Simon Ponsonby is on the leadership team of a large UK church,...
Why the cross is bigger than you think
Dr Krish Kandiah explains how Jesus’ words from the cross reveal God’s hospitality towards us
It’s the strangest design for an intergalactic time travelling craft. Disguising the Tardis as a 1963 London Police telephone box may have been a great camouflage strategy for a tiny slither of time in British history, but its not so useful in 21st Century London, let alone Pompeii before Vesuvius erupts in AD 79 or the Dalek home world of Skaro in the year 3000. Nevertheless, due to a malfunction in its ‘chameleon circuitry’, the Doctor’s Tardis is stuck in the form of an antiquated oddity. Although for the many Dr Who fans around the world, we don’t even notice how strange it looks anymore.
Like the Tardis, the cross of Christ is both strange and normal. In every Western city the cross has become part of the architectural furniture.
Crosses adorn our ambulances, our buildings and even our bodies – on tattoos, fashion items and accessories. But when we stop to reflect, it is very odd that this most cruel of ancient Roman torture and execution methods has become the ubiquitous symbol of Christianity.
A much larger reality
Like the Tardis, the cross is an entry point to something much greater than its humble dimensions would suggest. Something apparently insignificant like a relatively unknown Jewish holy man dying an unremarkable death at the hands of the Roman Empire is in fact an invitation into a much larger reality. It opens up something of the cavernous depth of meaning of the love, grace, wrath and compassion of God. If offers fresh faith for the doubter, new hope for the despondent, belonging for the lonely and salvation for the lost. The cross is not just a celebration of death, but an invitation to life.
This invitation can be clearly seen in a thread that I came across when using the ancient Easter practice of remembering the final words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. This thread became the entry point to seeing a whole new dimension to the cross – and indeed scripture too.
As a pastor I must have preached hundreds of sermons that revolved around the cross. As a student worker and an apologist I think we can safely add another several hundred evangelistic talks and Bible studies on the crucifixion. As a missionary hardly a day went by when I didn’t get the opportunity to chat to someone about the work Jesus did on the cross. And yet in all those years, I missed the connection that joins the utterances together.
I’ve since discovered that each of the seven sayings from the cross has a direct connection to God’s radical, revolutionary hospitality. The central moment in Christian history shows us God’s all-embracing hospitality in action. The cross and hospitality hang inextricably together.
1. “Father forgive…”
Here Jesus pleads for God’s grace both for the Jews who are wilfully rejecting him and for the Romans who are brutally executing him (Luke 23:34). Both for the soldiers who are hammering the nails through his wrists and for the crowds who are complicit by their jeers of approval. Jesus’ words also have a greater resonance, far beyond those first century executioners to their accomplices in sin from every century.
Jesus’ words are a prayer not for himself but for others. He does not use the last of his energy to call out for personal assistance from his heavenly Father, but to plead the case of men who were strangers and enemies to him. Indeed, his merciful words are a pre-emptive act of grace ahead of the obscene act that is to come. Jesus begs his Father to show hospitality even to those guilty of murdering him, to find a way to welcome even these souls into his perfect presence.
The cross of Christ challenges our hospitality in our prayers. How often are we pleading for our friends to receive the forgiveness of God let alone our enemies? And it challenges our hospitality in practice – can we find a way to welcome strangers whatever their background?
2. “I thirst”
Jesus requests mercy from those whom he has been willing to forgive, in the form of a drink to give him relief (John 19:28). This seems ironic when we remember the stranger by the well who asks a Samaritan woman of many husbands for a drink, but then reveals that he is in fact himself the “water of life” (John 4). This is the man who taught his disciples to quench the thirst of strangers as evidence of their love for God, now become that thirsty stranger in need of water. How ironic that the one who at the beginning of his ministry provided wine at the wedding party (John 2) is now left, at the end of his ministry, with nothing to drink. Or perhaps it is not ironic but poignant that the one who could calm the storms and walk on water now restrains his own power and relies on others to bring him a drink. In his distress Jesus was offered wine vinegar on a sponge. He received it, enabling and accepting an act of hospitality even at this darkest of all moments.
The cross of Christ reminds us that we have an opportunity to serve Jesus every time we offer a drink to the thirsty, or offer food to the hungry or welcome to the stranger, because what we do for the least of these we do for him (see Matthew 25:40).
3. “Today you will be with me in paradise”
Jesus wants a self-confessed criminal guilty of a capital crime, who is dying on the cross next to him, to be in no doubt that he will shortly be receiving the ultimate VIP welcome. He solemnly promises the thief the two key things he needs to know: he will be with Jesus, and he will be in paradise (Luke 23:43).
For Christians, it is not just the final destination that is important, but also our final reconciliation. Ultimately, Christianity is not so much about going to heaven when you die as about being fully reconciled with God, his people and ourselves. We believe this starts now on earth and carries on into eternity.
