THE CORONAVIRUS AND THE CROSS
By Dr. Riley B. Case
The beginning of Lent this year was only a few days before the virus confinement. I think the timing was a God thing. I had decided this year that part of my Lenten observance, as it has been in some other years, would be to listen on CD to Bach’s
Passion According to St. John
. A few days later I realized we would be on shut-down: there would be no Lenten small groups this year; no breakfasts; no cluster gatherings; no Union Services; there would not even be church services. How could we enter into the meaning of Lent?
St. John’s Passion
became my Lent. In German, no less, not my native tongue. No matter. I heard the music again, and again, and again, I don’t know how many times. I was reminded of Pentecost, when persons heard different languages, but understood. I knew what was happening in the music. The suffering of Jesus. The cross. And I linked it in my heart with the suffering related to the virus. People I know who died from the virus; people confined; people frightened; unemployment; people worried about where to find the next meal. Lives ruined. Jesus takes the sins and the cares of the world upon himself. The
ends with a requiem: “Lie in peace, sacred body for which I weep no longer, and bring me also to my rest.” I could not hold back tears.
During holy week I added our
, especially the sections on Passion, Death and Pardon. I sang through the sections, some hymns several times. I know those hymns. From 1984-88 I served as a consultant on the Language and Theology Subcommittee of the Hymnal Revision Committee (I was there representing an evangelical perspective). About fifteen of us would discuss each one of those hymns, plus many more. I remember a discussion with a seminary professor about whether the Wesleys got it right on the Atonement. He thought not. I thought yes. The new hymnal would reveal the direction of the church. I confess now, years later, I was keeping track of the “blood” hymns, the number of hymns in our present book mentioning the blood of Jesus compared to the hymnals before.
Amazingly, we added phrases and hymns: “For you the purple current flowed” (#342); “mingled with his blood they cry…” (#346); “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” (#346); “he bought me with his redeeming blood” (#370); “shed his own blood for my soul” (#377).
I rejoice that our hymnal does not compromise on the atonement. Out of that experience I wrote a book,
Understanding Our New United Methodist Hymnal
(for more information contact me at
). As part of my research I compared our hymnal with the same-era hymnals produced by Presbyterians, Disciples, the United Church of Christ and the United Church of Canada. I was struck that these hymnals, and evidently much of the theology behind them, avoided mention of Jesus’ blood. Wesley’s verse about “his blood can make the foulest clean” is dropped or changed. There is nothing in those hymnals like “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” or “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus,” or “And Can It Be” or “O Love Divine What Hast Thou Done”
United Methodism is different from other mainline denominations, all of whom at the moment are imploding. Our renewal groups are part of the reason for the difference. The Confessing Movement traces its origins to a Confessing Statement in 1995. It was felt necessary at that time (as it is also today) to defend the historic Christian faith as it has been interpreted through our Wesleyan tradition, a tradition that holds high the atoning cross.
We are blessed to be in the tradition of the Wesleys, especially in regard to the atonement. Wesley’s words: : …
the use of all means whatever will never atone for one sin; that it is the blood of Christ alone, whereby any sinner can be reconciled to God; there being no other propitiation for our sins…
(J. Wesley, Sermons I, 243-44). And another Wesley quote:
Indeed, nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of the Atonement. It is properly the distinguishing point between Deism and Christianity
. (J. Wesley, Letters, VI, 297-98)
The Atonement is a key in our American Methodist gospel heritage as well. This April I was scheduled to give the program at our Indiana UM Historical Society annual meeting. The topic was “Methodist Music” (obviously postponed because of the virus). It was mostly about the
but it was (and is to be) also about gospel music, much of which is also Methodist Music because it came out of Methodist revivalism. It is Fannie Crosby and Homer Rodeheaver and Ira Sankey and Phoebe Palmer and Elisha Hoffman and E. S. Lorenz and John Stockton and Thomas Chisholm and George Bernard, all of whom give witness to the portrayal of the atoning cross, the sacrifice for sin and the hope of eternal life. Another interesting study I did years ago was to compare our UM Hymnal with the Broadman hymnal of the Southern Baptists. There were more Methodist authors in the Baptist hymnal than in our UM hymnal.
Our UM Church is under stress at the moment because of differences between “traditionalists” and “progressives.” We presently face the prospect of division. Most of the heated disagreements have to do with whether the church will affirm the practice of homosexuality, but there are other important issues, such as the meaning of the gospel. Unfortunately, in many places the meaning of the cross-- at the heart of the Christian gospel-- is presently, when not undermined, frequently neglected. When I read some of the UM blogs I find a lot about inclusivism and acceptance and love and social justice and the evils of corporate greed and racism and sexism. What I don’t find is the cross.
I am hearing some UM sermons during the confinement. I am hearing a lot of what I call “Do good and try harder” sermons (some, unfortunately, from evangelicals as well as others). My concern is not just correct theology. The cross is not just the dying of a good man. The cross is about Jesus, the Son of God, entering into a sinful world and taking on himself the burden of our rebellion and alienation and, yes, our own suffering including the agonies of the Coronavirus. The cross is a cosmic act of propitiation in which the Son of God made Man “truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men. (Article II, the Articles of Religion.).
Do I have answers about the Coronavirus? No. Do I have good advice? No. Except, to refer to the mystery of the cross:
Behold him, all ye that pass by, the bleeding Prince of life and peace!
Come, sinners, see your Savior die, and say, “Was ever grief like his?”
Come, feel with me his blood applied: My Lord, my Love, is crucified
(C. Wesley, UM Hymnal, #287)