Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Christian Century March 24, 1982, p.326. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Alas, we would strip the body off the cross, embalm it and cover it with cosmetics, render the cross in bronze, polish it, make it triumphant and clean.
“…I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (John 12:32)
The latest ruckus to hit the house of God here at 435 Summit Drive was precipitated (as was the previous one) by the pastor. All I did was to suggest to an amateur woodcarver in the congregation that it would be nice if he turned his talents toward the carving of a processional cross for our church.
I had in mind something simple, modern and clean, something congruent with Northside Church’s minimalist architecture, something light enough for a white-robed adolescent to carry on Sundays. What we got on the first Sunday of Lent was a dramatic sort of cross, heavy, complete with a realistic, bleeding corpus, a hanging, crucified Christ, blood and everything.
Some managed to like it because a nice person had made it. Some liked it because they appreciated the intricate carving. But many were upset because it was “more Catholic than Methodist,” “gory and depressing,” or didn’t “go with our colors.”
What is a modern, progressive, slightly liberal, well-budgeted Methodist church to do with a bloody cross these days?
A few Lenten seasons ago, my friend Ed Covert put up three crosses draped in black on the front lawn of St. Stephen’s Episcopal and received a dozen calls complaining that the crosses made the neighborhood look bad. Christ’s or humanity’s suffering, it seems, is something unpleasant that happens to other people, more annoying than ennobling, something to be eradicated by the latest wonder drug or meditative technique.
John’s Gospel puts forth a rather baffling theory of atonement. We find, in a brief lapse of Johannine theological acuity, a view of the cross which seems more Abelardian than Johannine, more exemplarist than orthodox: even as Moses lifted up the serpent in order to heal wandering Israel, so the sight of the Son of God on the cross brings humanity to rebirth, repentance and eternal life (John 3 :14-15). Intellectually speaking, it’s not a very satisfying view of the atonement. How can such power be ascribed to the mere sight of the cross?
The truth is, all theories of the atonement are ultimately inadequate, particularly from an intellectual point of view. The relationship of the cross to our salvation, the connection between the suffering of Christ and human suffering, the need for God to become physically entangled in the world’s evil and pain -- this is too great a mystery for intellectual comprehension.
So perhaps John’s Gospel has it right. As Jesus is lifted up, high up on this bloody cross, he does draw all to himself (John 12:32).
We human beings live by the pleasure principle. We can do no more than avoid pain, whatever its source -- other people, finitude, failure, risk, truth. We are all practical hedonists to the core, asking no more of ourselves than that we have a nice day. So what can we understand, intellectually speaking, of a twisted body hanging from a cross?
It is not by understanding that we are saved. As Barth says, “Here is a truth we cannot understand -- we can only stand under this truth.” Here is a Savior who came among us “with loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7), a Messiah who, “although he was a Son, learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). John’s Gospel implies that the cross is not to be understood; it is simply to be seen. It is to be lifted up high, forced upon our myopic view of the world, placarded before any procession which attempts to move toward God (Gal. 3:1).
There are those who see. Francis Bernadone wanders into a church in Assisi, stands under the crucifix over the high altar, looks upon that body impaled, cadaver-like, before him -- stark, simple, demanding -- thinks he hears it speak, and feels his very soul pierced by the force of it all. The German Mathias Grünewald paints it with such gangrenous intensity that even a philosopher of abstractions like Tillich could say that the Christ in agony on the Isenheim altar was the most religious picture he had ever seen. And in a Mexican cathedral the cross is lifted up over a sea of beleaguered brown faces and a thousand peasant knees strike the floor like thunder.
Alas, we would strip the body off the cross, embalm it and cover it with cosmetics, render the cross in bronze, polish it, make it triumphant and clean. Let the atonement be a dollars-and-cents substitutionary transaction between an aloof, righteous judge of a God and sinful humanity or else a mythical Christus Victor military coup. We can understand that.
But then, down the carpeted aisle of my modern sanctuary, before a pulpit where the gospel is made intellectually digestible in once-a-week doses, a cross is brought in by a groaning crucifer. It is a crucifix, a visible believable body on a cross, the work of a layman’s hands, a layman who, despite what I have told him, sheds a tear and continues to be stupefied that God’s love should be made so explicit, continues to be drawn to the simple truth that “Jesus did it all for me.