The Descent from the Cross - Rembrandt van Rign (1634)

For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  I Cor. 2:2

Let us think about the cross. And when I say “cross ” I mean the cross set up on Golgotha. We are in the habit of using the word nowadays with many significations. The cross…what is the cross? It is an architectural decoration, a pretty way of ending a spire. It is a piece of jewelry dangling from a man’s watch chain, or hanging from a woman’s neck. It is a figure of speech. Do we not talk about our “little crosses” and smile over them through our tears? But the cross about which I wish to speak is a piece of rough timber with a dying man nailed to it. That hideous spectacle lies at the very center of our religion.

It is a misfortune of our age that Christianity is surrounded by a golden haze. When seen through this golden haze the religion of the Son of God seems to be a beautiful and ethereal thing. It is a poem whose rhythmic cadences soothe the imagination and satisfy our aesthetic nature. It is a lovely song, to be handed over to the lips of expert singers, and to be interpreted by the great masters of tone. It is a picture, tragic and pathetic, before which we can sit down in our hours of meditation and wonder or cry. It is a philosophy, to be studied and discussed; a learned thing, to be expounded in essays and eloquent orations. It is a dream, beautiful and luminous as the Syrian sky under which it had its birth. And when we speak about “the cross” we mean a certain line in the poem, a verse in the anthem, a color in the picture, an enigma in the philosophy, the central glory of the dream.

But that is not the religion of the Son of God. The Christian life as Jesus lived it was a simple, prosaic, practical thing. “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” “I must work the works of him that sent me while it is day, for the night cometh when no man can work.” “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.” So he said as he labored through the years. He went into society, where men and women were tied round and round with foolish customs and ridiculous fashions, and he defied these fashions by acting as a Son of God ought to act. He stepped over dividing chasms and walked through estranging walls as though they did not exist, to the consternation of all the sticklers in the land. He went into the church, where men were bound hand and foot by the traditions of the fathers, and he swept these traditions away as though they were so many cobwebs. He went into the temple, and drove out the men who were desecrating God’s worship, even though his action stirred the leading citizens to murderous rage. He went into politics, and condemned the men who were seated on thrones because those men were not doing the will of God. Of course it was not pleasant, it was exceedingly disagreeable. He stirred up all sorts of hatreds and oppositions. It was not only unpleasant, but it was also dangerous and fatal. The world would not endure his interference and his condemnation. It snarled at him, and began to show its teeth. Jesus saw that he could not go on in the way in which he had started without suffering martyrdom, and he decided to drink the cup, no matter how bitter it might be.

It was at Cesarea Philippi that he began to tell his disciples about his coming death. He must go to Jerusalem, he said, and suffer many things. Peter was filled with consternation, and began to protest. “Never can such a thing happen!” Jesus said: “Get thee behind me, Satan. You are full of the thoughts of men. You do not understand the ways of God.” After the marvelous experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, he repeated this dismal prophecy. “I am going to Jerusalem, and there they are going to kill me.” While travelling through Galilee he stopped them one day by the road and said, “Let these words sink into your hearts: I am going to Jerusalem, and there I am going to die.” A little later, in Perea, with his face steadfastly set toward Jerusalem, he painted the picture in more detail He had now come close enough to the cross to see how the tragedy was going to end. ” They are going to mock me, and spit upon me, and scourge me, and then they will kill me.” When James and John wished to sit on the highest thrones of his kingdom, his reply was, “Are you able to drink the cup that I shall drink of, and be baptized with the baptism which I shall be baptized with?”

Not only was it certain to him that he must move steadily toward the cross, but it was equally clear that every man who would do the work which he was engaged in must also move toward a cross. His experience was not to be exceptional, but it was to be the established rule. He never attempted to conceal from his disciples the fact that they would suffer persecution. Repeatedly he reminded them that to be his follower meant to be a sufferer, and that unless they were willing to endure afflictions they need not attempt to come after him. Read the loth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel and see what he says to the twelve when he sends them out to preach the Gospel: “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Beware of men : they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake. Ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake. The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master and the servant as his lord. Do not be afraid of them which kill the body, but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” It was with those direful words ringing in their ears that the disciples went out to do their work. Read the loth chapter of St. Luke, and see what he said to the seventy when he sent them out before his face into every city into which he himself would come. He said to them substantially what he said to the twelve. There was nothing else to say. “Behold, I send you forth as lambs in the midst of wolves.” This world is a wolf to a man who would live a Christlike life. It is impossible to modify the marching orders.

