The Cross Defines the Church

Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:23-24)

Tertullian said that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church (Apoligeticus, Chapter 50).  In The Lost History of Christianity, however, Philip Jenkins documents how the blood of martyrs sometimes just leads to the death of the church.

John tells us that it is not just martyrdom in general that gives the church life, but specifically that it is Jesus’ death from which the church grew. It is the event that defines who we are.

What is the church? It is the community created and rooted in the cross of Christ. It’s not a social club. It’s not even a religious club. We are the community of faith created and rooted in the cross of Christ. That defines who we are, what we are to be about, and how we are to go about it.

To be sure, we are also the community of the resurrection. But it’s not as if the resurrection makes the memories of the cross disappear. To use an imperfect example, imagine that a person goes through a traumatic event. Perhaps he or she is the victim of violent crime, the survivor of a deadly disease or a participant in some great tragedy. Even though the person survives, it’s not as if the event never happened. For some, the event results in destructive PTSD-like symptoms. Others experience post-traumatic growth. Healthy survivors integrate traumatic experiences into their self-understanding and their view of the world. Optimally, they use the experience to help others who have survived similar traumas.

The survivor never forgets the trauma and the church never forgets the cross. The analogy is imperfect because the cross is not just a tragedy. It is an essential element in the victory of God over sin and death.

Still, the cross is what it is: our founder’s ugly, unjust, violent death on behalf of others. It is the defining event in Jesus’ life, the life that he still lives among us by the power of the Spirit. That takes some thinking about. The risen Lord still bore the scars of his crucifixion when he showed himself to his disciples, and he still bears them today. Insofar as we live in connection with him, we too live as people of both the cross and the empty tomb.