(This is taken from Henry Sloane Coffin's Some Christian Convictions, originally published in 1915)
The human life in which succeeding generations have found their picture of God ended in a bloody tragedy. It was a catastrophe which all but wrecked the loyalty of Jesus' little group of followers; it was an event which proved a stumbling block in their endeavor to win their countrymen to their Lord, and which seemed folly to the great mass of outsiders in the Roman world. It was a most baffling circumstance for them to explain either to themselves or to others; but, as they lived on under the control of their Lord's Spirit, this tragedy came gradually to be for them the most richly significant occurrence in His entire history; and ever since the cross has been the distinctive symbol of the Christian faith. It had a variety of meanings for the men of the New Testament; and it has had many more for their followers in subsequent centuries. We are not limited to viewing it through the eyes of others, nor to interpreting it with their thoughts. We are enriched as we try to share their experiences of its power and light; but we must go to Calvary for ourselves, and look at the Crucified with the eyes of our own hearts, and ask ourselves of what that cross convinces us.
Its first and most obvious disclosure is the unchristlikeness, and that means for us the ungodlikeness, of our world. We study the chief actors in this event, and conclude that had we known personally Caiaphas, Annas and Pilate, and even Herod and Judas Iscariot, we should have found them very like men we meet every day, very like ourselves, with a great deal in them to interest, admire and attract. And behind them we scan a crowd of inconspicuous and unnamed persons whose collective feelings and opinions and consciences were quite as responsible for this occurrence, as were the men whose names are linked with it; and they impress us as surprisingly like the public of our own day. It was by no means the lowest elements in the society of that age who took Jesus to the cross; they were among the most devout and conscientious and thoughtful people of their time. Nor was it the worst elements in them which impelled them to class Him as an undesirable, of whom their world ought to be rid; their loyalties and convictions were involved in that judgment. They acted in accord with what was considered the most enlightened and earnest public opinion. We can think of no more high-minded person in Jerusalem than young Saul of Tarsus, the student of Gamaliel; and we know how cordially he approved the course the leaders of Israel had taken in putting Jesus out of the way.
The cross is the point where God and His children, even the best of them, clash. At Calvary we see the rocky coast-line of men's thoughts and feelings against which the incoming tide of God's mind and heart broke; and we hear the moaning of the resisted waves. The crucifixion is the exposure of the motives and impulses, the aspirations and traditions, of human society. Its ungodlikeness is made plain. We get our definition of sin from Calvary; sin is any unlikeness to the Spirit of Christ, revealed supremely in that act of self-sacrifice. The lifeless form of the Son of God on the tree is the striking evidence of the antagonism between the children of men and their Father. Jesus completely represented Him, and this broken body on the gibbet was the inevitable result. Golgotha convinces us of the ruinous forces that live in and dominate our world; it faces us with the suicidal elements in men's spirits that drive them to murder the Christlike in themselves; it tears the veil from each hostile thought and feeling that enacts this tragedy and exposes the God-murdering character of our sin. Sin is deicidal. When that Life of light is extinguished, we find a world about us and within us so dark that its darkness can be felt. The fateful reality of the battle between love and selfishness, knowledge and ignorance, between God and whatever thwarts His purpose, is made plain to us in that pierced and blood-stained Figure on the cross. In the sense of being the victim of the ungodlike forces in human life, Jesus bore sin in His own body on the tree.
