1 Corinthians 8:9
But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.
A few days ago, a United States federal appeals court ruled that a giant cross erected at a war memorial in California was not allowed under the US Constitution. A cross of some sort has stood on Mount Soledad in La Jolla, California, since 1913, and the current 29-foot cross was erected in 1954. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals did not say the cross had to be taken down, but the opinion of the court suggested that the memorial–which stands on government land–could conceivably be modified in some way to accommodate other religious symbols. A lot of conservative pundits, a few Christian leaders, and some Christian veterans see this ruling as a slap in the face to the cause of Christianity in America. They say it denies our nation’s Christian heritage, that it flies in the face of our nation’s traditions, and that it shows the further erosion of Christian morals in our fair land.
In the Bible and in our Christian faith, we are told to worship the one true and living God who came to us as Jesus Christ, who died for us on that Cross, and who rose again on the third day to be the firstfruits of the resurrection. The Cross is central because it is the–if you will forgive the term–crossroad between where and who we have been and where and who we can be in Christ. I wear a little cross on a silver chain around my neck, and I keep it visible for all to see whenever I can. I do that so people will know that I myself am a Christian. I want others to see that I have a simple and consuming faith in the Savior who died on that Cross two thousand years ago, and I pray that they see I can be approached as a brother by those in the faith and as a counselor to those seeking to know Him. The Cross in a church commemorates the One who died upon it, and the Cross on my neck marks me as belonging to Him.
But what about that cross on Mount Soledad? Whom does that cross commemorate? Some veterans and conservative politicians and commentators say it commemorates the fallen soldiers of several wars. Does it really? Were those soldiers crucified for our sins? Did they take away the sting of death from us all by sacrificing themselves to their enemies? We cannot honestly say that California cross commemorates those soldiers, because the true Cross stands for only One–Jesus Christ–and while individual soldiers may have given their lives because of their Christian faith, it cannot be said that ALL of the soldiers commemorated on Mount Soledad did so. More importantly, as was noted by the court ruling, not all the soldiers noted on the plaques below that cross were actually Christians. For those non-Christian soldiers and their families, that huge cross is no memorial at all. It is one thing to have a headstone on an individual soldier’s grave with a cross upon it, or even a stone in the shape of a cross. But it is another thing entirely to claim that a plainly Christian cross on government land symbolizes the sacrifice of ALL our lost comrades and their families. It just simply is not true.
In a church, we worship in a place with the Cross of Christ as a central symbol to remind us of the One who died there. But do people actually worship at that war memorial on Mount Soledad? Do they hold Easter services right next to the plaques commemorating the Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, and atheist soldiers who died for our country? Do people look up from the San Diego area and see that cross as a symbol of the men and women who fought the wars that never seem to end for this country? Or do they look up there and see the Cross of Christ? I have to admit, my first reaction on seeing ANY cross is to assume that there’s a Christian church nearby. I cannot say I EVER associate a large cross with a war memorial. And I say that as a veteran, as the grandson and further descendant of veterans. I say that as the cousin and friend of veterans. I say that as one who is both a conservative Christian AND a former soldier for the United States of America. For me, the Cross of Christ NEVER symbolizes the sacrifice of soldiers and civilians in warfare or in peace.
And so I come to the verse above from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the brand new church at Corinth. The Corinthians once worshiped the Greek gods and made animal sacrifices at pagan altars. They had gods for all kinds of things, including household gods to whom they sacrificed right in their own homes. But this new Christian faith did away with all that, and these first Christians tore down the altars in their houses, stopped making sacrifices, and found themselves free to simply live in the love and fellowship of Christ. The Corinthian believers knew that the meat offered to lifeless idols was nothing more than meat, that what they ate or didn’t eat did not make them more or less holy to God. (Matthew 15:17-20) They knew that it was the blood of Jesus Christ that bought their salvation, and only if they blasphemed against the Spirit of God could they ever be torn from the grasp of Him who died on the Cross. (Matthew 12:31-32) But Paul understood something very subtle, too: new believers would be confused if mature believers ate food that others prepared for sacrifice to pagan idols.
