X Marks the Spot
(I'm currently writing about Paul's spirituality. So, thought I'd post a paragraph or two.)
When you see a cross, what do you think of? Churches and jewelry, vampires and cemeteries, or crusades and swords? Crosses are worn religiously by the fashionable and the pious. Crosses ward off evil spirits and mark off dead men’s bones. Crosses shield the faithful warrior and are driven into the ground by the victorious. Indeed, over time, the Roman cross has come to symbolize many things: power, sacredness, beauty, and hope. But, to the people of Paul’s day, crosses meant one thing: death. Outside nearly every Roman town, along the major roads that funneled travelers into the cities, there were crosses. Sometimes holding their latest victim, with birds perched on their shoulders, picking at the carrion left exposed to the elements, crosses stood like soldiers holding post, guarding Roman interests, warning violators of imminent death. You couldn’t leave town or enter a city without the daily reminder of death’s ugly pallor. Travel along the roads of the first-century Roman Empire and you would always find a cross.
When I travel, I can’t help but notice the crosses that line the highways, marking the sacred places where somebody died. A husband, wife, son, daughter—an entire family. Sometimes adorned with placards, pictures, flowers, wreaths—these makeshift monuments remind all travelers that death could be waiting for us around the corner. A cross marks the spot, a time and a place. Every time I pass one, my heart hurts. Without dwelling on the mystery too long, I wonder what happened. Who died? When did it happen? Sometimes the large collection of gifts around the cross makes me wonder if the accident occurred last week. At other times these sacred sites look weathered and cluttered—the pitiful remains of a holy pilgrimage no longer dutifully kept. Even after road crews carefully remove the tattered teddy bears and broken wreaths, the crosses often remain. Indeed, one cannot travel across our country without seeing a cross, the end of life, the last place on earth for somebody.
“Who lives there?” That’s the question our daughter asked when we drove by a cemetery several years ago. Emma was only six years old at the time. We had passed by that graveyard many times before. Had never talked about it. Never pointed it out. It’s one of the older cemeteries in Jonesboro, the kind that have the large monuments, statues of angels, and crosses. I really don’t know why she assumed that such a place had anything to do with people. But she did. “That’s where dead people live,” I said rather callously, enjoying the paradox. My wife, Sheri, was taken back by my blunt response, giving me the “that-was-insensitive look” I have come to recognize so well. “What do you mean?” Emma asked with her usual matter-of-fact tone. “Well, when we die, our souls go to be with Jesus in heaven, but our bodies stay here—so they have to put them somewhere.” Sheri interrupted my indelicate answer with a more careful explanation. “Most of the time the body is placed in a box called a ‘casket.’ Then, family and friends go to the cemetery to have the funeral, and the casket is placed underground.” No response. Emma seemed satisfied with her little tutorial about death, caskets, dead bodies, and cemeteries. Then, several minutes later, after the conversation had thankfully turned to another subject, Emma interrupted, “Then why does our church have a cross on it. Dead people don’t live there, too, do they?”
A cross is supposed to show where you can find a dead man. When we hang them around our necks or mount them on top of our church buildings, we’re actually declaring to the world: “dead people live here.” Paradoxically, the cross of Jesus marks the end of our life, which is death, and the beginning of our death, which is life. X marks the spot where we gave up our life and found it at the same time. For all practical purposes, when we bent our knee to Jesus, when we embraced the cross of his death as our life, we kissed the world goodbye. Like a reversal of the betrayer’s kiss in Gethsemane, we have signaled to our captors that friendship with the world is enmity toward God. Not in remorse, but with gratitude we throw our thirty pieces of silver into the temple because an innocent man was sacrificed for us. Arrested by God’s grace, we claim that money isn’t the root of all good, that pedigree means nothing, that the pursuit of happiness is a waste of time, that the world can never fail us because we’re no longer counting on it. For us, the cross of Jesus is not losing some to gain more—an investment strategy. This is giving up. When Jesus forgave my sins he took my pitiful, irreplaceable life as well. What a relief! Travelers to southern California and southwest Missouri may not see it, but a cross on life’s highway marks the spot where I died.