A second and equally clear disclosure is that of a marvellous conscience. What takes Jesus Christ to that tragic death? It is perfectly evident that He need not have come up to Jerusalem and hazarded this issue; He came of His own accord; and we can think of dozens of reasons that might have induced Him to remain in Galilee, going about quietly and accomplishing all manner of good. Why did He give up the opportunities of a life that was so incalculably serviceable, and apparently court death? Jesus was always conscientious in what He did; He felt Himself bound to the lives about Him by the firmest cords of obligation, and whatever He attempted He deemed He owed men. If there was a Zacchæus whose honesty and generosity had given way under the faulty system of revenue-collecting then in vogue, Jesus considered Himself involved in his moral ruin and obliged to do what He could to restore him: "I must abide at thy house." If there were sick folk, their diseases were to Him, in part at least, morally wrong, devil-caused (to use His First Century way of explaining what we ascribe to inherited weakness or to blameworthy conditions); and demoniacal control over lives in God's world was something for which He felt Himself socially accountable: "Ought not this woman, whom Satan hath bound, to have been loosed?" If the Church of His day was unable to reach large sections of the population with its appeal, if it succeeded very imperfectly in making children of the Most High out of those whom it did reach, if with its narrowness and bigotry it made of its converts "children of hell," as Jesus Himself put it, if it exaggerated trifles and laid too little stress on justice, mercy and fidelity, He, as a member of that Church, was chargeable with its failures, and must strive to put a new conscience into God's people: "I must preach the good tidings of the Kingdom of God." Ibsen, the dramatist, wrote to his German translator, Ludwig Passarge, "In every new poem or play I have aimed at my own spiritual emancipation and purification—for a man shares the responsibility and the guilt of the society to which he belongs." Jesus felt implicated in all that was not as it should be among the children of men, and cleared Himself from complicity with it by setting Himself resolutely to change it. He considered that the human brotherhood in its sinfulness exacted nothing less of Him.
It is commonly taught that the Lord's Prayer is a form that was suggested by Jesus to His disciples, but that it could not have been a prayer which He Himself used with them, because of its plea for forgiveness. It is true that it is introduced in our Gospels as provided by the Master for His followers, "When ye pray, say." But millions of Christians instinctively associate it with Jesus' own utterances to the Father. And may they not be correct? "Forgive us our debts," is a social confession of sin, in which our Lord may well have joined, just as He underwent John's baptism of repentance, though Himself sinless, in order to fulfil all righteousness. He regarded Himself as indebted; His work, His teaching, His suffering, His death, were not to Him a gift which He was at liberty to make or to withhold. In the "must" so often on His lips we cannot miss the sense of social obligation. He was (to borrow suggestive lines of Shelley's)
a nerve o'er which do creep
The else unfelt oppressions of the earth.
They came home to His conscience, and He could not shake them off. They were so many claims on Him; He felt He owed the world a life, and He was ready to pay the debt to the last drop of His blood. "The Son of man must suffer and be killed." To the end He cast about for some less awful way of meeting His obligations. "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from Me." But when no other alternative seemed conscientiously possible to Him, He went to Golgotha with a sense of moral satisfaction. "Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things?" Without any disturbing consciousness of having personally added to the world's evil, with no plea for pardon for His own sins on His lips but only for those of others, His conscience was burdened with the injustice and disloyalties, the brutalities and failures, of the family of God, in which He was a Son, and He bore His brothers' sins on His spirit, and gave Himself to the utmost to end them.
A third disclosure of the cross is the incomparable sympathy of the Victim. How shall we account for His recoil from the thought of dying, for His shrinking from this death as from something which sickened Him, for the darkness and anguish of His soul in Gethsemane at the prospect, and for the abysmal sense of forsakenness on the cross? His sensitiveness of heart made Him feel the pain and shame of other men, a pain and shame they were frequently too stolid and obtuse to feel. He could not see able-bodied and willing workmen standing idle in the marketplace because no man had hired them, without sharing their discouragement and bitterness, nor prodigals making fools of themselves without feeling the disgrace of their unfilial folly. His parables are so vivid because He has Himself lived in the experiences of others. "Cor cordium" is the inscription placed upon Shelley's grave; and it is infinitely more appropriate for the Man of Nazareth. In His sensitive sympathy we are aware of
Desperate tides of the whole great world's anguish
Forc'd through the channels of a single heart.
We cannot account for His recoil from the cross, save as we remember His sense of kinship with those who were reddening their hands with the blood of the Representative of their God. If we have ever stood beside a devoted wife in the hour when her husband is disgraced, or been in a home where sons and daughters are overwhelmed with a mother's shame, we have some faint idea of how Jesus felt the guilt of His relatives when they slew Him. He was the conscience of His less conscientious brethren: "the reproaches of them that reproached Thee, fell on Me." He realized, as they did not, the enormity of what they were doing. The utter and hideous ungodlikeness of the world was expressed for Him in those who would have none of Him, and cried: "Away with Him! Crucify, crucify Him." His keenness of conscience and His acute sympathy brought to His lips the final cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" The sinless Sufferer on the cross, in His oneness with His brethren, felt their wrongdoing His own; acknowledged in His forsakenness that God could have nothing to do with it, for it was anti-God; confessed that it inevitably separated from Him and He felt Himself in such kinship and sympathy with sinning men that He was actually away from God. "That was hell," said old Rabbi Duncan, "and He tasted it."
