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Offense of Grace

 

Here we go again.

Audrey Jarvis, a 19-year old student at Sonoma State University in California, was working for a campus organization when a supervisor told her to remove a cross necklace she was wearing. According to Jarvis’ attorney, Hiram Sasser of the Liberty Institute, Audrey was working for the university’s Associated Student Productions at a June 27 student orientation fair for incoming freshmen when her supervisor told her to take off the two-inch-long cross necklace. Sasser said the supervisor informed her that there was a policy against wearing religious jewelry and further explained “that she could not wear her cross necklace because it might offend others, it might make incoming students feel unwelcome, or it might cause incoming students to feel that ASP was not an organization they should join.” When Jarvis kept the necklace visible, her supervisor approached her again and suggested she tuck the cross in her shirt so it couldn’t be seen.

After the incident, Jarvis called home, clearly shaken. Debbie Jarvis, Audrey’s mother, recalled that she reminded her daughter, a devout Catholic, that “we are still one nation under God.”

“And she told me, ‘Mom, it doesn’t feel like that here,” Jarvis said. “Our faith was attacked. It’s unnerving. I know what’s going on in this country. I know Christianity is being attacked. Now, I know it first-hand and it sickens me and saddens me.”

A university spokesman quickly went into damage control, acknowledging that the supervisor’s action was “inappropriate,” while President Ruben Armiñana publicly apologized for the incident.

I don’t wear cross jewelry, but I do have a wall near the front door of my house that is arrayed with crosses of different shapes and sizes. If guests came to my house and asked me to cover the crosses because they found them offensive, I would be upset — but not surprised. You see, the cross has been offensive for a long time. Even the Apostle Paul acknowledged this when he wrote of the “offense of the cross” to the Galatian church a mere 20 years after Jesus was crucified (Gal 5:11). In another letter, this one to the Corinthians, the apostle wrote that the crucified Christ was a “stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Cor 1:22).

What’s all the fuss about a symbol that has been crafted as elegant jewelry, made into gleaming-gold altar pieces and tattooed on the arms of celebrities? Why is the cross offensive; what is it about this sign that divides and angers people?

Not A Nice Way to Die

First, the cross is offensive because it was a bloody, dirty, horrific way to die. Today in the United States, lethal injection is the preferred method of execution, practiced in 35 states. Compared to crucifixion, it is a pleasant way to leave this life. In some prisons, the condemned are given fresh clothes and granted a last meal of their choice. Friends, family members and spiritual counselors may visit, too. In the death chamber, inmates are strapped to a clean gurney and their arms are swabbed with alcohol before sterile tubes are inserted. Before a lethal cocktail of drugs begin to flow, the condemned is already in a deep sleep, thanks to the administration of Pentothal, a powerful barbituate. Death usually occurs less than 20 minutes after the execution order is given. The remains are placed in a body bag and taken to a medical examiner, who may perform an autopsy. After the examination, the body may be claimed by the inmate’s family or interred by the state.

Contrast this sterilized way of execution to the cross. Before his crucifixion, a condemned criminal was stripped and tied to a post, where he was publicly flogged with leather whips studded with iron balls or pieces of animal bone. Roman soldiers were trained to inflict maximum pain without killing the person. After the flogging, the criminal was forced to publicly carry his crossbar, weighing up to 125 pounds, to the execution site outside the city walls. There the horizontal beam, with the criminal tied to it, was raised and affixed to an upright stake that bore a sign advertising his crime. The only consolation the criminal received was a cup of wine mixed with myrrh, which dulled the pain only a little as his wrists and heels were hammered to the cross with six-inch nails. As the victim hung,  heavy strain was put on the limbs, often resulting in a dislocation of the shoulder and elbow joints. The arms, being held up and outward, held the rib cage in a fixed position, which made breathing laborious. Sometimes, after hours or even days of suffering, a soldier would break the legs of the criminal, which made it impossible for him to lift up and breathe, resulting in a quick death by suffocation. The soldier would then pierce the ribcage with a spear to ensure that the victim was, indeed, expired. Bodies were often left on the cross to be picked apart by wild beasts and serve as a warning to would-be criminals.