It was in this tone that he spoke to his disciples to the very end. Read the i6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel. He is in the upper chamber. He is saying the last things to them that he will ever be permitted to say. He is repeating the things which he wishes them to remember. “They shall put you out of the synagogues. Yea, the time cometh that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” “These things have I told you that when the time shall come, you may remember that I told you of them.” ” In the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

He would not allow men to follow him unless he was first assured that they understood the condition on which discipleship became possible.

Read the chapter of St. Luke and see how he turns away man after man because he sees they are not made of the stuff of which heroes are made. One man comes saying, ” Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.” There is something in the man’s face or tone which reveals a cowardly attitude of spirit, and Jesus says to him, ” Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.” Another man comes saying, ” I will follow thee, but suffer me first to go and bury my father.” The only reply is, ” Let the dead bury their dead, but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” A third man comes saying, “Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first bid them farewell which are at home at my house.” Jesus says, “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

And what he said to one he said to all. When he spoke to the multitude he held before them the picture of crucifixion. Read the I4th chapter of St. Luke and see how clear and how severe are his words, “Whosoever doth not bear his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” It costs something to be a Christian. Count the cost before you make the start. “Which of you intending to build a tower sitteth not down first and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.” ” Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first,, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand.” “Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.”

So he spoke before the crucifixion and resurrection, so also did he speak after his ascension. Read the 4gth chapter of Acts, See what he says to Ananias. “Go, Ananias, and tell Saul of Tarsus how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” The call to follow Jesus is a call to suffering, so the New Testament represents it from the first page to the last. You read the Scriptures with your eyes shut if you fail to see that.

It certainly seems reckless to be so frank in stating the conditions of discipleship. Certainly Jesus by such talk as this will chill men’s blood and reduce the number of his followers ! Will it not retard progress and postpone the coming of the Golden Age? Why not conceal the worst things from men’s eyes ? What is the use of talking about suffering? Why not keep the cross in the background?

Jesus made the cross conspicuous because he knows what is in man. We know what is on the surface, and we know some of the things which lie Immediately below the surface : coiled serpents which hiss and bite ; we have heard them hiss and felt them bite; and knowing these things we should never dare to speak to men as he spoke to them. We should not venture to make such tremendous demands on them, nor to subject the human spirit to so great a strain. Jesus comes to men talking about the cross because he knows what is in human nature down deep in the silence and darkness of the soul. He knows that down in the abysmal depths of the heart there is that which responds to high demands, and which is capable of daring and enduring all things. This is the glory of the Christian religion, that it appeals to the deepest that is in us/ Whenever we get sick of our frivolous and superficial living, Christianity offers us rest by calling us to a life that is serious and high. We always make a mistake when we represent the Christian life as something that may be luxurious and easy, commonplace and prudent. How many times Christians have urged others to become followers of Jesus, in order that they might be happy. ” Oh, be a Christian! You do not know how happy you will become!” How different that sounds from anything to be found in the New Testament. When did Jesus say to any human being, “Follow me, and through all the days you are certain to be happy.” Again and again Christians have urged young people to be followers of the Lord in order to please their parents or their friends. “Why not be a Christian? it will please your mother. All your friends are Christians, why not join them and be a Christian too?” How far below the level of the New Testament such an exhortation is! How many times we have heard it: “Oh, be a Christian! Save your soul! Do you not want to be saved? Think what an awful thing it is to be lost! If you will only become a Christian, then you will save your soul from hell.”

How foreign all that is from the tone of the New Testament! That appeals to a man’s selfishness. The New Testament talks in a different tone and speaks with a grander accent. Be a Christian in order that you may help save a world! ” When Jesus met those young men on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he did not say to Peter and Andrew and James and John: “Follow me, young men, and I will make you happy. Or, follow me, and I will save you from destruction.” He spoke in a manlier tone than that. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Get off of your snug little Sea of Galilee and venture out upon the ocean, where storms are tremendous and vast interests are in danger. And whenever throughout his life he succeeded in getting men to come to him, he immediately said: “Go preach the gospel. I send you like so many sheep into the midst of wolves.” That is what it is to be a Christian: to throw one’s self into the hard, rough work of bringing this world back to God. That is the appeal, and the only appeal that goes deep into a man’s soul. That is the appeal which Christianity brings to the young men of America. Young men, be Christians, not in order to be happy, not in order to please your friends, not in order to save your soul; but in order to redeem your city, strengthen your nation; in order to bring a world back to God.