But our minds revolt. We do not believe that God deserted His Son; on the contrary we are certain that He was never closer to Him. Shall we question the correctness of Jesus' personal experience, and call Him mistaken? We seem compelled either to do violence to His authority in the life of the spirit with God, or to our conviction of God's character. Perhaps there is another alternative. A century ago the physicist, Thomas Young, discovered the principle of the interference of light. Under certain conditions light added to light produces darkness; the light waves interfere with and neutralize each other. Is there not something analogous to this in the sphere of the spirit? Is not every new unveiling of God accompanied by unsettlements and seeming darkenings of the soul, temporary obscurations of the Divine Face? In all our advances in religious knowledge are we not liable to undergo
Fallings from us, vanishings,
Blank misgivings of the creature?
And may it not have been God's coming closer than ever to the Son of His love, or rather the Son's coming closer to the Father, as He entirely shared and expressed God's own sympathy and conscience, and was made perfect by the things which He suffered, that wrought in His sinless soul the awful blackness of the feeling of abandonment?
In the sense of suffering sin's force, of conscientiously accepting its burden, of sensitively sympathizing with the guilty, Jesus bore sin in His own body on the tree.
And, as we stand facing the Crucified, we cannot escape a sense of personal connection with that tragedy. The solidarity of the human family in all its generations has been brought home to us in countless ways by modern teachers; we are members one of another, and as we scan the cross this is a family catastrophe in which the actors are our kinsmen, and the blood of the Victim stains us as sharers of our brothers' crime. And, further, as we look into the motives of Christ's murderers—devout Pharisee and conservative Sadducee, Roman politician and false friend, bawling rabble and undiscriminating soldiery, the host of indifferent or approving faces of the public behind them—they seem strangely familiar to us. They have been, they are still, alive by turns in us. The harmless spark of electricity that greets the touch of one's hand on a metal knob on a winter's day is one with the bolt of lightning that wrecks a giant oak. The selfish impulse, the narrow prejudice, the ignorant suspicion, the callous indifference, the self-satisfied respectability, which frequently dominate us and determine our decisions, are one with that cruel combination of motives which drove the nails in the hands and feet of the Son of God. Still further, the suffering of Jesus never seems to an acute conscience something that happened once, but is over now. The Figure that hung and bled on the tree centuries ago becomes indissolubly joined in our thought with every life today that is the victim of similar misunderstanding and neglect, injustice and brutality; and, while our sense of social responsibility charges us with complicity in all the wrong and woe of our brethren, that haunting Form on Calvary hangs before our eyes, and
Makes me feel it was my sin,
As though no other sin there were,
That was to Him who bears the world
A load that He could scarcely bear.
We may say to ourselves that this is fanciful, that we were not the Sanhedrin who condemned Jesus, nor the Roman procurator who ordered His execution, nor the scoffing soldiers who carried out his command; but the conscience which the cross itself creates charges us with participation in the murder of the Son of God. That cross becomes an inescapable fact in our moral world, an element in our outlook upon duty, a factor tingeing life with tragic somberness. It forces upon us the conviction that it is all too possible for us to reenact Golgotha, and by doing or failing to do, directly or indirectly, for one of the least of Christ's brethren to crucify Him afresh, and put Him to an open shame.
But if the cross seems to color life somberly, it also gilds it with glory. As we follow Christ, we discover more and more clearly that all which we possess of greatest worth has come to us, and keeps coming to us, through Him. What he endured centuries ago on that hill without the city wall is a wellspring of inspiration flowing up in the purest and finest motives in the life of today. There is a direct line of ancestry from the best principles in the lives of nations, and of men and women about us, running back to Calvary. Day after day we find ourselves and the whole world made different because of that tragic occurrence of the past, shamed out of the motives that caused it, and lifted into the life of the Crucified. A recent dramatist makes the centurion, in the darkness at the foot of the cross, say to Mary: "I tell you, woman, this dead Son of yours, disfigured, shamed, spat upon, has built a Kingdom this day that can never die. The living glory of Him rules it. The earth is His and He made it. He and His brothers have been molding and making it through the long ages; they are the only ones who ever really did possess it: not the proud; not the idle; not the vaunting empires of the world. Something has happened up here on this hill today to shake all our kingdoms of blood and fear to the dust. The earth is His, the earth is theirs, and they made it. The meek, the terrible meek, the fierce agonizing meek, are about to enter into their inheritance."
