Home > Hymns, The Ideological Demon > Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Or were you too busy having a beer with Caiaphas and making snotty jokes about Galilean piety?

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Or were you too busy having a beer with Caiaphas and making snotty jokes about Galilean piety?

The "Bad Thief" crucified on a tree ...


This post just got me thinking about what Jesus would have had to say if He had dropped in on any number of conversations I’ve participated in or led or instigated with other ultra-orthodox confessional Lutheran pastors who make our collars wide and our shirts and pants blacker than darkness in Old Adam’s heart.

For instance, how many times have you heard a confessional Lutheran guerilla point out that “Were you there when they crucified my Lord” is a crummy hymn because the answer to the question is, “No,” and instead of trying to get back and be there when they crucified my Lord we should go to the sacrament of the altar where Jesus gives us the body and blood that was offered for us on the cross?

I’m chief of sinners here.  I like the sense of purpose that comes from being part of a movement or an insurgency.  I’ve gone on the crusades, and I’ve repeated the latest arguments and slogans and found comfort in wearing a uniform and marching in formation.  But all too often confessional Lutherans (in the LCMS anyway) embrace slogans or frequently repeated shibboleths as if they were real theology.  Slogans and shibboleths are useful for simplifying things in order to rally the troops against an enemy.  But if that’s all our theology is–one slogan after another seeking to draw unmistakeable battle lines so that we know which side we’re supposed to fight for at all times–I fear that the devil is leading us around by the nose in order to discredit the very thing we want to fight for.

The example of “Were you there when they crucified my Lord” illustrates this.  Now the confessional Lutherans have a point.  It’s imperative that we look for Jesus in the right place.  Luther is the one who came up with this in the first place.  We don’t try to go back to the cross.  We go to the sacrament of the altar.  Besides, even if you were standing on Golgotha right next to St. John, the death of Jesus happening in front of your eyes would be no benefit to you without the word of the Gospel that offers Jesus’ suffering to you as for you.

But at the same time, were the slaves who created this hymn so stupid that they actually thought that they lived in 30 AD?  Or is it that we are liable to be adolescent, arrogant, uncharitable, and so pedantic that we cannot tolerate any poetry in Christianity and are deaf and blind to the work of the Holy Spirit in those who do not have formal education, or who lack refinement?

No, we were not there.  But the slaves who sang this song were not talking about teleporting to 1st century Judea.  They were talking about meditation on Christ’s passion.

Admittedly the hymn is not teaching doctrine.  What it is asking us to do is meditate–imagine–Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.  Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  No.  But shouldn’t I hear the passion story and recognize myself?  Doesn’t the passion narrative interpret us in this way?  Is this ancient history that really has nothing to do with me?  Or when I hear about Peter warming himself by the fire while Jesus is being tried–doesn’t the Word of God put me into the story?  I may as well have been Peter.  How many times have I gotten comfortable and tried to blend in with those who hate Jesus?  And it leads me to ask–where is Jesus being accused right now?  How is He hidden here and I, like the people in the passion story–don’t recognize him?

We hear about Pilate–as pastors–and we see his difficulty.  If he does what is right, what he knows to be right (even though he pretends like his hands are tied and it’s somebody else’s fault), he’s going to have trouble.  So he tries all kinds of ways to avoid killing Jesus–everything he can think of to avoid putting him to death without facing a potential riot, ruining his career, perhaps putting his own safety in jeopardy if angering the chief priests got him on Caesar’s bad side.  But nothing works.  So he either has to get his name in the creed as the one who condemns the Son of God to die as a rebel…or suffer.  And what pastor has never experienced this in his congregation?  So when have I put Jesus to death, or denied him?  Or worse yet, when have I been Caiaphas and decided that Jesus was worthy of contempt because of his naive, fanatical rejection of all concessions to the way things really work in this world and his continual attacks on my fabricated righteousness where I insist on certain laws of God and make up rules and interpretations so that the laws that are too hard to keep or that I don’t want to keep don’t apply to me?

