Sunday, April 01, 2012

Palm Sunday 2012 - "Not what we expected"

Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 11:1-11

And so begins the Way of the Cross.  If I had to hazard a guess, I would be inclined to think the disciples believed Jesus' entry into Jerusalem would be the beginning of the end for the Roman occupation to make way for the reestablishment of King David's reign.  Though Matthew and Luke add "donkey" to the animal mix, it may still have seemed strange to them that the "king" would ride in on a colt instead of on a majestic chariot pulled by mighty horses, but the disciples had already seen many strange things.  The Master rarely did anything according to normal expectations, so why would this day be any different?

That day was clearly one of great expectation for those who participated in the celebrations by welcoming Jesus as they did, but it is much more likely that what they had expected - truly expected - did not come to pass.  Such a let-down, then, would help to explain why the same crowd that so eagerly welcomed the "Son of David" could so easily turn only a few days later into a lynch mob.  Jesus the Messiah, the anointed Son of David the great king, came into the city ... and nothing happened.  Nothing.  There can be no greater level of disappointment than to be led toward something with such great anticipation and expectation ... and not get what we wanted or expected.

Palm Sunday, sometimes referred to and commemorated as Passion Sunday, comes down to a difference of emphasis.  One seems more victorious (Palm Sunday) while the other is more sinister and bloody (Passion Sunday), when what we expected did not happen.  Both recognize important aspects of Jesus' life in His final days on earth, but each one calls to question where our own emphasis should be.  Each one demands our full attention as well as our full part in all of it because if we are to be disciples - students, followers - of Christ, they are both necessary components of the journey.  And both must be considered for this reason: BOTH acknowledge how easily humans can turn when they feel wronged or deceived.  We might like to believe we would not act so savagely, but we need only to look around to see that not much has changed in 2000 years. 

Each is a necessary component of the "Way of the Cross" where we must "contemplate the Sacred Humanity of Christ who - in His great yearning to come close to each of one of us - reveals Himself to us with all the weakness of [humanity] and with all the magnificence of God" (St. Josemaria Escriva, "The Way of the Cross").  So segments of Jesus' life must never be "either/or" but must always be "both/and".  This is why our Wesleyan tradition will not allow us to skip the blood-soaked trail to Golgotha.

St. Paul makes perhaps the best analogy of what our journey must look like in his words to the Philippians: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [for His own purposes]; but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave ..."

Say what?  A "slave"?  Why, this is not reasonable.  In fact it is downright un-American!  This is entirely inconsistent with what we have been taught since we were children!  I think, however, this is the point St. Paul was making, and it was the point Jesus Himself was making when He rode in on a colt rather than on a war horse.  The "form of a slave" is the form of complete submission.  The "form of a slave" has nothing to do with what we want or what we think.  The "form of a slave" disregards self altogether for the sake of something much greater.  It is the most unnatural act a human can perform voluntarily.  Oh, humans can be beaten into submission over time as history has proved, but to voluntarily step into such a role without a fight?  Far be it from us!

I think maybe what we glean from these final days, in discovering at this point that Jesus' very life was no longer His own, is the totality of discipleship - not "segmented".  It is not about the American "pursuit of happiness"; it's not even about "life and liberty" with an hour's worth of church attendance sprinkled about here and there.  It is now - just as then - entirely about the will of the Holy Father and what will be called and expected of us - and not knowing what we will be led to next. 

This, I think, is what scares us the most because even though we pray it - "Your will be done" - we don't really mean it.  We know it must be "ideally" so, but we also know deep within that complete submission and the gift of the Holy Spirit will come with an "assignment"; an "assignment" that may well interfere with our own plans; an assignment that may have nothing to do with "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".  Contemporary theology refuses to believe that "personal" happiness is not part of the discipleship package - because we cannot discern the difference between "personal happiness" and "spiritual contentment".

So what about "personal salvation"?  Didn't Jesus endure these things so we would not have to?   Is the Way of the Cross not part and parcel of the whole "He bore our sins upon Himself" thing by which we would be spared?  How does The Journey of Christ, the Way of the Cross, the "Form of a Slave", fit into our lives? 

Clearly it doesn't.  And more is the pity because it is only in this submissive element of the journey in which we will find true fulfillment and not necessarily "personal happiness"; certainly not as we would understand it - and - certainly not as we would prefer to define it; because the "Total Package" is as expressed by UM Bishop William Willimon: "This means the Holy Spirit connects us not only with the creative Father but also with the suffering of the Son; not only with divine power but also with divinely humble service" ("Good News", Willimon, pg 21).  This is probably the VERY LAST THING we would expect - or even want!

I think Anselm, the 12th-century archbishop of Canterbury, may have been on to something when he tried to develop "rational" theology that would embrace both faith AND reason as to why Christ's sacrifice was necessary.  Atonement for sin was still the foundation of his reasoning, but he added a twist.  He removed the evil one from the equation altogether.  He suggested that Jesus did not enter into this final segment of His journey in order to pay a debt to the evil one for the redemption of humanity; He entered into Jerusalem "in the form of a slave" to pay a debt to the Holy Father on behalf of all humanity; a debt owed since the Beginning when Adam and Eve were ejected from Paradise!  Indeed how can the Almighty God and Creator ever come into debt to the evil one??

It is an interesting concept not entirely foreign to our own theology and necessary response.  Christ Himself did indeed pay a debt that was legitimately owed.  This is the foundational understanding of the "doctrine of original sin" and still speaks to the Wesleyan understanding of the predisposed inclination of humanity toward sin.  That is, we are by nature inclined toward self: self-satisfaction, self-fulfillment, self-sufficiency, self-survival.

Imagine, then, if this were Jesus' own inclination.  

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