An excerpt from my forthcoming book:
It is the narrative about the path to the crucifixion that we find the starkest confrontation between the way of God and the ways of this world. The cross is an expression of obedience and trust, both of Jesus and then by those who trust in this obedience for their own salvation. Whole trust in God that resists being co-opted by the systems of this world despite their claims for absolute authority and meaning. As this is a pattern established by both the writings and the prophets of the Jewish Scriptures as well as in the ministry and teachings of Jesus, the Gospels are not simply passion narratives with extended introductions.
What we see in the whole of the Gospels is a coherent expression of not only the solution to the crisis but also a living example of what it means to live this out in real contexts among real stories. It is the culmination of the whole narrative of Scripture thus far. The cross, then, is the end point, the fully exposed confrontation that exists throughout the ministry of Jesus, insisting on the ultimacy of God’s lordship across personal, social, and societal systems. This lordship is expressed in terms of love and commitment, but defining such in an absolute way that rejects syncretic attempts to see God as being another system among the systems, a god among the other gods. God brings the people out of slavery, they are to have no other gods. In contemporary terms, we are to have no other systems before him. God co-opts the systems, the systems respond, the result is the cross.
Thus the confrontation of Jesus in the trials that lead, ultimately, to his seemingly untimely and certainly violent death are themselves imbued with theological and sociological meaning. The contrasts begin at the beginning of the chapter, and are important in how the narrative develops. This is not a minor disagreement about methodology or even a religious dispute, this is a wholesale cosmic confrontation. Judas is filled with Satan. The priests are servants of the darkness. The disciples are all at risk. Jesus thus asserts the priority of his narrative as the true expression of God’s work. This is a narrative that will be brutally assaulted, leading to the vulnerability of all those who align themselves with Jesus.
The cross is a definitive call to reject the patterns of identity formation offered by the various systems in an environment. This is rightly understood as a way of death, rejecting the systems entails a rejection by the systems who seek to preserve and replicate their fundamental place in a society. The resurrection is the promise that rejecting such patterns will result in an even fuller life. Liberation of the oppressor comes through the way of the cross but promises a new story in light of the resurrection. Which brings us back to Moltmann’s admonition not to dwell on what people lose but what people gain. We let go of patterns and systems of death and dissolution because we do not need their promises of identity or security. We are freed from such anonymizing demands. Radical trust in God leads to radical realignment with the systems, embedded in them with a cohesive narrative of the Spirit’s transformative power.
As a confrontation to the systems, the cross absolutizes the kingdom in contrast to the ways of society. These occupy the same environment—the world—but are expressing a substantively different narrative, a different way. It is absolute in that one cannot find a middle ground between the religious leaders and Jesus, the Romans and Jesus, the zealots and Jesus. Both sides reject such a synthesis. The systems want nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus rejects the systems. This does not, however, suggest that Jesus is a separatist, with the church called to isolation. Jesus does not abandon the world to itself; he enters the world in love. Separation may be a calling for particular Christians, but the church as a whole is embedded in the context no less than the systems are. By being defined according to a different narrative, a holistic and unifying narrative, the early Christians were committed to the world, in the world, through the Spirit of Christ.
But, because of the mutual exclusivity established by and through the cross, Christians could not be identified with both the systems and the kingdom. Either Jesus was right in saying he was speaking for God, or the Jewish leaders were right. Either Rome is the way of peace, or Jesus gives us a more expansive way. Either the methodology of the zealots is the way to social reform, or the way of Jesus. The curious nature of the cross, however, also mitigates putting these two patterns in conflict. The way of Rome or any of the systems is self-protection and self-perpetuation, as is the goal of the human ego. The way of the kingdom, however, is a fractal transformation from within. The story erupts from a manger and consumes the Empire from below.
As this is an issue of a new way and a new identity, a re-birth into a new story that transforms one’s past, present, and future, it is not feasible to seek meaning in both approaches. One is either with Jesus on the cross. living in the narrative of God, or with those who put Jesus on the cross, living in the narrative of the systems of this world.