This week I went to see a Salvation Army Officer who runs a church centre in London. As I walked in, he and a colleague were speaking with three women. As I waited, it became obvious that the women had problems with homelessness and drug addiction and that he knew them well.
He and his colleague were kind to the women and provided them with socks, toiletries and some good advice. But they also had to be quite firm and hold clear boundaries about what they could do.
After this, we met together and spoke about the people that the church centre helps. He and his church’s commitment was inspirational – but it was also demanding and hard. We spoke about the challenges of maintaining an appropriate blend of grace and truth.
He showed me a little ‘holding cross’ which he has started to carry around in his pocket each day. I use a similar one to help me pray in the morning. He explained that he holds onto it whilst engaging with challenging people in order to remind him of the costly way of Jesus.
As I left, I reflected on the role and significance of the cross in resourcing us for frontline mission.
The theologian who has most influenced me is the missionary Lesslie Newbigin. When he was a student in the 1920s, he helped run a summer programme for unemployed men in a impoverished area of Wales. He wrote about the challenges he faced in his autobiography, Unfinished Agenda:
‘For the last week of our stay we took about sixty of the men to camp under canvas near the sea…Things did not go well. One night the men managed to get a lot of strong drink into the camp, and before long they were roaring drunk and fighting with each other. I did not begin to know how to cope. When at a late hour we got some peace I went to my tent with the feeling of total defeat. I had nothing to contribute to the situation.’
It was at this low-point that Newbigin experienced a vision:
‘As I lay awake a vision came to my mind…it was a vision of the cross, but it was the cross spanning the space between heaven and earth, between ideals and present realities, and with arms that embraced the whole world. I saw it as something which reached down to the most hopeless and sordid of human misery and yet promised life and victory.’
And vision had a profound impact on him for the future:
‘I was sure that night, in a way I had never been before, that this was the clue that I must follow if I were to make any kind of sense of the world. From that moment I would always know how to take bearings when I was lost. I would know where to begin again when I had come to the end of all my own resources of understanding or courage.’
Theologians debate what technically happened through the death of Jesus on the cross and the atonement it offers humankind.
I believe that the cross is the way that God has conquered the deep problems of our world. It is the costly victory of love over evil and wrong-doing. God does not stand back, using a magic wand to cancel wrong-doing or wish it away. In Jesus, he took on himself the worst the world could do.
Like someone getting dredging out all the crap and gunk from a blocked drain, God acted to cleanse and made whole our scarred and fractured world.
Getting to the root
As I have faced situations which challenge me and take me outside of my comfort zone, I have reflected more on the cross. It has helped me engage with the real difficulties, get to the root of problems and be less fearful. I have become less satisfied with a cheap form of grace which skims lightly over the surface of issues, avoids challenge and pretends things are OK when they are not.
Our own abilities, stamina and energy are not enough to bring about lasting change. We need resources beyond ourselves. The cross is God’s ultimate expression of grace and truth – and it changes everything.