As senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Ill., Ray Pritchard knows about the cross. "I've gone to Sunday school, I've gone to Christian college, I've gone to seminary, I've preached to crowds."
Yet, about four years ago, Pritchard had a moment of self-revelation when he realized that for too long, "I had been preaching the cross without ever really thinking about it. I had been studying the words, the text, analyzing it. I could give a good sermon on the cross." But he never really stopped to go back and ask, "What does this mean?"
Thus began a personal spiritual journey that allowed Prichard to get behind the sermons and the theology. The end result was a book - "In the Shadow of the Cross" - published by Broadman & Holman earlier this summer. Pritchard discussed what he learned with "Religion Today" editor Janet Chismar in the following interview.
Janet: Do you think people have lost sight of what the cross really means?
Ray Pritchard: Yes, it is very easy for all of us who are evangelical Christians to lose sight, not just of Jesus in general, but of the cross in particular. The problem is that we have sanitized the cross; we've domesticated it. It's like what you're wearing around your neck.
Janet: People who aren't Christians wear crosses as "jewelry."
Ray Pritchard: Right. So, you come into our church and you see this beautiful ornate, polished wood cross. It's the symbol of our faith and should be. But we have forgotten, unintentionally, the horror of the cross. We've forgotten what it really meant in the first century. We have domesticated it and made it beautiful, shiny and acceptable.
In the first century, nobody would ever have dreamed of wearing a cross around their neck. The thought was gross; it would be repulsive. Somebody said that if you wanted to evoke the same feeling today, instead of having a cross in front of a sanctuary, we should dangle a 20-foot image of a man dying in an electric chair. Can you imagine going to communion and looking up and seeing that? I hate to say it, because it sounds like I'm trying to be irreverent, but I'm not.
I often marvel at those words of Jesus, "Sit before the cross," "If anyone would be my disciple, let him come after me, take up this cross daily and follow me." In the first century, no one would ever have volunteered to take up the cross. The cross was an instrument of torture. The Romans - let's give them credit - they were good at killing, they were brutal. The Romans had a variety of ways of killing. But they reserved one way for the worst criminals and that was crucifixion. It was reserved for aliens, traitors, people convicted of heinous crimes - the worst dregs of society.
Janet: And that's what they thought of Jesus. How sad. You also talk about what the cross means to Satan and include other perspectives in the book.
Ray Pritchard: Right. There are 14 chapters in the book. The first half of the book is the seven sayings of Christ from the cross. Each chapter basically begins with a recreation of the setting. "It's nine o'clock Friday morning in Jerusalem. It's early in April. It's killing time. The Romans like to kill on Friday, just at the start of the weekend." I tried to recreate it like that, to tell the story. Then I explained what each one of those seven sayings from the cross really means.
In the last half of the book we go deeper and say, "Having relived that, what does it really mean? What did it mean to God, what did it mean to Christ?" The one I had the most fun with was the chapter on "What did the cross mean to Satan?"
Janet: Tell me more about that.
Ray Pritchard: That chapter was a blast because it's purely imaginary. But the idea was ... there's this big party down in hell and they're drinking and carousing and celebrating. Wild on Saturday afternoon, wilder on Saturday night. The demons were having at it. Then on Sunday morning comes the unbelievable news. All of a sudden, throughout hell - silence. The tomb is open; Jesus has come back from the dead. Down in hell, turn out the lights, the party's over. Satan was defeated; he was disgraced. It's fun to write about the good guys winning and the bad guys taking it on the chin.
Janet: How should people live in light of what the cross means? How can we keep the victory fresh in our minds?
Ray Pritchard: One of the problems of contemporary Christianity is that we are spending too much time nibbling around the edges, when we ought to be living at the center. It's not wrong to nibble around the edges, but if that's all you do you're going to get a case of spiritual malnutrition. The strength of the Christian faith comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ and dwelling in the shadow of the cross.
It's interesting - if you read the old writers, whether it be John Calvin and Martin Luther, or you read Charles Spurgeon - they understood that the whole Christian life is to be lived constantly at the foot of the cross. Constantly being nourished by the truth that all that we have and are depends on Him. We say that, but for it to really grab us, we have to go back to the cross and relive that experience, and think and drink deeply from the truth of the death and resurrection of our Lord.
For me personally, I've written 17 books. But there's no question, I enjoyed this one the most, because this was not nibbling around the edges. This was drinking from the fountain at the center of the faith. I hope that people who read my book will find they're drawn from the edges of the Christian life into the center and there they will stay. Because anybody who stays at the center will find their life is deeply and profoundly changed and enriched by Jesus Christ.
Ray Pritchard is senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Ill. He has also ministered extensively overseas, preaching in Paraguay, Colombia, Haiti, Russia and Belize. Pritchard is a frequent guest on the Moody Radio Network program, "Primetime America." Some of his other books include "FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions about the Christian Life" and "More Leadership Lessons of Jesus," co-authored with the late Bob Briner.