HOW does Christ's death really help us? Mere adoration of an heroic example does not get us very far after all. The Christian Creed says very distinctly that it was "also for us" that He suffered and died. We read in the Bible that "He bore our sins in His body on the tree." What do such things mean?
In the earnest but crudely ignorant times of a century ago, as the great migrations moved out across the continent, among the people moved fiery preachers, more full of zeal than of knowledge, one is afraid, who popularized in America the idea that when Christ died on the Cross He paid to an angry Father the penalty of our wickednesses so that we who had done the wrong might escape what was due us. [This mechanical way of looking at God's dealings with us men was the product of later western or Latin Christianity, in the first place. It kept growing during the Middle Ages, but it received its most vigorous statement in the fifteenth century at the hand of John Calvin, a very great man in many ways but one who regarded Cod as a harsh and stern sovereign rather than as a kindly friend. He and his followers, both on the Continent and later in Scotland and in Puritan England, thought more in terms of the Old Testament than in terms of Jesus and the New Testament.] This idea was taken and ridiculed and punched full of holes by the late Tom Paine and the late Robert Ingersoll. In attacking this awful idea that God could expect and desire to punish an innocent son in place of the guilty these so-called Atheists were not attacking the Christian religion at all. They were in arms against a gross perversion of it, an Augustinian mistake sternly exaggerated by John Calvin and the Puritans, and propagated largely by the circuit-riders. You will find no such teaching in the Creed of ancient Christendom. All that Creed says is that Jesus suffered and died "for us." It does not say that He suffered and died "in our place," "instead of us." Of course not. Even the most believing Christians go on suffering. For our mistakes and sins we pay. A man may live a loose life in relationship to women. The mere later acceptance of Jesus will not prevent his paying, possibly in impaired constitution and in disease, certainly in anguish of mind, the penalty of his misdeeds. Many a penitent has seen the light, repented, been baptized, and yet found that the horrid memory of the life that once was is a thing he can never lose. God heals the disease of sin, but the scars of its ravages no man can escape. That same Bible which has often been quoted, in twisted statement, for making men believe that Christ died instead of us, suffered in our place, says nothing more true than these words, of St. Paul, "Be not deceived. God is not mocked. That which a man sows, he must also reap."
Yet it was truly for us that He suffered, to help us, to assist us. His ability to help us comes from the very fact that life brought against Him all the burdens of evil, all the darts of misfortune, all the blows of disaster,--and He remained uncrushed. Even the blinding moment of death itself, that most fearful of all experiences, He faced without flinching. Because He did all this He can reach out hands of helpfulness to us, struggling through life, contending against its difficulties, awed by its ogre-like mystery.
Cowards cannot understand Jesus or be helped by Him. People who at the first finding that life is a hard thing try to hide in material luxury and amusement, or in some cowardly philosophy which denies the existence of evil and pain, cannot comprehend the Cross. First of all, we must be brave. It is not pessimistic, it is not morbid, to look facts in the face. This life of ours is no beer and skittles.
Have you ever read that remarkable novel by Hugh Walpole, called "Fortitude"? It was one of Walpole's earlier ones and possibly the best thing he has done. A young man has everything in his grasp, a success in his literary profession, a wife and child, money, friends, popularity. Then, one by one, each thing is removed. His wife deserts him. His child dies. His power as a craftsman is lost in petty thoughts. His popularity is of yesterday. His friends desert him. Finally, alone He stands and wrestles with the God of things as they are, face to face with life.
We all go very truly through something like that process. In youth we will not believe it. Life here and now must be mostly joy. Before us lie in rose-colored hue the mountains and the valleys of tomorrow. We will not see the people all around us or, if we do, we think that somehow, by a mighty miracle, we shall have a career quite different from theirs. Sooner or later we wake from that rosy dream. Then is the real testing time of our lives, when we see life as the grim thing that it is, when we realize that here we have no continuing city, when we see that we can attain to only a portion, and that a small one, of our ambition, when we come to know pain, when sorrow comes suddenly upon us, when the burdens of ingratitude oppress. Have we strength enough to endure this thing called life? When youth passes and at length is gone, can we go through this queer existence that is so sorrowful, and that ends apparently in feebleness, disease, a panting breath, and darkness? God is testing us out. This earth is a school.
Says the Holy Writ, "Whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives." Face life, face pain, face sickness, face sorrow, face futility in earthly career. Face them, I say. Dare you?
Now see how Christ can help.