Paul’s cross stands on the road to Damascus, Syria. It must have been quite a shock. Up to that point, Paul was convinced that he was in the center of God’s will, doing exactly what God wanted him to do—arresting fellow Jews who belonged to “the Way.” As persecutor of the church, Paul considered himself “blameless” in the ways of righteousness (Phil. 3:6). He was doing God’s work, zealous for God’s law. Imagine his surprise when he found out he was doing the exact opposite of what God wanted. One minute you’re walking confidently on the path of righteousness, the next moment your face is on the ground looking for a little mercy. Life changes like lightning flashes. Sight one moment, blind the next. Paul lost it all that day—the day he was knocked to the ground and blinded by a heavenly light. He knew what this meant. He had been wrong—wrong about Jesus, wrong about the law, wrong about the Christians, wrong about the cross. And, he knew what this would mean. Nothing would stay the same: in an instant, old things passed away and everything became new. It was an unbelievable reversal—the rumor spread quickly: “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy” (Ga. 1:23). For Paul, this was more than a prophet’s calling: “Go, preach to the Gentiles.” This was conversion. Embracing the cross of Jesus meant turning his back on his previous life. But, did it have to be that way? Why did Paul automatically assume that he would have to give up his “former life in Judaism”—that he couldn’t be a Pharisee and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ at the same time (Ga. 1:13-16)?
Some think Paul was tired of trying to please God by obeying all the rules. That trusting in Christ came as a welcome relief to this frustrated, obedient Jew. But, that doesn’t square with the way Paul characterized his life in Judaism before he met Christ. For him, the law was the means to life—a gift from God. Paul loved the law; it was holy and good (see Ro. 7:10-12). And, he was keeping it better than anyone. He liked the way things were before Damascus. So, why did he give it all up?
When Paul met Christ it was the end of the world. Seeing the Messiah in all of his glory meant that the kingdom of God had come. That’s what Paul had been told all of his life: if you see a glorified Messiah, it’s all over. It’s kind of like the constant idea you run into when reading the Old Testament. When a person saw God, they thought they were dead because no one looks upon the face of the Lord and lives to tell about it. Likewise, many Jews believed that when Messiah appeared in all his glory it would signal the end of this age, this time, this world. That’s what happened to Paul the day Christ appeared to him. His world was over. His life had come to an end. Traditions (preserving the old) became irrelevant because the new had come. Old ways died. The new age had begun. Nothing would be the same again.
Paul claimed that the gospel of Jesus was “apocalypsed” in him (Gal 1:16). Indeed, what happened to him on the road of Damascus was an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world event. The Christophany just didn’t happen to him, but exploded within him. From that day forward, Paul’s life would no longer be defined by the law, by ethnicity, by nationality, by traditions—everything that gave him an identity was gone. From the time he hobbled into Damascus like a blind man until the day he was thrown into prison like a criminal, his life would look like the life of the Crucified One. Paul lost it all that day: status, family, ethnic pride. Everything that defined who he was—how he saw himself and the world—was gone. Before, he saw all things through the lens of the law—a binary world of men/women, Jew/Gentile, blessed/cursed, holy/unclean. But now, after Damascus, he sees neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, slave or free. Can you imagine how difficult it was? Being a Jew doesn’t matter anymore, so now I have to start over. Keeping the law doesn’t define who I am anymore, so now I can hang out with Gentiles and eat pork. Women can handle the scriptures. The cursed are loved by God. The orderly world, the comfortable world, the world as he knew it was no more. When Paul gained Christ, he lost it all.
I hope it's not too late to realize what I lost when I gained Christ: I am not an American. I am not a Baptist. I am not a Professor. I am not a success. I am a man who hopes to find life in a cross.