John Wesley once said, “It is hard to find words in the language of men to describe the deep things of God.” He said this about the work of the Holy Spirit that Paul speaks of in Romans 8. I think this quote can also be said about the saving death of Jesus on the cross. There is something about the cross of Jesus Christ that has always drawn me.
When I was a teenager, Dr. Reginald Mallett, a British Methodist Evangelist, visited my small hometown to preach a revival among the United Methodist Churches in the area. I vividly remember him calling me “a fine, young chap.” But I also remember one of those sermons in which he quoted the opening lines of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “And Can It Be that I Should Gain.” Though I’m a cradle Methodist, I had not heard of that hymn until Dr. Mallett came to town. Ever since then, I’ve loved that hymn and its lyrics have continually brought me to be amazed at the beautiful tragedy of Jesus’ death at Calvary.
How can it be that the cross unveiled at the same time, the very worst and the very best of which humans are capable? It reveals the very worst of humanity in that we tortured, shamed, and killed God’s Son, the most perfectly innocent one to ever walk the face of the earth. Meanwhile, it also reveals the very best of humanity in that Jesus, who was fully and truly human, gave his life for the sake and salvation of the world. The cross is the subject of some of the most moving pieces of art and music that has ever been known. Just look through our hymnal and see how many of the lyrics are inspired by the cross.
Which brings me again to that old hymn. Although we don’t often sing it, I repeatedly come back to that song Dr. Mallett introduced me to. Oh, how I’m glad that he dusted that page out of my hymnal. It’s so beautiful. Go to hymn #363 in The United Methodist Hymnal or just Google “And Can It Be lyrics” and allow the words and what they convey of God’s love to sink into your soul.
The first verse is filled with the amazement of God’s love. After that verse, Wesley confessed that this most crucial moment at Calvary is a mystery that surpasses human reason and language. “‘Tis mystery all: The Immortal dies! Who can explore his strange design?” A strange design that God’s saving love would be conveyed through the torture and death of God’s Son: this is a mystery indeed!
Many Christian theologians have spoken about God’s design in bringing salvation through the death of Jesus, a doctrine frequently referred to as “the atonement.” Frequently, they use concepts or theories they say that you and I have to believe in order to be true Christians. Well-intended though these approaches may be, it seems that if we do this, we’ve reduced the atonement to a problem or puzzle to be solved rather than a mystery that goes beyond the limits of human language. Yet the beautiful and still challenging part of the cross is that Jesus invites our participation, even demands it if we are to be his disciples (see Matthew 16:24).
Rather than relying on an idea or theory, I’ve come to appreciate an observation made by the biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, who said, “When Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.” This is a big reason why I love the worshipful experience of Holy Communion, an act that we United Methodists refer to as a “holy mystery,” in which God gives himself to us in Jesus Christ. This “holy mystery” that we celebrate is our way of telling the story of God’s “mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ.”
And so, what are we to do with such a mystery? Does this mean there is nothing to say about it? No, I don’t think it means that. However, beginning in a posture of worship and thanksgiving, soaking in God’s love, I think we are free to begin discovering the riches of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Why am I saying all this? Well, from my experience, the atonement is an area that has been neglected for some time among Methodists.
Therefore, I’d like to invite you to a journey of discovering what a Wesleyan-Methodist approach to the atonement might look like in a worshipping community that seeks to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Over the Sundays in August and the first two Sundays in September, I’m going to be preaching about the atonement. John Wesley said of this subject: “Indeed nothing in the Christian system is of more consequence than the doctrine of atonement.” One of the ways we pride ourselves in the Methodist church is about our emphasis on grace, and rightly so. Therefore, my aim is to help lead us in seeing how the atonement relates to the ways we experience and understand grace.
The starting place for me is always God’s love, the holy mystery of the meal that communicates that love, which Jesus chose as the way for us to embrace the meaning of his death that saved us. Therefore, we will begin the series at the table, giving thanks for the One who unites us with God! Won’t you join us? All are welcome for all are loved!