful book, Christ Crucified, Understanding the Atonement, by Donald Macleod. In it he shows how these words are biblical and give us a real understanding of what was happening at the cross.
Substitution – It should have been us on the cross. But Christ took our place. Died in our stead. Was punished for our sins. That is a deeply offensive message to a world which recognises the sins of others but tends to think that apart from a few minor flaws, we are ok.
Expiation – the cross 'covers over' our sin. It takes it away. It removes it 'as far as East is distant from the West'. That is a deeply offensive message in a world where people have faith that there really is nothing to cover, where sin is exulted in, where evil is only a relativistic social construct and where the only real sin is 'feeling guilty'.
Propitiation – Turning aside the anger of God. This too is a deeply offensive message to a world which gets angry at the notion of a God who gets angry at the horrendous evil within the world. The cry goes up 'this is a pagan notion of God' (with all due apologies to those really nice pagans) and not worthy of Jesus Christ. And yet a God who does not get angry at sin would surely be an unjust, capricious tyrant?
Reconciliation – That is such a nice word. But not to those who think that it is God's job to forgive us and that we do not need to be reconciled to Him, He needs to be reconciled to us. It is God who needs to apologise and come into line with 21st century humanity. The truth is that we are Gods enemies and we need the cross to reconcile us to him.
Redemption – Setting the prisoners free. This is wonderful when we are talking about us freeing other people. It is deeply offensive when those of us who think we are free and can do as we please, are informed that we are in fact slaves, and need to be set free.
The cross is the most offensive symbol possible in our self-satisfied, materialistic, proud, egotistical, hubristic culture. When it is proclaimed, there will be those who hate and despise it, and hate and despise those who proclaim it. And there will be those who hear it as the 'power and wisdom of God' and come humbly to its foot for the forgiveness, freedom and new life it provides. I don't find the cross offensive – I find it wonderfully liberating.
What I do find offensive is the kind of Easter message mentioned at the beginning. To say that the message of Easter is the Disneyesque fantasy of 'look how nice we all are and what a nice country we live in, built on love and faith in each other', is not only to denude the cross of its meaning and power (who after all needs the blood of the Lamb if there are no sins to be washed or if you can do self-cleansing?!), but to condemn the poor, broken, lost and marginalised to their own predicament. To declare that Easter is 'cosmic child abuse', or that the resurrection is just an example of every spring renewal of life, is a blasphemy and cruelty more offensive than that of the most militant atheism.
David Cameron 'forgot' the first part of the greatest commandment, which is to 'love the Lord our God, with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind'. Only then can we love our neighbour as ourselves. The reality is that our politicians like many of our religious leaders, want Christianity without Christ. Can you and I honestly say that we love God? Not because of any inherent goodness in us. But simply because he loved us and gave himself for us. We can only love because he first loved us. Until you grasp that, you haven't got Christianity. May the Lord grant that in the midst of the chocolate bunnies, Easter rituals and religious waffle, many in Britain and beyond would grasp the real 'wonder of the Cross'.