Jesus Led from Caiaphas to Pilate

Jesus Led from Caiaphas to Pilate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All this is is meditation on Christ’s passion.  This is how instead of hearing the passion narrative as the story of some guy who died a long time ago I hear it as a story that reveals who and what I am.  Luther has a famous sermon about meditation on Christ’s passion in the Church postil that tells us–in a more comprehensive way–to do what “Were You there” is trying to move us to do.  And Lutheran hymns continually exhort us to meditate on Christ’s passion too…

“Jesus, I will ponder now/ On your holy Passion/May Your Spirit me endow/ For such meditation/ Grant that I in love and faith/ May the image cherish/ Of your suffering, pain, and death/ That I may not perish.”  Why don’t we say, “Forget about pondering on Jesus’ holy Passion.  Just go to the Lord’s Supper.  Bang!  You’re done.”

Well, that won’t fly either, because the catechism enjoins meditation as preparation for the Sacrament of the Altar.  Why should we remember and proclaim Christ’s death?  So that I may learn to believe that no creature could make satisfaction for my sins.  Only Christ, true God and man could do that.  So that I may learn to regard my sins as great indeed and to find joy and comfort in Christ alone, and thus be saved.  But what if I don’t feel any hunger for the Lord’s Supper?  Luther says that I should read the Scripture and take to heart what it says about the devil, the world, and my flesh, and my urgent need for this gift.  All of this involves meditation.  Yes, Lord’s Supper that is Jesus taking the benefits of Jesus’ passion and giving them to me here and now.  But if I just go in a mechanical, bodily way, without reflecting on the great need I have that required God to suffer on the cross for me, without meditating on my utter helplessness, but at the same time the powerful assurance Jesus gives my conscience int he sacrament of His body and blood–I no more receive those benefits than if I stood underneath the cross and saw Jesus suffer but did not believe that it was for me.

So the critique of “Were You There” is too narrow.  And here’s the problem with this attitude that simply demands that everyone recognize the validity fo the confessional Lutheran critique in the LCMS.  If we go around throwing out every hymn or every manifestation of popular piety, it is a problem of arrogance, which creates a wall between us and God, who has mercy on the humble but opposes the proud.  If we cannot thank God for the expressions of piety that the Holy Spirit generated among illiterate slaves, or which He generates in our congregations among people who didn’t go to seminary, we give people the impression that we are against living faith in Christ.  Or that we don’t believe it or don’t get it when Jesus says “Let the little children come to me…Anyone who welcomes a little child in my name welcomes Me…”  That’s why people hate the confessional Lutherans in the LCMS.  We behave like a faction or a power center whose goal is not the edification of the Chruch or the spread of the Gospel.  Instead we seem like sectarians who want to insist on a certain form of piety and impose it on the whole church, and we look lkie our goal is not to serve Christ and His church but rather to advance a certain esthetic or impose a certain version  of Lutheranism on everyone else.

So when we’re sitting around in the seat of mockers criticizing some hymn that all the laypeople like, one of the questions we need to ask ourselves is–are we mocking this because  we love Christ?  Or are we just despising Christ?  We don’t want to sing a song that asks us to meditate on Christ’s passion–why?  Because Lutherans didn’t write it?  Because we are angry that Lutherans don’t know our old solid hymns?  Because we are antagonistic toward heartfelt love of Jesus that expresses itself  among little children and uneducated people and slaves?

We should be glad if someone is thinking about Jesus being nailed to tree, meditating on it.  We should be glad if someone sings “were you there” because they love Jesus?  Or is loving Christ unlutheran?

The truth is we are frequently not there with Jesus crucified because we’re too busy hanging out with other valiant knights of orthodoxy having a beer, being proud of ourselves, and mocking the living piety of children and slaves and the uneducated or uncultivated.  It would be better by far to be a Lutheran layman who never went to college, buys books from the Christian bookstore, is heavily influenced by the reformed, and sing protestant hymns from the heart, than to be a stalward kinght of orthodox Lutheranism and know all the correct answers to theological questions, sing only the best chorales but have little love for Christ and His lambs.

Unfortunately that’s too much of what confessional Lutherans are about…being right.  It is utterly impossible to bring the Gospel to unbelievers outside the church with that attitude, both because we have no love for them (or little love) and also because the arrogance and Pharisaism is a direct contradiction of what the doctrine we supposedly prize so much has at its center–the justification of the ungodly apart from deeds of the law, by faith in Christ alone.

