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An Alternate View of the Cross

March 18, 2019
Rev. Donald A. Wells

We are now well into the Lenten Season; a very important time in the life of the Christian Community worldwide. It is a time for deep reflection as well as honest repentance. It is a time to begin shaping responses that will lead us in new and creative directions as we live out our discipleship in the midst of a rather cruel, hateful and divisive world. Indeed, it is a time to take stock of where we are and where we need to go as we journey towards Holy Week, the Cross and beyond. No small order.

But the focus of this specific blog is on the Cross of Jesus and the things related to his passion: arrest, mocking, crown of thorns, the nail-pierced hands, the sword-pierced side, and the sponge with vinegar. There is a deep held belief that we, you and I, and all those who came before us, are responsible for inflicting these terrible things on him because of our sinfulness.

The correction that is needed, in my opinion, is that we be relieved of the terrible guilt that says our sins and transgressions are what nailed Jesus to the Cross. That notion, that our guilt help crucify him has, alas, been the dominant one in the magisterial church since the 4th and 5th centuries; a time of creedal formulations and the stifling of dissent. It continues today in much of Protestantism (but not all), and in Roman Catholicism. This sense of guilt has embedded itself in our liturgical formulations, our prayers and our hymnody. Sometimes it is more pronounced; at other times it is a bit more subtle. But in all of its forms, it simply creates a scenario of guilt which can immobilize us, causing us to bury our heads in our hands in shame while causing us to miss the empowering nature of the Gospel.

Let it be said yet again: Jesus was crucified by the Roman imperial government for his ministry of embracing the poor and the needy, of empowering women, of challenging the status quo, of teachings and story telling that had a profound impact on the religious and social structures of the day. You cannot run an imperial government, based on the domination system, and survive, if you allow Jesus’ followers, who were on the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder, to listen to his teachings about love and justice. You get rid of the troublemakers. At this moment, the troublemaker was Jesus, the sandaled Galilean teacher, to whom crowds flocked to hear.

Your sins and mine did not crucify him. The Roman Empire did. But in most of our churches, hymns will be sung that say those sins, in some fashion, did crucify him. Some examples:

Who was the guilty?  Who brought this upon you? It is my treason, Jesus, that has slain you. And I, dear Jesus, I it was denied you; I crucified you.

In that old rugged cross, which bore Love so divine a wondrous beauty I see, For upon that old cross Jesus suffered and died to pardon and sanctify me.

What you, dear Savior, suffered was all for sinners gain; mine, mine was the transgression, but yours the deadly pain. Lo, here I fall, my Savior, for I deserve thy place; look on me with your favor, O grant to me your grace.

Was it for crimes that I have done, Christ groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity, grace unknown! And love beyond degree.

Feel guilty? Many do. Others just sing the words because the tune is familiar and then close the hymnal and await Easter. In so many ways we avoid the call to discipleship. He said ‘Follow me’. He took bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them. Bread to be shared needs to be broken. Metaphorically at first, and then on Good Friday, actually, this was his body. And the call to us is to go and replicate that giving of ourselves, costly as it might be, even as it was for him. The power structures of our day, or of any day, that seek to demonize, ostracize, persecute, and deny people a chance to live whole lives as children of God, will never be challenged or upended by people wallowing in guilt. Our guilt can actually be an opiate that deadens us to an engaged discipleship.

Indeed, many questions remain. Was Jesus sent to die because God was so angry with humankind that some form of punishment was required? What kind of God might that be? There are several different theories of the atonement; which one can help most? But those questions will have to wait for another day; another blog.  For now at least, this Lent, see afresh this Galilean preacher who showed us most clearly the face of God and who suffered death by an oppressive regime because he lived out the kingdom of God here ‘on earth even as it is in heaven.’ He beckons us to follow in our time and place. Yes, we falter; yes, we are oftentimes less than faithful; yes, we need to repent for our complicity in evil systems; yes we need renewal and new strength. But those things did not crucify him. Instead, Jesus continues to invite us to follow and promises to walk with us. That gives us strength for the journey. The Cross gives us courage. Let’s rid ourselves of that heavy dose of guilt! It can unwittingly shift our focus and thus keep us from following him as we ought.

One of the hymns that speaks to me this Lent is Before Your Cross, O Jesus (New Century Hymnal, No. 191).

Before your cross, O Jesus
our lives are judged today;
the meaning of our eager strife
is tested by your way.
Across our restless living
the light streams from your cross,
and by its clear revealing beams
we measure gain and loss.

Yet humbly, in our striving,
we rise to face its test.
We crave the power to do your will
as once you did it best.
On us let now the healing
of your great spirit fall,
and make us brave and full of joy
to answer to your call.

May this hymn ring true for us this Lent. Amen.