What Happened On The Cross?



     Discussing this question may be the most difficult.  Most Christians are very clear about what happened on the cross.  The theology supporting this event is the centerpiece of our faith.  Jesusí death is celebrated in many hymns, in the scores of classics like Handelís Messiah and in themes depicted in stained glass.  How can this question be listed among those that are the most challenging?  The answer is that a clear, consistent meaning of Jesusí death cannot be found anywhere in the New Testament.

     Among the Gospels, John devoted entire chapters to the events leading up to the crucifixion and the resurrection. In fact, Johnís story appears as an eyewitness account.  Yet the observation must be made that Johnís Gospel does not attempt to provide the meaning of the crucifixion.  None of the Gospels do.  Johnís Gospel supports the notion that Jesus was the supreme expression of Godís love and that by believing in him sinners are saved and given eternal life.  John has no developed theology concerning the cross.

     Following Jesusí crucifixion, the theories of what happened began to emerge.  The first followers formed their conclusions from their Jewish heritage.  Jesus became the perfect lamb that takes away the sins of the world. (John 1:29)  Johnís thoughts do not explain why a sacrifice was necessary or required by God.  This concept would have been foreign to Greeks who had little or no knowledge of the sacrificial practices found in Jewish faith traditions. (Hebrews 9:22)

     An understanding developed that a ransom was required to free humanity from remaining prisoners of our speciesí sinful nature.  There is no reference as to whom the ransom was to be paid or why it was necessary.   However, Jesus did suggest that he was a role model for others. (Mark 10:45)  Paul suggested that we were ďbought for a price.Ē (I Corinthians 6:19)  The author of Hebrews claims that a sacrifice was necessary to remove sin. (Hebrews 9:25-26)

     With later refinement of the theology, Jesusí death became part of Godís Plan for the salvation of the world.   This tradition described how Jesus bore the weight of the sins of humankind as he hung on the cross.  In so doing, Jesus became our savior.  However, the problem of humanityís sinful nature remains.  Humanity is making the same emotionally motivated mistakes that were made 3,000 years ago.  This mistake occurs each time we choose to bind ourselves to the attractive elements found in the external world while allowing matters of spirit to remain  undeveloped.

     Salvation theology related to Jesusí death on the cross was never among his teachings.  In fact, his only passing reference to his death can be found in Luke 13:33 where Jesus referenced himself as a prophet.  However, he clearly understood that his resurrection would occur.  It appears strange that among the many theories that explain the meaning of Jesusí death, none of them considered that he was practicing what he preached, i.e., trusting God for the outcome of all things and submitting to the inevitable while allowing his light to shine. (Luke 22:42)

     There can be little doubt that Jesus was knowledgeable of the words from the prophet Isaiah.  While written in the same spirit as the 8th century prophet, the words found in Isaiah 40-44 describe a time more than a century later that dealt with consoling the Jews following the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC.  Within this later historical context, the suffering servant is described in vivid detail.  No doubt this tradition helped frame the meaning of the cross for later writers.

     What happened on the cross?  Was this act of Jesus part of a carefully choreographed plan by God to save humanity from the collectiveís uninformed, sinful nature?  Or, was this idea created from human imagination?  How would the death of innocence change anything?  Was the crucifixion of Jesus some extraordinary act of sacrifice when it is clear he struggled mightily with the possibility of his death?  Let us now examine what Jesus taught.

     Jesusí message could be condensed into several key ideas.  He wanted to communicate that there was more to being fully alive than confining oneís efforts to pursuits within the physical world.  He attempted to open the door to this awareness through his discussion of the Kingdom of God.  He instructed his followers to be a light in darkness and never to allow any circumstance to control the radiance of that light. (Matthew 5:16)  His followers were called to become the invisible leaven for the loaf. (Matthew 13:33)

     His understanding of how Godís presence could manifest in their lives made it easier for his followers to move beyond the nature of God found in their heritage.  God was not a being that needed to be worshipped, sacrificed to or praised as one might do while in the presence of an earthly king.  God wanted to be experienced by people who desired to participate with God in creation, e.g., ďThy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.Ē (Matthew 6:10)

     Jesus was bringing a new understanding to his listeners.  Righteousness was no longer defined as strict obedience to an extensive, external Law code, but by communicating through the human spirit what the Law required. Attitudes, thoughts and deeds became the new authority for being right with God.

     When Jesus was captured, tried and crucified, his message was identical to the one he addressed throughout his ministry Ė Let your light of love shine in all circumstances.  The crucifixion was a window through which to view once again this one message.  Thus, we can be saved from countless errors of thought and subsequent deeds by refusing to allow the material world to dim the light of our divinity.  When we remain convinced of this orientation intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, all fear will vanish.  Herein lies the meaning of Jesusí death.  The worst that others can do to us does not exist anywhere else but in the physical world.  However, if we do not have this orientation as a framework to understand our lives, we can easily become entangled in the illusions of a world that is constantly changing as well as with all the fears and doubts that come with it.  We are expressions of Godís love.   Lasting happiness in our physical lives is a by-product when we give form to this understanding.