By a happy coincidence, last Sunday was not only Valentine’s Day, but the first Sunday of Lent. On that day, I suggested that it was doubly fitting to contemplate the love of God as demonstrated in the cross of Christ. For that reason, I’ve decided to post a reflection on love and the cross each of the remaining Sundays of the Lenten season.
About this time last year, the movie Do You Believe? hit the theaters, to mixed reviews. The film was explicitly evangelistic, though in all likelihood, it played mostly to Christian audiences. No matter. On one level, viewers were simply challenged to believe the message of the cross. On another level, however, those who already believe were pushed further by the stories of the characters, many of whom were Christians.
A black street preacher drags a life-sized cross through the streets, confronting passersby with the gospel. He even asks a pastor if he believes in cross. The pastor, without much enthusiasm, says that he does. But the preacher doesn’t relent: “Then what are you doing about it?”
The pastor is shaken by the question. The following Sunday, church members find miniature wooden crosses waiting for them in the pews, to be carried away as a reminder to be fully committed to Jesus.
What follows is a series of intertwined vignettes, tracing the lives of the pastor and others carrying their little wooden crosses. Taking up the pastor’s challenge, many reach out sacrificially in love to others who need help. A man worsens his medical condition by sleeping outdoors while letting a homeless single mother and her sick child have his apartment for the night. Later, an older couple from the same church takes the mom and daughter in on a permanent basis. A paramedic jeopardizes his career by sharing the gospel with a dying man. The pastor and his wife reach out to another homeless young woman who is with child and almost to full-term.
A climactic scene brings the players together, representing the tapestry that is continually and invisibly being woven by a sovereign, omnipotent God. Frankly, the scene feels much too contrived. Still, the stories themselves are inspiring and generally well-acted. And surely, there’s no downside to asking what the love demonstrated by God on the cross demands of us who say we believe.
But the problem is this: in at least one story, the little cross becomes like a talisman, disconnected from the gospel it was meant to represent.
A military vet struggling with PTSD is ready to take his own life — but he seems prevented from doing so by the cross his sister has given him. Instead, he reaches out to a young woman about to jump from the same bridge. They need each other deeply, and begin to fall in love.
But he can’t stay with her. His PTSD sometimes makes him violent, and he doesn’t want to hurt her. He leaves without explanation, secretly slipping the wooden cross into her pocket.
Confused and distraught, she finds the cross and clutches it, offering a generic prayer for God to reveal himself to her. And later, of course, the vet returns, confident that he has the victory over his condition. Overjoyed, she cries, “He brought you back to me!”
Is she right? Would God actually answer that kind of prayer in that way? The only thing I know for certain is that I am not God, and it would be arrogant to say.
So why am I bothered by this?
Again, the question at the heart of the movie is, “If you believe in the cross, then what are you doing about it?” It’s a good question. But this vignette seems to turn it inside-out: “If God is real, what will he do for you?” There is a subtext to the film that not only asks if you believe, but suggests that if you do, you may get something else you really, really want.
To be fair, even though one person is miraculously healed, others die. It’s not as if characters are popping out self-centered prayers left and right and having them answered one by one.
But here’s the question. God has already shown his love through the work of Jesus on the cross. Is that act sufficient to warrant our devotion, to provoke us to love God and others in turn, even if we don’t get the things we want in this lifetime?
I admit that I hesitate to say yes. But the Bible seems to think so.
And that is why we need a season to contemplate the cross.