It is as we see the cross through the eyes of the centurion that we are able to penetrate the undoubted mystery of the crucifixion and see God’s purpose fulfilled and be able to say with Charles Wesley, “didst thou not in our flesh appear; and live and die below; that I may now perceive thee near and my redeemer know.” (Hymns & Psalms: 184) What is important and must be said is that however the cross moves us to respond positively, it may differ from the way in which our neighbours in church have come to understand what it means for them. Dr Sir Alan Walker, the Australian Missioner, wrote a book with the title The many-sided cross, so-called because there is no insight, no doctrine, no school of thought that can possibly express the whole truth of the crucifixion. Alan Walker wrote, “It is like a diamond. Hold the diamond to the light, turn it about in the hand, light will flash and reflect in many colours the beauty of the stone, but what we see will depend from which angle we look at it.” From one angle the cross can be seen as a sacrifice; an innocent young man dies instead of, and on behalf of, sinners. From another perspective the cross can be seen as a demonstration of the love of God: a man dies not just for his friends, but for his enemies; a love that overwhelms and draws our response. So we could go on – there are other theories about the cross sincerely held by Christians, each one touching on a segment of the whole truth. However if it remains no more than theory, the death of Jesus achieves precious little for us. For whatever else may be shrouded in mystery, however much we may be puzzled by it and whatever may be said, one thing is true – in some strange and wonderful way, through the cross the power of God is released among us and our birth right – “made in the likeness of God”– is not just a dream, but a dream come true. The mechanism of the cross may remain a mystery for ever, its power need never be in dispute.
I was the visiting preacher conducting worship in a church where I was not much known. At the end of the service, as the congregation left for home, I was surprised to hear so many of them say, “I did enjoy the hymns.” No mention of the sermon!
In the vestibule of the church a small group of worshippers were busily engaged in conversation. I joined them – they were discussing the service. One of the ladies turned to me and said, “We get so many hymns we don’t know and don’t greatly like, it’s good to have someone who gives us a good old-fashioned sing.” I was quite chuffed; whether or not I should regard those comments as a compliment, I’m not sure – probably not! Maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy standing in the way of progress by, in the current context, sticking with those old-fashioned hymns, to the neglect of new songs and choruses. “Ah!” I exclaimed to the group, “it would be different if I was here every week; you would probably get some really difficult and unfamiliar ones!” As a visiting preacher, not knowing the congregation’s tastes, I would play safe and choose hymns (songs too!) that are certain to be known, even at the expense of some I considered more suitable. “You just go on playing safe”, one lady said, “especially when you come here. Come again soon.”
Hymns are dicey anyway. From the pulpit you can see those who don’t like the “modern stuff”. They stand tight-lipped and silent. On the other hand, I’ve seen enthusiasm unbounded accompanying modern religious songs, swaying, clapping hands stretching to the ceiling, but when asked to sing a good Charles Wesley, or an Isaac Watts hymn it’s their turn to stand silent, hymn book superfluous. Hymns or whatever – the most we can hope for is to please some of the people, some of the time. If anyone could have succeeded in pleasing everybody, surely it was Jesus. But not even He achieved such fame. He displeased the religious Pharisees and Sadducees so much that they formed an unusual coalition to get rid of him. The man or woman able to please everybody hasn’t been born yet. It is unlikely there ever will be such a superhuman; questionable if it is even desirable. What kind of world would it be if everyone shared the same likes and dislikes? The variety and the character would vanish from life.
In almost every church (and community) I’ve known, at some time or other there has been a difference of opinion in the fellowship. Sadly, the cause may be trivial but, on the other hand, serious enough to threaten the harmony and joy of discipleship with folk taking sides, people getting hurt, taking offence and becoming disillusioned. You cannot please or even agree with everyone; no one should expect it; life would lose some of its interest and colour. A favourite hymn of mine has the line, Didst thou not make us one, that we might one remain.
We cannot please everybody all of the time but we should always try to please God. When the Apostle Paul was writing to the church at Rome about the ethical requirements of Christian faith that ought to be the hall-mark of the Christian life, he was anxious that the Christian should be distinctive. “Being a Christian”, he said, “means being able to discern what God wills for us that our life may be lived to please Him”. (Romans 12:2). Well, what should our mantra be? An Old Testament one comes to mind, from the Book of the prophet Micah (6:8):
He has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
When I recall my first efforts as a preacher, I marvel at the tolerance of my congregations. How they suffered from the excesses of youth; I was 18 years old when I first began. There was the occasion when we sang Charles Wesley’s popular hymn, And can it be (Hymns & Psalms 216), often referred to as “The Methodist Anthem”. I got carried away at the end of it, telling the congregation that I was so moved we should be dancing down the aisle of the church. Dance does have a place in worship today but not in those far distant days! Not my cup of tea, actually it does nothing for me, but it doesn’t stop me from singing gustily and I hope tunefully, Sydney Carter’s Lord of the Dance. Anyhow I don’t and never could dance! It would be nice to think of myself as a prophet, or an early charismatic Christian. Neither would be the true “me”! My utterance that Sunday morning was simply naively over enthusiastic, and perhaps a wee bit foolish trying it out with a Scots congregation. It would be different today.
Sadly, the older I become, the more I realise how staid is much of our spirituality and discipleship. The more I reflect, the more I realise how great the need to recapture something of the zeal with which the early Christians invaded the post-Pentecostal world. The sort of enthusiasm which got them into trouble when they were accused of “turning the whole world upside down” (Acts 17: 1 – 9 AV); a statement that infers utter chaos and, in my view, a picture that loses much of its point in new translations of Acts where it is replaced with “they have caused trouble all over the world.”
It was William Barclay who said the trouble is that with the passing of the years we wrap Jesus up in so much stained glass.