What We’re Looking For

You carried the cross of my shame. U2… Bono, who believes in Jesus, the cross… but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Here’s what he’s looking for.

I’m a big U2 fan. Their songs strike a chord in our souls. Like their 1987 anthem, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Bono sings of the cross of shame. Last week I suggested the cross of Christ is larger than most imagine. It is in fact larger than simply shame. We see more of what the cross means when we come further up, further in.

We start with a curious fact, what Dallas Willard calls “the late emergence of the cross as a Christian symbol.”[1] How late? There are no crucifixes in the first four centuries of the church.[2] When crosses first appear, most of them feature a sphere in the center.

Why? The early church imagined God as a sphere, without beginning or end. God is love. His “mad eros”[3] was revealed in what Augustine called “the marriage bed of the cross.”[4] Eros is marital love. At the cross, Jesus redeemed us, “marrying” us, betrothing us to himself. Thus, most of the first crosses featured a sphere in the center.

This is based in Jewish tradition, where the redeemer is a male relative responsible for caring for a deceased relative’s possessions, including the widow. A redeemer pays off any debts. If the deceased is childless, he marries the widow in hopes of producing offspring.

This is the story of Boaz, who from the lineage of David redeemed the widowed Ruth. Boaz took her and her mother Naomi into his own home, paid off her debts, and made Ruth his wife, ultimately producing a lineage that would lead to Jesus’ birth.

This is the story of Judah, God’s betrothed (Hos.2:19). God was their husband (Isa.54:5). Betrothed means “be true.” Judah wasn’t. So God “divorced” her, leaving her barren in Babylonian exile. But there, God promised a suffering servant (Isa.53) would redeem his widowed bride (Isa.54), marrying her again in a new marital covenant (Jer.31).

This is the story of Jesus, the suffering servant who died on the cross for our sins. The barren woman is his bride. This is why Jesus’ public ministry begins at a wedding where the wine has run out, depicting a dried-up (i.e., barren) bride, Israel (Jn.2:1-12).

This is our story. At the last supper, Jesus took the cup of wine, calling it his blood of the new marital covenant. At the cross, Christ shed his blood, paying for our sins, betrothing us, sealing us with his Spirit, his seed (literally his sperm), making us the Bride of Christ.

This wider view of the cross reminds us that a redeemer does more than pay off debts, as necessary as that is. Yes, Jesus carried the cross of our shame. We believe that. But most still haven’t found what they’re looking for, for most see a cross with no sphere.

No sphere, no love—only shame. Shame alone doesn’t draw us further up, further in. Love, joy, does. Jesus, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb.12:2). Joy compelled him to expand the circle of love, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit “wedding” their love with beings created in his image to be his betrothed, his bride.

This is why churches with ancient foundations depict the cross with the circle of love in the center. As his death, Jesus, our great High Priest, entered the Holy of Holies, when the veil was torn open. The tearing of the veil is depicted in a bride’s body, in the tearing of her hymen, broken at the time of the first sexual intercourse. This brings about a slight loss of blood, as did Jesus’ death on the cross. But it’s more than that. The French word “hymenée,” which means “marriage,” originates from “hymen.” The tearing of the hymen signifies the opening up of the betrothed—the church—to Christ the Bridegroom.

But let’s be honest. In most American churches there is considerable reluctance to go this far. Most of American Christianity reflects an erroneous dichotomy between mind and body. The mind matters most. Talking about our bodies and sex makes us uncomfortable.

Compounding this error is Anselm of Canterbury proposing (in the 11th century) that Jesus died for our sins either to pay a debt to the devil or to God. This was the first of many “substitutionary atonement theories” of the cross. Over the next 1,000 years, the cross would be “narrowly interpreted as mere vicarious suffering and then mistaken for the whole of the redemptive action of God,” Willard writes.[5]

The Enlightenment accelerated this error. Its emphasis on language over image yielded a bias for the brain’s left hemisphere, the narrowly focused half. Over time, Christians narrowly interpreted the cross as substitutionary atonement. Jesus paid our criminal debt, a forensic view of the cross, language used in a court of law. This “restricted salvation to mere forgiveness of sins.”[6] It depicts what we’ve been saved from; not what we’re saved for.

When I don’t know what I’m saved for, there’s little compelling me to come further up, further in. Mere forgiveness means I’m saved, all set. But like Bono, we feel we still haven’t found what we’re looking for. We haven’t. We’re looking for Jesus, our redeemer who paid for our sins and wed us at the cross. We see this when we come further up, further in.

Which answers a question a friend recently asked me: Why are so few Christians lifelong learners? My answer is most carry a cross of shame. They don’t know they’re married, so there’s no compelling reason to come further up, further in for the rest of their lives, as Kathy and I have done for our 40 years of marriage.

I close by recognizing much of this might be new to you. It was new to me for many years. But I’m reminded of Harry Truman’s quip, the only new thing is this world is the history you don’t know. Next week, a little history you might not know, from two friends, a poet named Agur and a writer named C. S. Lewis. Both point us to what we’re looking for.

Merry Christmas.

 

[1] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 35.

[2] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (University of California Press, 1967), 30-31.

[3] Nicholas Cabasilas, La vie en Jesus Christ [Life in Jesus Christ], 2nd ed. (Chevotogne, 1960), 153.

[4] Augustine of Hippo, Sermo Suppositus 120:3

[5] Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, 37.

[6] Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, 33.

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you, Dave. High praise from someone I consider a tough critic, what every writer and preacher benefits from having. I appreciate you, Dave.

  2. I have never been able to understand why a loving father would focus his attention on my faults. I would never do that to a child. I always sensed the pulpit had it wrong. He taught us how to live and flourish, not to wallow in our shame. Thank you

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