Jesus’ words to the condemned criminal dying next to him emphasise the dimension of salvation that is centred on enjoying intimacy with God. Amid the extreme pain he was suffering, Jesus offered words of comfort and privilege and belonging that this dying thief could cling on to. Jesus makes sure we do not miss here what has been a marker of his ministry – his preferential treatment of the outcast. When he was born he was greeted by unknown shepherds, he lived surrounded by those that society shunned and he died offering hope and hospitality to an unnamed felon. Turning up for his inauguration as king of heaven, Jesus brings a convicted criminal as his plus one.
The cross of Christ reminds us to welcome the marginalised, criminalised and ostracised not only into the kingdom of God but into our lives as well
4. “Woman receive your son”
Jesus turns to his mother Mary, standing by his friend John, and says: “Woman, here is your son,” and to John he says, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27). As if dying for the sins of the world and securing our eternal home wasn’t a big enough task, even as he dies Jesus secures temporal hospitality for those closest to him. Scholars recognise in these words the echo of a legal adoption formulae, and John himself tells us that: “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:27). John obeyed Jesus and adopted Mary as his own mother, to care for her needs and to console her in this time of great personal loss. In this simple act we see Jesus promoting hospitality by “setting the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6).
The cross of Christ reminds us that although Jesus was dying to open up a new and living way for us to relate to God, this was never meant to replace our need for loving human relationships; for family. Jesus invests his time and energy during the agony of the cross to tend to his mother’s social needs, to make sure she will be protected and safe, as well as to John’s emotional needs – giving him someone to grieve alongside. We can respond to the cross by opening up our own homes and families to make room for those who have neither.
5. “My god, my god why have you forsaken me”
Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ cry of desolation from the cross, as he quotes Psalm 22 (see Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34). In the psalm David cries out in desperation and his description of the ridicule and insults he received, his heart melting like wax, his thirst and the gambling for his clothes seem to describe Jesus’ crucifixion with uncanny accuracy. But Jesus’ use of the words expresses a much greater despair at the isolation that he was experiencing as he, God the Son, was alienated from God, his own Father.
In some profound and mysterious way, the Godhead, the one God who is in three persons, was disrupted by the cross. The consequence of Jesus carrying the crushing weight of the world’s sins on his shoulders was that he and his Father became estranged. Somehow, mysteriously, Jesus had to be forsaken by his Father, so that we could be forgiven. He was rejected so that we could be accepted. He was excluded from the mercy of God so that we could be included. Here is the ultimate act of hospitality; that Jesus would be displaced from the presence of God so that we could be welcomed into it.
The cross of Christ reminds us that those who, by the grace of God, have received a welcome into the family of God at such great expense must now be willing to live like Christ. We are to go to any lengths necessary to make sure everyone can find a welcome – spiritual and practical – into the family of God.
6. “Into your hands I commit my spirit”
As darkness falls at noon, Jesus cries out: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). These words (borrowed from Psalm 31:5) demonstrate that, despite the agony of his death and the disruption of the relationship, Jesus still has great trust and affection for his heavenly Father.
Psalm 31 begins with King David declaring: “In you, Lord, I have taken refuge.” By referencing part of the psalm, Jesus draws our attention to the whole of it, which is effectively a plea for asylum. In the middle of great personal distress, David’s cry expresses his trust in God’s protective care, in which he seeks refuge. Despite all appearances God is his safe place, his panic room, his fortress. Jesus now asks for the same hospitality from God: for sanctuary from the turmoil that he is in.
The cross of Christ points us to Jesus as an asylum seeker, a refugee suffering terror and torture. If we have refuge in God through his mercy, it seems only natural that we should seek to offer refuge to those in need around us. It is our hospitality to those who need it most that reflects this aspect of Jesus’ words from the cross.
7. “It is finished”
There are so many different ways in which the words “It is finished” are true (John 19:30). Jesus’ own suffering is finished – he has identified with the pain of humanity to the utmost extreme. The sacrificial system, which had sustained Jewish religious practice for so long, is finished and done with because the wrath of God is utterly satisfied with the sacrifice of his only Son. The captivity of humanity to sin is finished with the payment of the ransom necessary to liberate us from slavery to sin. The Passover is finished as Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, fulfils all that God’s rescue of his people from Egypt symbolised. The decisive battle with evil is finished as Jesus the conquering king wins victory by dying in our place.
The cross of Christ proclaims that our exclusion from God's presence is finally over. The door is thrown open wide. We can finally be welcomed home.
The wonder of the cross
Although he was on the receiving end of the greatest hostility humanity could muster against him, Jesus turned the cross into the event that offers humanity the greatest hospitality.
As we reflect on the profound richness of the cross, we will discover that, just like the Tardis, the truths are bigger and more wondrous that we had imagined. The cross, and Jesus dying there, reinforces the welcome that it represents – we are invited into intimacy with God the Father, and with our family in Christ. It also demands that we share that welcome to all in both word and deed.
Dr Krish Kandiah is the founding director of Home for Good. His latest book God is Stranger (Hodder & Stoughton) explores how radical hospitality is essential for discipleship