And the Lutherans who have become estranged from the sweet Gospel that our liturgy and hymns and theologians proclaim, again, are not going to be won over by pedants who are full of bile and contempt for true confessions and expressions of living faith in Christ. Even if the hymns are not as rich theologically and artistically as the old Lutheran ones, and even if our desire to evangelize is driven in part by theology that does not know how to divide Law and Gospel.  Humble piety expressed by an inferior hymn or by someone with the desire to bring the Gospel to unbelievers is far to be preferred than elitist impiety that loves theological precision but, for all that, somehow–doesn’t really love Christ’s flock–weaker members, as well as those outside the congregation and those in the congregation who appear to be hypocrites.  The whole reason God gave theology was for the salvation and comfort of the ungodly.  But when theology stops serving the lowly and the downcast and the sinners in the congregation, and starts being a way for pastors to be puffed up, it is being misused.

Look at the way this blog describes the hymn.  The writer says he used to make the same smartass joke as so many 30 something confessional lutheran pastors–no, i wasn’t there.  But he was about 14.  What he realizes about the hymn now is how easy it is to become hardened to the passion narrative.  “Were you there” is trying to shake us loose from this lethargy.

Growing up, my mom, my brothers and I went to a Stations of the Cross service each Wednesday in Lent. There was a short service and then a soup supper in the parish hall.

What I remember most from all those Wednesday nights twenty years ago is a verse from a song we sang each week: “Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?”

Can I tell you that as a young teenager this song, particularly this verse, made me laugh?

“No”, I whisper-giggled to whoever would listen to me in our pew, “I was not there when Jesus was nailed to the tree.” I’m trying to admit my honest childhood reaction to this sad song and wondering why this song is my Lenten earworm now. Since I cannot get this pleading, preposterous song out of my head, I’ve tried to turn this song into my prayer this Lent. What I’m starting to see is that this simple song sticks with me because it pushes my understanding of who Jesus is and what his crucifixion means.

It can be easy to miss the passion in the Passion. Those of us who grew up Christian have heard about Jesus’ death many times before, but this song make me see the old story in a new way. The substitution of the word “tree” for “cross” changes the story for me. I see soldiers nailing Jesus to a dirty tree, rough with bark and wilting leaves. This horrible unvarnished tree, sticky with sap and splinters, is far different from any cross I’ve ever seen. History has smoothed out Jesus’ story. The “tree” from “Where You There” guides me to see the Passion in a new way. Sometimes it causes me to tremble.

Lutheran theology is supposed to be held togetherby the doctrine of justification.  But what follows from a true apprehension of confessional Lutheran theology is–compassion, love.

So there’s a problem among many LCMS confessionals, because that compassion is not in evidence.  It’s like we have the score of a symphony memorized and are constantly talking about the music and the complexity of it and how it was composed and so on, but we never or can’t play it.  Mea maxima culpa.

As has been pointed out by blackshirt types–there is no contradiction between zeal for pure doctrine and zeal for missions and evangelism.  Or there shouldn’t be.  But there’s a subtle difference between zeal for pure doctrine in the sense of getting it all right and zeal for pure doctrine in the sense that we want to clearly preach to terrified sinners that comfort of God in the wounds and cross of Jesus.  And there’s also a zeal for missions and evangelism that is a desire to be a success as a pastor, a similar kind of zeal that is “compassing land and sea to make one proselyte” for our ideology (which then makes them, like us) those who worship the ideology of confessional Lutheranism alongside the true God.  Then there’s the real kind of zeal to evangelize, which is driven by the Gospel itself and its goodness, and the compassion it begins to form in those who believe.

Maybe we should sing “Were you there” a lot more.  That would help us; if we saw Christ crucified before our minds’ eye, dying for our self-indulgence, our misuse of theology, our arrogance, and our lack of compassion for those without Christ, then we would be less interested in using the Gospel as a plaything, a means to self-exaltation, and instead a proclamation of forgiveness to scribes and Pharisees which, when received, makes us unable to rest until our neighbors also see what it is that Christ did for us when they “nailed Him to the tree.”


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