Nor is this all of which that cross convinces us. We find ourselves giving that crucified Man our supreme adoration; He is for us that which we cannot but worship. Instinctively and irresistibly we yield Him our highest reverence, trust and devotion. As we think out what is involved in the impression He makes upon us, we come to our conception of His deity; and through Him we discover ourselves in touch with the Highest there is in the universe, with the Most High. Calvary becomes, for those who look trustingly at the Crucified, a window through which we see into the life of the Lord of heaven and earth. Jesus' sin-bearing is for us a revelation of the eternal sin-bearing of the God and Father of us all. Behind the cross of wood outside the gate of Jerusalem we catch sight of a vast, age-enduring cross in the heart of the Eternal, forced on Him generation after generation by His children's unlikeness to their Father—forced, but borne by Him, in conscientious devotion to them, as willingly as Jesus went to Golgotha. If at Calvary we find the rocky coast-line of human thought and feeling opposing the inflow of God, the incoming waters break into the silver spray of speech, and their one word is Love.
In this revelation of our Father is the assurance of our forgiveness. Such a God is not one who may or may not be gracious, as He wills; it is "His property always to have mercy." He would not be just in His own eyes, were He unmerciful; He is just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Like His Son, He owes us Himself; and His forgiveness is freely ours in the measure that we are able to receive it, that is, in the measure in which we have forgiven others.
Jesus at Calvary proves Himself both our Substitute and our Exemplar. He who finds and opens a trail to a mountain-top encounters and removes obstacles, which none of those who come after him need to meet; he makes the path for them. When the sinless Jesus found Himself socially involved with His brethren in the low valley of the world's sinfulness, and looked off to the summit of His Father's perfectness, He felt a separation between the whole world and God; and He gave Himself to end it. We shall never know the uncertainties that shrouded Him and the temptations He faced, from the experience in the wilderness at the outset to the anguish of His spirit in Gethsemane and the consciousness of dereliction on the cross. The "if it be possible" of His prayer suggests the alternative routes He sought to find, before He resigned Himself to opening the path by His blood. Since His death there is "a new and living way" for those who know Him, which stretches from the lowest point of their abasement to the very peak of God's holiness. Up that way they can pass by repentance and trust, and down it the mercy of God hastens to meet and lead them. They are forever delivered from the sense of exclusion from God; the way lies open. But he who knows a path must himself walk it, if he would reach its goal; and no one is profited by Christ's sacrifice who does not give himself in a like sacrificial service; only so does he ever reach fellowship with the Father.
The cross convinces us that we must love one another in the family of God as our Father in Christ has loved us; and it further pledges us God's gift of Himself, that is His Holy Spirit, to fulfil this debt of love. It speaks to us of One who offers nothing less than Himself, and nothing less will do, to be the Conscience of our consciences, the Heart of our hearts, the Life of our lives. We are lifted by the cross into a great redemptive fellowship, a society of redeemers—the redeeming Father, the redeeming Son and a whole company inspired by the redeeming Spirit. We fill up on our part as individuals and as Christian social groups—churches, nations, families—that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for His Kingdom's sake. The more Christian our human society becomes, the more it will manifest the vicarious conscience of its Lord, and feel burdened with the guilt of every wrong-doer, and bound to make its law-courts and prisons, its public opinion and international policies and all its social contacts, redemptive. Through every touch of life with life, in trade, in government, in friendship, in the family, men will feel self-giving love akin to, because fathered by, the love of God commended to the world when Christ died for sinners.
While in a sense men will become all of them redeemers one of another, behind them all will ever lie the unique sacrifice of Jesus. The singularity of that sacrifice lies not in the act but in the Actor: "He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world." Every member of the redeemed society, however much he may owe to the sacrificial service of his brethren, will feel himself personally indebted to Christ, who loved him and gave Himself up for him. As the Originator of the redemptive fellowship, the Creator of the new conscience, the Captain of our salvation who opened up the way through His death into the holiest of all, we give to Jesus and to no other the title, "The Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world."
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