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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Averting Our Gaze
April 2, 2015

We look away from others for countless reasons. A child avoids looking her parents in the eye when telling a lie. An unfaithful husband shields himself from his wife’s haunting gaze. We look past panhandlers on the street to avoid being accosted by them. We look away from disfigured people, or people of a different race, uncertain what to say or do. We shield our eyes from the suffering and dying – or even worse, those already dead. One of the most horrific tasks in the world is cleaning up the site of a passenger airliner crash, something happening right now in the foothills of the French Alps. Our prayers are with those given this unspeakably gruesome duty, and for all who lost loved ones there.

Travel back with me two thousand years, where we witness a horror so great that the whole cosmos has to look away – the Son of God, his body broken through torture, hanging on lurid display for all the world to see. Unable to bear the sight, the men whom he has groomed to be his ambassadors abandon him. Only the women in his entourage are strong enough to face it. Some do seem unfazed at the spectacle – the professional Roman executioners, the sin-hardened rabble taking perverse delight in jeering him. Even God in heaven turns out the lights at high noon, according to the Gospel accounts, sending a pall of darkness to shield both heaven and earth from the horror.

Crucifixions are not uncommon. They are public exhibitions designed to motivate the masses to comply with Rome’s demands. There is a carnival-like atmosphere at the spectacle of those who have terrorized others getting their due by being hoisted, naked, on public display as they agonizingly die.

Jesus isn’t the only innocent person to be crucified. Others have suffered similar physical torture before being mounted on the wooden beams, hung out to die. In many ways Jesus’ death is like so many others – cruel, vindictive, tortuous, undeserved.

So what makes his cross so unbearable to look at? It lies beyond what any movie can depict. It cannot be hidden by darkness. It is a look into our own death.

John likens Jesus on the cross to Moses’ serpent on a pole. (John 3:14) At God’s instruction, Moses fashioned a bronze serpent that he hung high, and anyone bitten by venomous snakes who looked at it was thereby healed. (Numbers 21:5-9) They had to stare into the face of what was killing them, if they were to live.

When we look at the cross of Jesus, what we see is the scandal of our own sin. It is killing us just as surely as the vipers were killing the people of Israel. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” (1 Peter 2:4) It is a sight more dreadful by far than what a camera can capture. We see our own death hanging there before our very eyes. And we do everything in our power to turn away from it.

Yet hymn-writer Isaac Watts calls this cross “wondrous.” Contemporary song-writer Chris Tomlin echoes, “Oh, the wonderful cross!” Countless millions wear it and hang it on their walls. The apostle Paul “boasts” about it. (Galatians 6:14) Gospel composer George Bennard vows to “cherish that old rugged cross.”

How can it be that this cross from which the cosmos averts its gaze is wonderful, glorious, and lovely? Jesus wants to avoid it if at all possible. The Gospel stories have twice earlier affirmed that with God, nothing is impossible; on his final night in Gethsemane, Jesus pleads that therefore it must be possible for his Father to spare him from hanging on the cross. (Mark 14:36) But God offers him no such salvation.

The apostle later says that Jesus “endured the cross, disregarding its shame.” Why? “For the sake of the joy that was set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2)

Make no mistake; the cross was for him excruciatingly shameful. No wonder those who loved him found it unbearable to behold him suspended there. Yet though he desired greatly to avoid it, he embraced it because of the joy that lay beyond it.

What is that joy? That by embracing the worst that death can muster, he would destroy its power. He would be vindicated. He would be saved – not from the cross, but through it. Through the suffering. Through the shame. It would be the pathway to freedom from all that harms and destroys.

As I lift my eyes to the cross and stare at death personified, dare I trust that just as it was impossible for the grave to hold Jesus, so death cannot have the final word over me? When I summon the courage to look to the cross, I see death first. But I see more. I see love beyond measure. And as I hold my gaze there, I see death turn into unquenchable life. Indeed, with God nothing is impossible!

Yours because of the cross,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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