As the surgeon general of the United States, Vivek Murthy encountered a variety of medical problems throughout his career. Yet, when reflecting on his time as a doctor in an article in the Harvard Business Review, Murthy claimed, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes, it was loneliness.” Murthy in fact says our society today is experiencing a “loneliness epidemic,” which most can identify with based not on years of research but on their own personal experience.
How can our longings for relational intimacy be satisfied? The digital age has led not to deep relationships but to shallow connectedness. Contemporary pop spirituality attempts to fill the void, but a me-centered spirituality based on preference does not end up producing authentic community. Has the church been able to fill this void? Unfortunately, much of American Christianity reflects the individualism of our age, with the church seen as a dispenser of spiritual goods that exists to prop up “my relationship with God.”
If our longing for community is to be satisfied, we must look to the most unlikely person: a man who never married, was abandoned by his closest friends, and died one of the loneliest and most shameful deaths imaginable. The atoning death of Christ on the cross is the answer to our isolation because it creates a community bound together by something stronger than DNA. Jesus died for our sins, but his death accomplished much more than individual forgiveness. Through the blood of Christ we are saved into the church, adopted into a family, and rescued into the kingdom. Just as Christ’s cross had a vertical and horizontal beam, the sacrifice of Jesus reconciles us to God (vertically) and reconciles us to one another (horizontally).
Jesus loves me, yes. But even more so, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Jesus died for me, certainly. But even more so, “Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). I have a personal relationship with God, of course. But even more so, the Cross is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise: “You will be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer. 30:22).
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that God doesn’t care about us as individuals. God loves you as an individual—but not in an individualistic way. And I’m certainly not against the idea of personal salvation. The message of Jesus saving our souls is correct—but it is not complete. The finished work of Christ on the cross is not only for the salvation of sinners, but also for the formation of a community and the renewal of creation.
Community is not an optional bonus for people of faith. The Cross is a community-creating event, at once redeeming us from our sins and making us a people bound together by grace. Because of the gospel, the Christian answer to the loneliness epidemic is not about what we need to do to create community, but rather about what Christ has already done on our behalf to make us community. If you have trusted in Christ, you are not alone. You are part of a family. The communal nature of the Atonement is not only profound; it is practical, changing the way we view and relate to others.
We find spiritual friendship at the foot of the cross. Most friendships are based on affinity, but through the Cross we can have friendships based on something more profound and lasting. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, ESV). By grace, we are friends of God and can learn to have authentic friendships with others built on self-giving love. In the 12th century, Aelred of Rievaulx claimed there were three types of friendships: carnal friendship (based on amusement), worldly friendship (based on usefulness), and spiritual friendship (based on a mutual commitment to Jesus). Aelred proclaimed, “What statement about friendship can be more sublime, more true, more valuable than this: it has been proved that friendship must begin in Christ, continue with Christ, and be perfected by Christ.”
We are reconciled to one another. The Cross is the ultimate remedy to the ongoing injustice of racism. According to Ephesians 2, the Crucifixion tears down the dividing wall of hostility between ethnic groups and makes one people who reveal the reconciling power of the gospel to a world ravished by hostility and division. As the Egyptian church father Athanasius wrote in On the Incarnation, “It is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched … that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in Himself.” The cross severs the root of racism and builds up a community of people of different cultures and ethnicities united in Christ.
The Cross is both communal and global in scope. By dying on the cross, Christ has brought the nations together, creating by his blood a multicultural kingdom. Revelation offers a glimpse of our future, with a beautiful description of Christ and his kingdom: “You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God” (5:9–10, ESV).
We become citizens of a kingdom. Jesus ransoms sinners into a kingdom through his blood (Rev. 1:5–6). He takes on our forsakenness, and we are brought into a family, given a place at the table, and called sons and daughters of the king. But it’s a different kind of kingdom—a cross-shaped kingdom. And as we learn in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” In other words, you can see the power of this kingdom only through faith. As a pastor, I have the privilege of seeing this subversive kingdom at work every day. The church I pastor serves two hundred meals a day to the homeless community in Los Angeles. People come for the food but stay for the community. But to see what’s truly happening, it really does take the lens of faith. Where the world sees deficiency, we see dignity. Where the world sees a problem to be solved, we see people to be loved. The Cross creates a community of compassion, dignity, and love that offers the world a glimpse of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.
At the cross, I am saved. And at the cross, we are saved. The Good News brings us out of isolation, calls us beyond me-centered spirituality, and saves us into the community we long for: a Christ-centered, global, eternal family. Thanks be to God.
Jeremy R. Treat is pastor for preaching and vision at Reality LA and an adjunct professor at Biola University. He is the author of Seek First: How the Kingdom of God Changes Everything and The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology.
This piece is part of The Cross, CT’s special issue featuring articles and Bible study sessions for Lent, Easter, or any time of year. You can learn more about purchasing bulk print copies of The Cross for your church or small group at OrderCT.com/TheCross. If you are a CT subscriber, you can download a free digital copy of The Cross at MoreCT.com/TheCross.