Today we decorate our crosses with bling and encase them in pretty stained glass, perhaps in an effort to beautify an ugly reality we all know deep down inside–the cross was originally an unspeakable horror.

Your Sin and My Sin Put Him There

Another reason the cross offends us is because we put the Son of God there. British Bible scholar John R.W. Stott wrote, “Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us, we have to see it as something done by us.” It was our sins that drove Jesus to the cross; it was our sins that Jesus bore in His own body as He suffered and died (I Peter 2:24).

We can protest all we want. “I wasn’t there! I didn’t mock and wound Him like the Roman soldiers did! It’s not my fault!” In The Passion of the Christ, it is director Mel Gibson’s left hand swinging the mallet that nails Jesus to the cross.  Gibson wanted to convey that all humanity is responsible for the death of God’s Son. Gibson said, “I’m first in line for culpability. I did it.”

A Strange Means of Salvation

Finally, the cross offends because God used it for our salvation, when we would prefer to save ourselves. I remember reading a thread on a website where a Christian told someone that Jesus died for her sins. I could almost hear her irritated voice when she wrote, “Well, I didn’t ask him to.”

There was a time when I disdained Christians because I disdained the Crucified Christ they shared. In my heart, I sanctimonously shook my fist at the Cross, shouting at the top of my lungs that I didn’t need Jesus to justify me–my good deeds were “good enough.” After I caught Oh God!, the 1977 movie starring comedian George Burns as the Almighty, I thought, “If there is a God, George Burns is the God I would believe in: a kindly old gentleman who cracks jokes and tells us to be nice to each other.”

But the fact is, we aren’t nice to each other. We gossip, lie, envy, scoff and manipulate people to get what we want. Students bully each other. Churchfolk stab each other in the back. The rich scorn the poor; the poor are jealous of the rich. Nations start wars, governments starve their people, politicians raid public treasuries for personal pleasure. Isaiah 64:6 gives us a big bite of the reality sandwich with these words: “All of us have become like one who is unclean,  and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (By the way, “filthy rags” literally means dirty menstrual cloths. God declares that our self-righteous deeds are like used tampons. Are you offended yet?).

The bottom line is this: we cannot fix ourselves. Oh, we think we can. We certainly have tried. We strive to build utopia on earth through politics, social engineering, education or charitable works. If there is a  righteous, just God, surely He will pardon me because I work for the party that stands for the poor and oppressed…I pay my bills and taxes on time…I slipped that hobo on the corner a buck today. But deep down inside, we sense something is still wrong. We don’t want to admit it because we are prideful creatures. We would prefer to wink at sin, make light of it, pretend it isn’t really all that serious–but the Cross reminds us that there is a terrible price for our transgressions. It cost God the life of His One and Only Son, the only Perfect Human Being who would ever live.

The Cross of Christ is really an offense of grace. Grace is unmerited favor, an unconditional gift of love that cannot be earned or paid back. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (I John 4:10 NIV). Human knowledge would not come up with a bloody instrument of execution as a means of redemption, fleshly wisdom would not invent a shameful tool of death to reconcile the whole world. We cannot believe that the Creator would use such horrific means to bridge the chasm between heaven and earth.

But He did.

And that offends us.

The Sonoma State university official nailed it on the head: Audrey Jarvis’ cross necklace might “offend others.” The Cross has always been offensive. But then the supervisor said something that was dead wrong by God’s standards. He stated that the cross might make students feel unwelcome.

In Christ, God laid out a divine welcome mat to the entire world. Jesus Himself said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32 NET Bible). He was speaking of being lifted up by the Cross, that beautiful and terrible Cross where “sorrow and love flow mingled down.”

 Are you offended by the Cross? Don’t be. Bow before His crucified feet and you will find your offenses are no longer there.

Cross necklace photo courtesy of mllepetite through stock.xchng.com

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