In pretty much any traditional church of any theological background at all, the cross is right there, front and center. It might be a crucifix, with a figure of Jesus. It might be the empty cross, reminding us that he is not dead, but risen. It might be embedded in a window or hanging from the wall or sitting on a table, but it is there. You cannot miss it. That is because the suffering and death of Jesus, followed by God’s raising him from death into life, are at the heart of Christian proclamation. Jesus died on the cross for our sins.
A lot of times that is interpreted as meaning that our sins have so offended God that the divine anger has been provoked beyond our comprehension. In 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that is famous for laying that out.
“The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn Rebel did his Prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment.”
The result of that sermon, by the way, was mixed. Some people became very much aware of the reality of their sins and in humility turned to God for mercy. Others became convinced that they were utterly worthless and went into despair from which some never emerged.
I much prefer a view (that is closer to what I understand the Bible to say about God) which is expressed this way by Bishop Will Willimon:
“Jesus died on a cross not to appease the anger and blood lust of God the Father (as the Church has sometimes implied) but rather because of the anger and blood lust that the Father’s love received from a humanity who wanted nothing so much as to be gods unto ourselves. The cross, which the world erected to silence another uppity Jew, became, in the hands of God, the means whereby God got to us.”
It isn’t so much that we offend God. Offense is the least of it. It’s that when God opens his heart to us, we are not only uninterested, but we laugh at him and mock him. Lastly, we silence him, or try to.
There is a passage in Isaiah [53:1-5] that has traditionally been used as an expression of the sufferings that it would take to redeem us, of how much the Messiah would go through to bring about God’s will. It begins with the Suffering Servant, as he is called sometimes, being first ignored, then mocked, then finally killed.
“Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
How is it that any of this does anybody any good? How can the death of an innocent man -- and let’s be clear that Jesus was the only totally innocent human being in all of earth’s history – lead to pardon and peace for anyone else?
It’s because in that moment, God took every human understanding of how the world works and turned it upside-down and inside-out. We think that eventually you get what is coming to you (in one theory); or that it’s all the luck of the draw (in another theory); or that it’s all about the money and the power (in another theory); or that you may as well eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you shall die (in another theory). When Jesus accepted the suffering that is so much a part of human experience, he showed that God doesn’t play our little games.
That’s why, when Jesus tried to explain himself to his disciples, they found his ways unacceptable. They did. Peter pulled him aside and, we are told, “rebuked him”. That’s pretty strong language. Jesus answered in strong terms, too.
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” [Mark 8:31-33]
In his teaching, but even more in his life and death, Jesus showed that we don’t always get what we deserve and that life is not all about rewards and punishment. God has nothing to prove, and can forgive freely. So can we. Jesus showed that what matters is not what you get out of the world. What matters is what you put into it. The same is true for us. Jesus’ death and resurrection shows that God alone makes the final decisions about anyone’s life. That was how it was for him, and that is how it is for us, too.
The first letter of John [1:8-2:2] says,
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
That’s really what it comes down to. He is the one who speaks to us for God, and who speaks to God for us. Don’t you think that the pull in both directions wouldn’t tear his life apart? But when all is said and done, in the process he pulls our lives together.
 from Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, first preached at Northampton, Mass., and again at Enfield, Conn., on July 18, 1741. For the full text, see http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas
 Will Willimon, Why Jesus? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), p. 109.