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The Password Cross

If the Gospels have a main antagonist it isn’t the unreligious, the foreign invaders, or even ‘Satan’. Instead, when we read the stories of Jesus the people he clashes with, the most common enemies are the religious teachers and rulers — supposedly the authority on matters of God and faith. Those who would have seemed like the radical rabbi’s natural allies and friends were in fact the biggest thorn in his side. Jesus called them snakes. He acted with astonishing disregard for their customs and traditions. He shamed their most sacred place of worship. Jesus’ radical love challenged the worldview of almost everyone he met, but it was the ministers of his religion that became the object lesson in what God was not like. Has much changed today?

I am no stranger to the inner workings of churches in the western world. I grew up as a faithful Ulster Presbyterian. I received a very traditional theological education. I have worked in many churches and Christian organisations of a variety of backgrounds, and I still do. They are a force for a lot of good, and the people who run them are generally exceptionally caring people. The Church provides the biggest network of Youth Work in the world. It is local churches that provide the majority of food banks and support counselling services across the country. The Church for many is a place of real hope and security. But it cannot be ignored that the Church has also been an incredibly damaging force to some, and the usual target is those who are vulnerable, hurt, and lost.

Jesus Christ spent time with sex workers, tax collectors, rebels, the sick, the disabled, widows, the oppressed, the condemned, the forgotten and the disenfranchised. Mainstream churches have subscribed to a very narrow theological worldview that seems to forget the works of Jesus. This narrow theology seems only to provide explanation of the issues of sin and forgiveness. And this has created a culture where to be recognized as a Christian you must believe in a view of Scripture that focuses on the sinfulness of humanity and God’s need for a brutal sacrifice to make us right. We cannot reduce the sole focus of Scripture to the narrative that we sometimes do wrong, and God wants to forgive us. When we make that the only acceptable way to understand Scripture, we reduce the Bible to a self-help book. And if that is the only way to understand the purpose of Scripture, then we have reduced the cross of Jesus Christ to a password for entry to heaven. We have taken the beautiful poetry, the intriguing myth of Israelite history and the radical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and made it all about me, about who is in and who is out. This narrow theology can cause Christians to twist the Bible into a manual for moral living, and a stick with which to beat those who don’t conform.

Who would Jesus spend time with today, a religious baker who refuses to do his job because his religious law doesn’t allow it or the gay man who has been told his whole life that he is a perversion of nature, and that in order to be suitable for God’s grace he must deny the very self that God created him to be? Who would Jesus rebuke, the minister who says that a lesbian women who declares Jesus as Lord cannot possibly come to the Lord’s table, or the bisexual youth minister who has devoted her life to teaching young people that God has called them to be participants in the redeeming of God’s creation?

The Gospel is not a set of rules to be followed in order to gain favour, nor is it a package of knowledge that must be understood and affirmed so that we might see heaven. The Cross is not a password for eternal life.

The Good News is that God created our universe and declared it very good, and God created us in God’s image, giving us insurmountable worth; although the world is not how it was intended to be, nothing can change it’s worth. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see that God is working to make things the way they were intended to be, and we are invited to not just to be spectators in the work, but participants and partners in the building of God’s Kingdom: — one loving act at a time. And that is good news, because no one is excluded from that invitation.

I have realized that when we reduce Scripture to simply being about the forgiveness of sins, we are preaching about a God who only cares about our life after death. When we preach the half-Gospel of the password cross, we offer no help to listeners who have problems and questions now. When we reduce the amazing stories of scripture into a handy life manual then we take words of freedom and turn them into a command for conformity, and a tool for oppression. Is it any wonder that church attendances are falling when we offer hope only for the dead and not the living?

The theological journey that I am on is a difficult one. It is hard to question the gospel that you have always been taught. It is painful to accept that what you have passionately declared as “the truth” might be incomplete, or even wrong. It is a hard journey, but is a rewarding and ultimately necessary one. If the church really wants to be faithful to Jesus, then we must not try to place Scripture into a handy, easy to preach, easy to accept box. Instead, we must faithfully explore Scripture, tradition, our own experience and logic, asking the hard questions.

What if creation wasn’t intended to bring God glory but rather to fulfil God’s desire for relationship? What if sin is something we experience, not something we do? What if the cross was not a sign of God’s strength over evil, but instead was a sign of how weak God was willing to be in order to relate to us? What would it look like if the Church was more concerned with love than law? These are the kind of questions we should discuss as we search for a way of understanding the cross as more than just a password to eternal life. This frees us to glimpse a side of the Gospel that opens up incredible possibilities for the world today.

Let us declare the good news, that every part of good’s creation is of unsurpassable worth. That the power of sin has been broken, and we no longer need to feel unworthy or like we are not enough. Let us proclaim that the Kingdom of God is here, and yet each of us is invited to help build it. We are all part of God’s story and no one is excluded.

Michael Gianni-Wilkinson, co-founder of Left Side Up

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