According to legend, the Roman Emperor Constantine, on the eve of a great battle in 312 AD, had a dream in which he received an interpretation of a vision he had seen that day of a cross which appeared just above the mid-day sun along with the words "Εν τουτω νικα" ("In this sign you will conquer"; or, in the more well known Latin version, "In hoc signo vinces"). In preparation for the battle that would solidify his uncontested rule over Rome, he had crosses painted on his army's shields. Thus Constantine's conversion to Christianity began – and the whole of the empire along with him. The young Church went–virtually overnight–from being a persecuted and often martyred minority to a political tool for bringing unity to a disintegrating empire. And the Lord Jesus, the crucified Messiah, became the new warrior-god of the world's first Western military superpower.
And so a paradigm for Western government was laid down that would remain largely unchanged until the 20th Century. The vast majority of the empire became Christian. Despite the consolidation of power that the Christianization of the empire brought, it eventually broke up into nation-states who soon developed a tendency to wage war against one another. Armies of confessing Christians fought against other armies of Christians, slaughtering one another on behalf of Christian kings, each one convinced that God was on his side. These kings and nations ultimately gave allegiance to the Pope, whose sphere of spiritual authority still encompassed much of the former empire. If ever there was a period in the Church age with striking parallels to Israel in the time of the judges, this was it. Only each person doing what was right in his own sight in those days was a king, each with his own personal Israel to function as the extension of his will.
The irony of all of this is that nothing could be more true than the raw interpretation of Constantine's vision: the cross is indeed the signpost pointing to, the blueprint laying out the means of achieving anything and everything that can and will ever be called victory. But the key to releasing the conquering power of the cross is accessed only by conquering in the same way that Jesus won on the cross. Wherever it is possible for a nation's flag to stand near a cross in a church sanctuary without the average church-goer cringing at the thought of the danger each poses to what the other represents, there you will find–gathered for worship–the political and religious descendants of Constantine.
Most people older than twelve have experienced the sting of being taken out of context. You said something, and someone quoted part of what you said to give your words a very different meaning. Or they quoted you verbatim, but still managed to use your exact words to say something altogether different than what you intended to communicate. When someone attempts to represent you with your words, you evaluate the truthfulness of that representation based not only on the accuracy of their reproduction of your vocabulary, but more so upon the overall way that your intent, your heart, your character is conveyed in the communication. In other words, we all know–at some level–that the process of conveying truth is vastly more complicated than merely echoing speech. Even true information about God can lose its character as Truth when it is communicated in the wrong way or at the wrong time. If this last statement raises your eyebrows, just take a look at how God responds to Job's friends after their attempts to 'comfort' the most famous sufferer in history with their true statements about God (Job 42:7).
We can take this principle and apply it on a level deeper than words. Take, for example, the cross. Jesus' death on a Roman cross was a kind of statement. It was infinitely more than this. But in the sense that it had the meaning that it did because of the context it was made in, it can be compared to a statement that you or I might say – and which, when taken out of context, might make us passionately object, "But that's not what I meant!", or "You're totally twisting my words!" The fact that in polite Roman society, to even speak the word 'crucifixion' was considered offensive should give us, who are accustomed to seeing crosses worn as necklaces and earrings, a bit of a sense of how much the offense–the scandal–of the cross has been lost to us.
An unoffensive cross is a cross that has been taken out of context to the extent that the truth it communicates has also been lost. An unoffensive cross is a comfortable cross. (Will the thousands of Jews crucified by the Romans rise up on judgment day and condemn us because they shared more in the experience than we have of the Messiah we claim to follow?) The cross was an emblem of shame, as the hymn says. Yet, for many of us it is a badge reassuring us of our 'in' status. But beyond all this, the cross was the definitive revelation of the heart and mission of Jesus – the dramatic enactment of the whole of Jesus' life and teaching, the character of God put on display. I often say that the right way to draw the symbol for love is not to make a 'v' with a double-rainbow across the top, but rather to make a cross. In the same way, if there was a symbol for 'truth', it too, would have to be a cross.
But like everything else, the truth of the cross is only preserved when the whole context is also preserved. It only communicates truthfully insofar as it calls to mind the One who dwells in high and lofty places also coming to dwell with the lowly. It is only true to the extent that it reminds us that the Power that created the universe with a single word subjected Himself to weakness, humiliation, torture, alienation, and dehumanizing abuse. And our identification with the cross (whether we make that identification with a physical gesture, a verbal confession, or by means of a piece of jewelry) is only as meaningful as our identification with–our participation in–the entire pattern of life that resulted in Jesus' having to die on a cross in the first place.
The cross is only the truth that saves us when the truth of the cross is replicated, reproduced, reincarnated in our lives. Because the truth about the cross is that it wasn't merely a one-time event that saves all who believe. It is by no means less than that. But it is also a pattern to be followed by all who believe. Belief that Jesus is the Way to life ought to produce believers who live the way that Jesus did – on a path of love that, in its world-defying self-giving, cuts so against the grain of the world that the its systems of power conspired to kill him because of His power's threat to theirs. Our power turned Him into an unforgettable visual aid that reminds us of what we've become as a result of living according to our definitions of power: disfigured by violence, scarcely recognizable as human, pitiable, helpless, powerless. He allowed all that to happen to Him, to Power itself, because it was the only way to restore us to what we were meant to be.
Similarly, the resurrection wasn't just proof that Jesus was divine. To those who believe, it most certainly does prove that. But the resurrection was to provide us the hope that we need as we love and give ourselves away in the same way that Jesus did, and in so doing, quite possibly bring the hatred of the world upon ourselves in the same way that Jesus did. The resurrection is the spark of hope that our souls need in order to continue living in what is still the only way to restore us to what we were meant to be–a way that we seem hell-bent (pun intended) on trying to avoid: the way of the cross.
Like Caiphas the high priest, not having the slightest idea of how truthfully he was speaking when he said that it would be better that one man die for the whole nation than for the whole nation to die (John 11:50), Constantine was speaking absolute truth when he told his soldiers, 'Thus saith the Lord: In hoc signo vinces!' Whether we will perpetuate his lifting of that truth so out of its context that it became the very opposite of truth, that it created a church whose character and priorities stand in complete opposition to God's own character and priorities, depends on how diligent we will be about keeping the whole context in mind of Jesus' words to his disciples: "None of you can be my disciple unless you first deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me."
The Book of Revelation makes this power paradox abundantly clear: The Lion who conquers does so by means of first having given himself up to be sacrificed as the lamb (5:5-6). Peter, who tried harder than anyone to evade the implications of being a disciple of a crucified Messiah (and ended up being called Satan as a result – let the reader understand), makes sure we have no room to assume that Jesus' sacrifice means we Christians get to ride off with into the sunset with the resurrected Lord; on the contrary, "He left you an example, that you might follow in His steps" (1 Pet 2:21).