Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday: A Road paved with Good Intentions

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

If you knew there was something which had to be done - that not doing it was not an option, that it was a matter of life and death for people you never knew and may never know, and those you do know will flee at the first sign of trouble and leave you standing alone - would you still do it?

This is essentially the challenge St. Paul posed to the Philippians when he wrote them to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5), even though he was not exactly posing to them such a philosophical abstract as "would you under certain circumstances" as much as he was declaring "you must under all circumstances".  

The imperative, however, is not so much about doing as a matter of law but rather allowing to be done as a matter of willfulness - and not strictly human will but in submitting to the reality that: "It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Phil 2:13).

I think we always intend good things from what we seek to accomplish, but I also think the "mindfulness" with which we work is usually (and ironically) the very handicap that slows the work and mission of the Church because we each have minds and ideas of our own.  Yet St. Paul challenges us to get past that narrow mindfulness we call our own by submitting to the Divine Will that can work from within us if we willfully push beyond self; "standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind" (Phil 1:27); that is, the mind of Christ. 

Exactly what is this "mind", and how is it expressed?  It is not a matter of simply agreeing or compromising for the sake of peace which can only mean someone has to give in, someone has to "lose" - and not many of us are ok with this!  It is rather a matter of all willing to "give in" to the reality that we may be wrong in positions we currently hold.  It means taking a second look at our human willfulness and stubbornness for the sake of the Glory of our Lord.   Being "objective" rather than "subjective".

This ideal was expressed by Christ Jesus Himself, as St. Paul writes, when He "emptied Himself" (Phil 2:7,8).  It is the mindfulness that has Divine intentions rather than personal (albeit noble) motives toward the Gospel that is alive in all who are alive in Christ Jesus, the One who set His face toward Jerusalem KNOWING what was to become of Him in a matter of days and willfully "emptying Himself" of His own will, His own thoughts, His own opinions, and His own desires.  And knowing all He surely did know in the circumstances of betrayal and abandonment of current and future disciples, Jesus nevertheless went through with it - knowing without doubt He would very soon be standing alone.

Palm Sunday is always a challenge because the entry into Jerusalem is usually billed as a "triumph".  I suppose long-term when all the dust is settled and knowing how the Story ultimately ends, it would be easy to consider it a "triumph".  Doing this, however, ignores certain realities not least of which is this Journey was for Jesus the Journey we of the Church face even today - and will face until the Final Trumpet sounds.  It is that very Journey which compels us and beckons us.  There is no alternate route.  We may enter only through the "sheep gate".

Yet lacking the common "mindfulness" which can come only from the Holy Spirit, we each set our own course according to what seems good to us under our own circumstances. We always have the best of intentions, but then life gets in the way to the point of distraction.  We forget, even momentarily, that what we do on any given day is not intended for discipleship but for personal survival. 

Oh, we are mindful that Jesus saves.  We are mindful of that great mystery that the Blood of Christ has set us free from sin and death, but we are often mindful of this great mystery very nearly to the total exclusion of what took place prior to this. 

Like Christmas, we are mindful of something which took place some 2000 years ago - but we are not so mindful that to this day our Lord has a claim and a purpose for which He "emptied Himself", the same purpose for which the Church exists even today, the same holy purpose for which the people of the Living God - that is, the Church - must empty ourselves; that is, put our own agendas and opinions and desires aside to submit to the will of God ... without trying to manipulate Divine Will according to our own preconceived mold.

We can even embrace the Glory of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem knowing He was doing what He had to do, but we can do this without actually engaging in the reality of what was taking place then - and what must take place today - being counter-cultural, being "in the world but not of the world".  I have heard it said (and I think I have even said it myself) that Jesus did what He did so we would not have to.  While this is a true statement in the very narrow sense, the sentiment misses the mark when we put so much on Jesus that we are unwilling to put upon ourselves. 

The prophet Isaiah writes, "The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word" (Isaiah 50:4).  This is not what we generally think of when we think of the prophets who came to Israel and to Judah to warn them of impending judgment.  The prophets are hard to read because there is just a little too much gloom and doom for our tastes, too much judgment for Christians who believe themselves to have escaped the Judgment by the Blood of the Lamb - choosing to be defined by an event rather than by a willfully chosen life of holiness. 

When we reject the words of the prophets and reach instead for the Lamb's blood, we stop "paving the road" altogether because whatever it may have been that we intended in the beginning of our journey of discipleship has, we believe, been largely achieved once we were "saved".  We stop asking questions, we stop looking for answers and choose to look for "loopholes", and we settle for whatever it may be that gives us comfort strictly for ourselves, and expect it to be the same for everyone else - according to our own terms.  In this we have no mind of Christ.

As the adage goes, however, "a road paved with good intentions still leads to hell".  Like a road lined with cloaks and palm leaves, we may mean well in the beginning and we would certainly be eager to welcome the Son of David into our midst ... until the fur starts flying and the danger Messiah was willing to face for us soon becomes our own danger which we can walk clean away from with hardly a scratch.  This, I think, has largely become our idea of discipleship.

The Journey we face in the coming Holy Week - if we are to take the Scripture readings seriously - is not going to be pleasant.  We simply cannot leap from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday and pretend we are walking with Jesus.  If we are to really understand what Jesus endured for salvation's sake, we must - WE MUST - endure the Journey with Him, not watching safely from the sidelines.  Only then will we pave the road not with "good" intentions but with GODLY purpose.  This is Christ Jesus our Lord.  This is the mission of the Church.  Amen.

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