Moderator's Comments - Posted 1 March 2017
Paul thought it was. Let’s do a cross-check on this (pun intended) – the greatest Christian who’s ever lived – what did he say? Among other things:
Galatians 6:14 ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
The great Apostle Paul thinks this much of the cross of Christ – that it’s his only boast. Let’s go further:
1 Corinthians 2:2 ‘For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’
Paul says that his repeated and constant theme in preaching is the crucifixion of Christ. When he says: ‘I resolved to know nothing’, it’s not that he didn’t say anything else – it’s hyperbole, to make the point that all his preaching centres on the cross.
We use that word ‘cross’ as shorthand. It’s a synecdoche, where the part stands for the whole, or a single word stands for a whole concept. So the word cross is synecdoche for the whole doctrine that Christ died for sinners upon the cross – or, alternatively put: it stands for the belief that atonement was made for sinners through the suffering of Christ on the cross.
Is the cross sufficient? Are we right in the Christian church to make such a big thing about it, and to centre on it? Surely there’s works of mercy, relief of the poor and other good works to make our focus? Other churches certainly think this way.
Last year, the Uniting Church in Australia’s social services department took the symbol of the cross from their public brand name and logo. The UCA says that this reflects the department’s aim to reach more people and shows that they are inclusive by not using a symbol that excludes or offends.
Oak Primary School in the UK, a school boasting that it runs ‘in accordance with the principles of the Church of England’ rebranded the cross to make it look like a harmless oak tree on their uniform so as to be less offensive to Muslims who live in their school district.
A few years ago, the PCUSA removed Townend/Getty’s song ‘In Christ Alone’ from their new hymnbook because they were offended at the words explaining the cross of Jesus: ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’.
Perhaps we too are tempted to ask, of the PCA, are we making too much of the cross and does this help or hinder our desire to serve in a broken world and to love the needy?
This was brought home to me last year on a visit to Zambia. On your behalf, in Lusaka last year, Paula and I celebrated the goodness of God with Zambian Presbyterians by attending their bi-annual General Assembly. General Assemblies across the world are all the same in form and sound – and an essential part of our courtesy and protocol is the exchange of greetings with sister churches.
We rejoiced with Rev Colin M’bawa who sang ‘When peace like a river’ to the Assembly before giving his report on behalf of the wider CCAP in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. We were delighted to hear from the Zambian Moderator on his year of office.
Then, among other speakers that morning, we were moved to hear from our Zimbabwean brother. Through tears I listened to a report from Rev Kingstar Chipata, General Secretary (i.e. Clerk of Assembly) for the Zimbabwean Presbyterians. He summarised both his joy and lament for CCAP Harare Synod.
His joy? … that his church is growing in numbers of people and churches.
His lament? … that ‘a curse has descended on the African church’.
Of course, my mind went racing ahead and I surmised what he was about to say: this is a country whose economy is decimated, whose clinics have no drugs, whose banks have no cash, whose people are starving, whose children are dying.
This is a country whose leader of 37 years, Robert Mugabe, at 93 years of age thinks he knows what it most needful for the country – more of himself.
But the General Secretary didn’t mention the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the collapsing economy, the dreaded fever: malaria. Nothing of sickness, disease or poverty.
Kingstar said: ‘The curse that’s fallen on Zimbabwe is visiting preachers who promise miracles they can’t deliver; the curse of false prophets who give false hope.’ He named them as the ‘prosperity gospel preachers’. This is the greatest curse fallen on his country – preachers promising what cannot be delivered.
Instead, he explained that in a nation with an unemployment rate of 90%, HIV/AIDS devastation, death from fever … the one thing needful is the joy and the freedom found in Christ. The gospel of Christ still delivers. The one thing needful is the cross of Christ.
The Presbyterian Church of Australia is known for what true Presbyterian churches across the world are known for: the sign of the cross and the empty tomb, and the message that Jesus saves by this … that God’s righteousness is delivered through this. Old paths, but true paths.
Is the cross sufficient?
1. The cross of Christ is the single distinguishing feature of the church. Other faiths have laws and morals, ceremony, rewards and punishment, but NO other religion speaks of a dying Saviour. They never show us the cross. The cross is the crowning glory of the Christian gospel – it’s the cross that provides relief, speaks comfort and gives assurance.
2. The cross of Christ is the strength of every pastor. ‘I should feel like a soldier without arms, like an artist without his pencil, like a ship’s captain without a compass – as a pastor: give me the cross of Christ, it is the only lever that has ever turned the world upside down.’ (J C Ryle)
3. The cross of Christ is the secret of all mission work. The cross is the only weapon that has won victories in the hearts of people all over the world – all races, all cultures, all nations have felt its power.
4. The cross of Christ is the glory of every church. We love our churches, we want them to grow, we seek the good of our congregations, we want for them the best biblical teaching, the best fellowship, the best music, we want what is good and honourable … BUT, no church will ever be honoured in which Christ crucified is not the focus and in which the message of the cross is not continually lifted up.
It’s through the message of the cross that darkened hearts will be given light, lives will change, the grieving will be comforted, the downcast given hope and the wanderer brought home.
John P Wilson