Whose Cross is it? A Reflection on Acts 5:27-32

There’s been a battle of sorts waging within Christian theology over the past few decades about the cross. The basic question behind this controversy is: Who put Jesus on the cross? The dominant strains of theology in the West over the past thousand years or so have said, essentially, that it was God the Father who put Jesus on the cross: Human sin needed to be punished in order to be forgiven and so God the Father sent God the Son to die on the cross so that we all might be forgiven. The cross was God’s solution to the problem of sin. But, this idea has come under increasing fire since the Second World War. More and more, Christians are insisting that it is not God the Father who sent Jesus to his death, but us: The cross is an act of human violence, not divine violence. Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles includes a speech by Peter in which he weighs in on this question and I think it’s helpful to reflect a bit on this today.

The second half of Acts 5 records Jesus’ disciples, newly empowered by the Holy Spirit, healing and casting out demons, and creating an all-around stir in Jerusalem and beyond. The High Priest, on behalf of the priestly (and therefore Temple-oriented) Sadducee party, has them arrested. An angel appears and sets them free, but instructs them to go straight to the Temple to preach. Arrested yet again, Peter is asked to give an account before the magistrates. The core of today’s reading records his statement, which is essentially a proto-Creed:

The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him. (Acts 5.30-32)

Here we have a testimony of a very early Christian understanding of the cross, and if we come from a strong Anselmian or Calvinist background, it might come as a surprise: It is “you”, that is the religious authorities, who had Jesus killed. The reference to ‘hanging on a tree’ has a twofold significance. First, it’s an obvious reference to crucifixion, which was a Roman practice, and so brings in their collusion with the imperial powers. But, it also likely refers to Deuteronomy 21.23 (also quoted in reference to the cross by Paul in Galatians 3.13), which states that “he who is hanged is accursed of God.” So, not only did the powers-that-be collude with Rome to kill Jesus, but the charges they leveled against him were such that he would also be cursed under the Law. So, the cross is clearly a human act here. God’s agency is not in the crucifixion (though God is certainly present in the crucifixion), but in the resurrection: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus” and “exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”

It is not the cross that is the saving act, but the resurrection: The cross curses and defiles Jesus under the Law; but God vindicates him through the resurrection and then ‘promotes’ him to his side, where he acts as humanity’s mediator and advocate.

Lest we think this is a one-off statement from Peter, this same sentiment can be found in all five of his recorded speeches in Acts. Amidst the diverse themes and circumstances of these sermons, Peter does ring out one common thread (my emphases in italics):

  • “…this man … you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up…” (Acts 2:23-24)
  • “…and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:15)
  • “…by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10)
  • “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30)
  • They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear…” (Acts 10:39-40)

The teaching, which claims to represent the earliest strands of the Christian tradition, is clear: Humanity kills. God raises to new life. God did not put Jesus on the cross — we did. What God did do was to vindicate the one we killed and thereby lay waste to all of our old ways, the cycles of violence and rivalry and political scheming whereby we justify our own violence in God’s name.

Thanks be to God, who raised Jesus from the dead.

2 thoughts on “Whose Cross is it? A Reflection on Acts 5:27-32

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