Taking Down the Cross

A mild case of dyslexia made it difficult for me to learn to read music.  But my ear was good.  My grandmother played the piano by ear and seeing the same gift in me, she bought me a toy piano – and not just any piano, but a toy baby grand.  I still remember the first song I ever learned to play. It was a hymn, of course, since church was such a big part of my childhood.  One day when I was in my room plunking away at it, trying to learn the end, my mother popped her head in and told me that that as soon as I had learned to play it all, I could have some cookies and milk.  And it worked!


The song is called “Nothing But the Blood” – a 19th century Gospel song still beloved by millions of people. The blood, of course, is a reference to the blood of Jesus, and the lyrics espouse a certain kind of atonement theology.  They go like this: “What can wash away my sins?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus.  What can make me whole again?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus.  Oh, precious is that flow, that makes me white as snow.  No other fount I know.  Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”[1]


Well one day I outgrew that toy piano.  And one day, I outgrew such a quid pro quo view of the atonement.  I no longer believe that it took the violent shedding of blood in order for God to forgive us our sins.  But the problem with folks like me is that many of us are still searching for some atonement theology to replace the ones we reject.  Once you leave traditional atonement theologies behind, you are left with the difficult task of redefining the cross.


So most of the time we just politely ignore the subject.  But the cross of Jesus, however one understands it, is the pivotal event in the divine drama.  Whether we like it or not, the cross is the centerpiece of our salvation story. We look at it and talk about it and sing about it, like we will do after this sermon with the words: “Jesus, keep me near the cross, there a precious fountain, free to all, a healing stream, flows from Calvary’s mountain.”[2]


So the cross is central to Christian theology, but if we were more honest about it, some of us would admit that we are rather repulsed by the cross. Few of us like to talk about suffering.  Fewer still want to contemplate a violent death. And besides all that, Americans are very good indeed at avoiding any talk of suffering, sickness or death so that we can maintain the illusion that we ourselves are never going to die.  Death talk scares us. 


Maybe it scared Peter too.  Maybe that’s why he pulled Jesus aside and tried to talk some sense into him. “Stop being so gloomy, Jesus.  Stop scaring people.  Stop talking about suffering and death.  We will never build a religious movement this way. Instead tell folks about success and the good life.”


It doesn’t seem like such bad advice to me.  But this statement from Peter elicits one of the strongest answers that Jesus ever gives. Jesus turned and looked at Peter - the one he had just said would be the Rock upon which the church would be built, and said: “Get behind me, Satan. You have your mind set on human things and not divine things.  If you want to follow me and really change the world, you have to loose what you call life in order to find true life.  And you can’t ignore the crosses in this world.”


Now notice what Jesus does not say in this passage.  He makes no mention of his own cross.  He talks of his death, but not his cross.  Instead he talks about their crosses.  And isn’t that an odd thing to note since the church has so often focused solely on the cross of Christ?  But Jesus focused on our crosses and by implication declared that the experience of the cross didn’t just happen once.  The cross happens all the time.  The cross happens to us.


A cross for you and a cross for me… well, frankly, I’d rather sing about being washed in the blood of the Lamb.  I’d rather gaze lovingly at a golden altar cross.  I’d rather wear one around my neck.  You see, that’s a passive interaction with the cross and it doesn’t really cost me anything except an extra large dose of sentimentality and self-centered religion.


It’s a faith that doesn’t cost us anything.  And isn’t that what lots of churches are peddling in this frightening time of cataclysmic changes on the American landscape?  Isn’t that the way you build a congregation – lots of perks and no pain?  I suppose.  And I am as tempted as the next guy to buy into that model.  Yet I suspect that the common American brand of Christianity has little to do with the dream Jesus had for the Reign of God established on this earth.


Dietrich Bonheoffer, the great German theologian who once taught up the road at Union Seminary, and who later died at the hands of Nazis, once famously declared that what ails us modern Christians is that we want cheap grace.  He wrote: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross…” [3] And Bonheoffer found out that if you do this “following Jesus thing” the right way, it can cost you a great deal.


A faith that costs something – who wants that? We want to build churches with the best programming and the most beautiful music and lots of money in the bank. But Jesus didn’t come to build an institution; he came to save people from the selfishness that ails us.  He came to enlist us to stand up to the powers that chew up the poor and abuse the weak.  He came to show us our crosses and to give us the courage to pick them up.


In San Francisco’s Tenderloin, there is a famous church called Glide Memorial United Methodist.  It was founded in 1929 as a conservative bastion and funded by a very rich woman named Lizzie Glide.  But by the 1960s it had dwindled to almost nothing, as people abandoned the cities.  A new minister, the Rev. Cecil Williams, was sent there to try to save it.  But old Cecil was anything but traditional.  He was a pastor who believed that the Gospel of Jesus ought to actually change people’s everyday lives.  And so, he instituted a great variety of social programs, meeting all kinds of people’s immediate needs: food, shelter, education.  And in 1967 he very controversially ordered that the cross be removed from the sanctuary, telling his congregation “We must all be the cross.”


Well, I don’t know what I think about what Williams did with that cross.  It’s probably not something I would do.  But I can’t argue with the changes that have been wrought by that congregation over the past 50 years. They have literally transformed their neighborhood and city and thousands of people’s lives because they decided that crosses don’t belong on walls.  Crosses belong on people’s shoulders – on our shoulders - as we follow and imitate and look to the One who carried his own cross for the sake of the world.


[1] Lyrics and Music by Robert Lowry

[2] Lyrics by Fanny J. Crosby, Music by William H. Doane

[3] "Devotional Classics" edited by Richard J. Foster & James B. Smith; "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.