Picture it: A mature believer in Christ goes to the home of an old friend, one who still worships the old gods of Corinth. This mature believer hopes to be able to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ to this unsaved family. Also along at this little gathering is a new believer, another friend of the family. Their host makes a small sacrifice to his patron god, cooking the meat over a small brazier. Then, as they sit down to dinner, the host passes around a plate with this meat on it. The new believer sees this meat as condoning the worship of the gods he has just recently abandoned. The mature believer sees the meat as simple food, and he intends to bless it in the name of Jesus before it ever passes his lips. Let’s let Paul tell the rest of the story:
1 Corinthians 10:27-33
27 If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake.
28 But if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.”
29 “Conscience,” I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience?
30 But if I partake with thanks, why am I evil spoken of for the food over which I give thanks?
31 Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
32 Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God,
33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.
It is those last few verses that came to mind to me yesterday as I read about the court decision concerning the Mount Soledad cross. Many conservative commentators would have us believe that the cross at that war memorial will lead people to Jesus Christ, and that taking it down will destroy any hope of advancing the cause of Christ. But the truth is, we have been saved by the GOSPEL that tells us of the Cross, not by the SYMBOL of the Cross. A pagan native who has never seen the Cross cannot ever know what it means without hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ–whether from the mouth of another believer or in a vision of the risen Savior Himself. Without the gospel, the Cross has no meaning at all. Will we simply erect a bunch of crosses on every street corner and every hill and mountain in America, believing that new generations will learn of Christ that way? Or will we, as Jesus told us to do, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), so that new believers will want to erect their own crosses?
The cross at the top of Mount Soledad is not a war memorial. It is blatantly and only a symbol of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior who died on the Hill of Skulls outside Jerusalem two millennia ago. I am not saying the Mount Soledad cross should be removed, and nor am I saying we should not see more crosses in our nation. But like the cross I wear around my neck, any cross we see should be a symbol of what people truly believe. The cross on the steeple of a church is a mark of what that church believes, a clear indication that the people who go there look to the One who died on that Cross–or, at least, that His gospel is preached there for those who seek Him. If we are to have a cross on a necklace or on a church or on a car or on a hill overlooking a huge city, then let it be a symbol of our faith, but never let us believe that a cross alone will save anyone who does not know its meaning.
That cross in La Jolla, California, is no substitute for preaching the gospel, and that particular cross has plainly become a stumbling block to non-believers. The very religious liberty we have in this country, the freedom and right we have to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, also prevents our own government from endorsing ANY religion, and the judges wisely acknowledged that. The lesson we should take from this is to not let a simple cross become a stumbling block to those who are weak in spirit or in faith. Let us instead adhere to the rule of law that allows our nation’s blessed religious freedom, and let us use that liberty to take up the Word of God and preach it to all, making new disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19) Then people will truly know that the Cross is not a memorial for our honored dead but a symbol of the risen Savior who reigns at the right hand of God.
Holy Lord God, I thank You for the Cross of Christ, that it reminds me of Your Son and the sacrifice He made for all mankind. But, Father, I pray that You will not think me callous if I say, “Let there be no more crosses in public.” For what right have we to remind ourselves of Jesus Christ if we do not follow His ways, if we do not live as He lived, love as He loved, die as He died? O Lord, what right have I to wear a cross if I do not speak the gospel that tells of that Cross on Calvary’s Hill? Father, guide us in this matter, shape our hearts so that we know and speak the truth of Your Word. Help us to do more than simply erect crosses on every mountain–crosses that have no meaning without the gospel, crosses that are stumbling blocks to unbelievers and believers alike. Give us the courage to glorify You through word and deed. And, Lord, be our strength to stand up not for the symbol but for the MEANING of that Cross where Jesus died. Amen.
© 2011 Glenn A. Pettit-Noel