In 2003, New York City announced the winning design for the memorial of the World Trade Center. Designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, the design is called “Reflecting Absence,” and includes an oak tree-filled plaza with two reflecting pools. Understandably, there was much contention surrounding which design should be chosen. Everyone agreed that 9/11 is a vitally significant event that should be memorialized. But how best should a city and a world remember such an earth-shattering event?
How does one memorialize an event of tremendous gravity and life-changing significance? When the writers of the New Testament wrote about the cross of Christ, they wrestled with how to adequately explain the meaning of that faith-defining event. For these writers, ground zero was the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. One theological word that seeks to gather up the significance of the cross is “Atonement,” which means “to bring together into harmony those who have been separated.”
Throughout the pages of the New Testament, the cross plays a central role. Each of the four gospels retell the story of Jesus and the road that led him to his death on the cross. The book of Acts describes how the message of “Christ crucified” traveled across the Roman Empire as the young church spread. Paul’s letters declare: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul often goes to the cross to help Christians understand better who they have been called to be (see Philippians 2:1-11 for a case in point). The Hebrew letter speaks of Jesus’ high priestly sacrifice on the cross, once for all. Peter’s letters reflect on Christ’s suffering on the cross and how we are called to follow in his steps. John’s letters reflect on how we know what love is: that God loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. The book of Revelation uses “the lamb that was slain” as its central metaphor, reminding churches going through persecution of the victory Christ won on the cross.
The cross of Christ is central to the teachings of the New Testament, central to the self-understanding of the historic Church, and central to our faith. Perhaps this is why the New Testament writers do not settle for one metaphor when they describe what Christ’s death means. Instead, they offer a rich gallery of images that wrestle with and probe what the cross means, why the crucifixion took place, and what the atonement implies for our moral and ethical lives. Here are some of the central metaphors the New Testament writers employed to understand the atonement: The cross is Jesus’ victory over the powers of darkness. The cross is how Jesus justifies us before a holy God. The cross is how Jesus sets us free from bondage to sin. The cross is how Jesus woos us toward God’s reconciling love. The cross is where Jesus suffers on our behalf, the innocent for the guilty. The cross is where Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice for sin.
May we as a church pay attention to the rich and varied ways in which the New Testament writers picture the significance of the cross, the meaning of the Atonement, and the invitation to be reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.