Whenever Christianity is preached in its simplicity and truth, it develops heroism and produces a company of heroes. Within the last few months we have seen it written, in many a magazine and paper, that wars are necessary in order to develop heroic virtues. Without war, it is said, humanity sinks back into effeminacy and sloth and cowardice. Unless several times in a century a nation is called to fight upon a battle field, the young men become luxurious and lose the highest qualities of robust manhood. There is no doubt that war gives opportunity for the display of heroic qualities, but war is not necessary so long as there is in the world the Christian church. Military heroism is only one form of courage, and not the highest form. The courage demanded in times of war is the courage that is common even among savage nations. It is the lowest form of heroism. It was developed thousands of years ago to a perfection beyond which it is impossible for human nature to go. Barbarians can be as brave as the most highly civilized on the battle field, and America does not have a man to-day braver than many an Indian who roamed through the Manhattan forests. How is it possible to secure a bravery passing the bravery of the Indian? If a man is willing to endure the most excruciating sufferings without a whine or a groan, if he will face death with contempt and meet it with a laugh, if he will allow his body to be burned with- out a cry, and will allow his heart to be cut out without showing a trace of suffering, how is it possible for human nature to go beyond the heroism of the savage? There is not a general nor a private in any of the world’s armies to-day who has a whit more courage than was possessed by the fighting barbarians of five thousand years ago. In physical courage the world has made no progress since the dawn of human history.

This physical courage is a good thing, and it must be perpetuated, and it is worthy of our admiration. The world could not progress without it. But there is another form of courage which is even higher, and that is moral courage the courage that dares to do one’s duty in the times of peace. Christianity introduces us to a state of war. According to the Christian religion, the whole world is a battle field, and we are all called upon to be soldiers. St. Paul, in writing his letters to the Christians of the first century, constantly used the metaphors and imageries of war. He was always urging men to put on the whole armor of God, in order that they might stand. He called them to a tremendous conflict, but .he reminded them that the weapons of their warfare were not carnal. We are not wrestling against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. It was Paul’s proudest boast, “I have fought the good fight.” To his beloved son Timothy his exhortation was ” Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” Unless a man is willing to suffer he cannot be a soldier of the cross.

Never since the world began has there been a greater opportunity for heroism offered to young men than is offered to the young men of America to-day. We have made marvelous material progress, but moral progress has not kept pace with our progress in material things. Everywhere the world is crying out for men. The social world is full of frivolity and foolishness, and the atmosphere needs cleansing by the spirit of heroic souls. The political world is sordid and corrupt, and giant evils must be beaten down by the strong arms of heroes. The commercial world is full of selfishness and dishonesty, rapacity and cruelty, and the only men able to redeem it are men who have the mind and heart of Jesus. The religious world is full of formalism and hypocrisy, and the church’s need to-day is, is always, high-minded, stout-hearted men.

Here is the opportunity to work and suffer. No man can be a Christian even in the 2Oth century without risk and loss. We are not in danger now of being cut to pieces by the knives of savages, but words are daggers and cause more suffering than drawn swords do. Bullets kill, but words lacerate and leave the heart bleeding. Popularity is as sweet to-day as it has ever been, but popularity is something we must be ready to part with at any hour. John Greenleaf Whittier once laid his hand on the head of a fifteen-year-old boy and said: “My lad, if you want to win success, identify yourself with some unpopular but noble cause.” Whittier when a boy had done just that thing. He had identified himself with the antislavery cause. He had suffered many things because of his convictions, but in his old age he had the joy of seeing the world come round to where he stood. At the end of the day he wore a crown. Young men, never run away from an unpopular but noble cause, no matter what men around you are saying. Most men simply repeat what they read or what they hear. They do not think. They do not read the future. Identify yourself with a noble cause, and no matter what the world says to-day, by and by humanity will come round to where you stand. It may cause you suffering for a little while, but your light affliction is but for a moment. Without such suffering humanity cannot advance, nor can you be a worthy follower of the Son of God. ” It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him : if we suffer, we shall also reign with him.”

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.” Behold! Down, down, down! Up from the pit of his humiliation there comes the exhortation, “Follow me,” and down from the heights of his glory there falls the great promise ” To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne.”

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