Have you never felt that a thing was impossible for you or for anyone else until you found someone who had actually done it before you? A mother lies expectant of her first child, feeling the first intimations of her agony, terrorized at the coming pain. Beside her stands some other woman, one who has borne children. The expectant one looks on her, grips her hand, feels the serenity of her, and knows that she too has strength for travail. A man stands by his boy's bedside, and sees the little chap gasping out his last breath. He cannot bear it. Another comes to him, puts his arm around his sobbing shoulders, and says, "Courage, old man. I lost my boy, too. I have borne it." From the touch and the voice come strength. That other has won the right and the ability to help. A youth finds his great romance shattered. The woman whom he loves proves unfaithful, and discards him for another man, older, richer than he. All the world is black until someone comforts him with the sure knowledge that broken hearts have mended heretofore. A boy has to his terror fallen into a secret vice which breaks his heart but which he fearfully believes can neither be overcome nor forgiven. A man of maturity knows it, and says, "Son, I felt that way once, but I won out. You can do so too." A statesman devotes his life to a great ideal, dreams of it, sacrifices for it,--an ideal which will save untold suffering to his nation and the world. He confidently offers it as his magnum opus, his great service to the world; and finds it defeated at the polls. He cannot stand the blow, until from out the past come others like him, and whisper, "Patience. We endured also. Bear up. Your humility must supplant your humiliation."
It is in this way, only more fully, that Jesus Christ crucified helps us. All that we endure in little, He endured supremely. "He learned obedience by the things which He suffered, and being made perfect, He became the author of eternal salvation to those which obey Him."
See how his life is a failure, as men judge failure. The crowds which once followed Him to the Mount and about the seashore forsake Him. His very Apostles disappoint Him. They quarrel even about Its sacramental table. They sleep in the garden. One betrays Him for a little money. They flee when He is judged. What has become of the happy dream of a whole world following Him into the millenium? Gone, all of it. He is led out to die, billeted with a farcical title, spit at, derided,--a failure.
"Men and women", He says to us, "see what life really is, even for the Most Perfect One. I know. I understand. The rose color has faded into the light of common day. Romance has proven but the gateway to an humdrum domesticity. The children yon rejoiced in have grown up and forgotten you, more than you had deemed possible. Leaping ambition has become confined into the limitations of a tiny, useful, but monotonous niche in life. Friends you trusted have proved false or have grown fond of others and left you. Pain and sickness have broken your body. Over you come slowly the hurts of declining life. Your hope, too, for the world, your dream of industrial justice, of international love, of the ending of war, of the coming of the Kingdom--all seem to you thwarted at length by the incurable stupidity of man. You are tired, my child. You will not confess it to the world. You put a brave face on things. You seek to smile and hide the pain. Yes, my child, but I know.
"Well I know Thy trouble,
O My servant true.
Thou art very weary.
I was weary too.
But that toil shall make thee
Someday all Mine own;
And the end of sorrow
Shall be near My Throne."
He did not die in your place. He died and lives that you, remembering it and touching Him, may have courage, now that your turn has come to face things as they are, to live, suffer, die like a real man, a real woman. His hand is always near you. Fight on, comrades. "In this world", He assures us, "ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world."
It is because of this that the Holy Communion is and always must be the main service of Christendom,--that great, warm, pulsing, life-giving service which alone of all forms of worship Christ prescribed for us. Of its nature I shall say more in the last chapter. Just here let us recall it as the great comradeship of sacrificers. In it we offer Jesus to God, lifting up on high that bread and wine that He said He would use wherein to meet us. You possibly remember those old words which we say, trying to put into human language that lifting up of the Perfect Sacrifice to Him: "Wherefore we, Thy humble servants, do celebrate and make, here before Thy Divine Majesty, with these Thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto Thee, the memorial Thy Son hath commanded us to make, having in remembrance His blessed passion and precious death." And then we venture to add our own imperfect beings to that Perfect Jesus, and we say to God, "Here we offer and present unto Thee ourselves, our souls and bodies." We join our struggling, failing, striving lives to His life that He may give us understanding strength.
Every Lord's day, at millions of altars, men thus lift Him up, saying "We offer Him, the Perfect One, and ourselves, so imperfect, with Him." All back through the centuries also the great ones of the earth have done the same, saying "Look on Him and help us to be like Him. So shall we not fail, so shall we not be crushed by life, so shall we live indeed." In the Communion He gave the saints what He gives us,--Himself, His Presence, the touch of Him,--so that they, rising in His strength, went out and faced life and death, unafraid.