The church is an old pro at discovering new and creative ways to avoid preaching the cross. Each generation is like a sneaky cleaning lady. While dusting the cross atop the altar, she glances left and right, and, seeing no one looking, replaces the true cross with something else. No radical change. The replica is a near lookalike. You have to look closely. But it’s not the cross. It’s a cross-like idol.
Sitting atop the church’s altar today is the idol of victimhood.
This change is especially sinister, not only because it’s hard to spot, but because to question it is to invite scorn and hatred from its worshipers. The new sin has become questioning anyone’s self-identification as victim. So here I go, sinning boldly.
Pulling the Tails of Cats
If my child comes crying to me, with bloody scratches on his face, my first reaction is to hold him, check his wounds, and comfort him until he calms down enough to explain what happened. He needs my acceptance, sympathy, and love. And when he tells me, finally, that he was pulling the tail of the neighbor’s cat when she turned on him, he needs something else, too. He needs me to remind him that actions have consequences. Cats have claws and aren’t afraid of using them. That doesn’t mean I shove him away, tell him I don’t care, and that he should have known better. It simply means that I don’t allow my sympathy-giving to mute my truth-telling. He needs love, and he needs the truth spoken in love. He’s not a victim; he’s a tail-puller.
With rare and notable exceptions, most of the people who come crying to the church, with bloody scratches on their face, have been pulling (or chasing) one tail or another. It doesn’t matter. The church is there to welcome them, without exception. Whoever they are, whatever they’ve done, they need our acceptance, sympathy, love. They also need to hear that cats have claws. God has laws that we have broken, and continue to break, and suffer the consequences. We are not victims of the Ten Commandments. We are not victims of our cheating, lying, sexing, coveting, and other foolish actions.
We are—to use that old-fashioned word—sinners. And sinners don’t need sentimentality; they need salvation.
Jesus Didn’t Die for Victims
But this is where the church often fails. And I suspect, in most cases, that the church doesn’t even realize it’s doing so. Like little kids cooking breakfast, we mean well, but we end up making more of a mess than a meal.
Rather than calling sinners to repentance, we call them to a Christ who identifies with us when cats claw us. You suffer? He too suffered. You are hurting? He too hurt. You are weeping? Even Jesus shed tears.
While all of this is true, it is not all of the truth. And when we present the partial truth as if it’s the whole truth, we make a mess of the Gospel. We confuse the results of the cross with its cause.
Why was Jesus crucified? Not to save victims, but to save sinners. Indeed, he was killed by sinners for sinners to save sinners. The religious and the irreligious, the Jew and the Gentile, the nursing infant and the old geezer—all needed saving, for all were sinful from the time their mother conceived them (Psalm 51:5).
If we forget this, instead of offering sinners salvation, we offer victims therapy. Instead of preaching Christ as the sacrifice for our evil deeds, we preach him as a vulnerable God who offers merely affirmation, support, and compassion. In a worst case scenario, where everyone is a victim, and someone else is always to blame, we transform the cross into a pacifier.
The cross of Jesus is the revelation of the love of God. But it’s not a Hallmark love. It’s a love that calls a thing what it is. You are the sinner who must die. And on this cross you do. You die here in God, with God. He is crucified not for your victimhood but for your sins. Here you get what you need: death followed by life, Good Friday followed by Easter, wounding that leads to healing.
Christ realizes that the cat and its tail are not our problem. Our hand is. We are. Yes, he shows compassion to us, as the church is called to do toward all sinners. But that compassion is a crucifixion compassion. It is a love drenched not in hot, wet tears for victims but sacrificial blood for sinners. He draws us into his death. And he draws us out of our own self-pity. We die with God. And in that death we experience true, divine, unlimited compassion.
What needs to sit atop the altar is a cross. A cross where God died for our sins, where we die in baptism in him, and where new life is given to us.
Dear church, preach that.