For five weeks we have been following Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, like his original disciples did. For five weeks we have been undergoing a Lenten repentance, but not in the traditional manner of the Christian church. Our repentance has not been filled with guilt, self-denial, and penance. Oh, we have our own share in the sin of the world. And some of us have a long, solitary road of repentance yet ahead of us yet, that may go on well past Easter, as we seek to uproot our shadowy tendencies to hurt ourselves or others, or seek to heal from the hurt others have inflicted on us. But those are very personal journeys. As a church, we’ve been repenting more like the way the disciples did: we’ve turned away from our places of comfort, set within the ordinary course of the world, and turned to the Jesus and his radical Kingdom of God, a way of life much out of step with the powers that be, those mysterious forces that Paul calls the rulers and authorities, the thrones and dominions. We’ve tried to unmask the questionable and corrupt ways of our world, of our culture; we’ve renounced our complicity in various kinds of abuse of power; whereas this abusive power dehumanizes us and others, we’ve declared ourselves to be on the side of the humanity that God has embraced in Jesus; and we’ve sought out an alternative way to live as a church, a way to be the true Jerusalem, the power of good community, that God intended. This too is a long journey, and we have only begun. After Easter, and even more so, after celebrating the birth of the church by the Spirit at Pentecost, we will think together more creatively and constructively about how to be that alternative reality called the church, today.
Once again, up to this point, we’ve been trying to follow Jesus, to keep up with him as he teaches, heals, and casts out the demonic powers of the world, both by literal exorcisms but also by unmasking the fraudulent views and bad faith of his powerful opponents. We’ve even tried to embrace the cross that Jesus has been predicting he must take up. Paul helped us to see that the baptism by which we enter God’s church is like a dying to the powers of the world, the powers of self-interest and competition, so that the church can be a place where we live for one another and for the humanity of the whole world. Just as Jesus died and thereby entered a new life as the Christ for all humanity, in a like manner we die to ourselves so we can enter into a new loving humaneness, something so needed in our world dehumanized by the powers. This is a way that we, like Jesus, can bear the cross.
And so here we are, at the outskirts of Jerusalem (can you see the famous city, the temple, David’s palace?), ready to march with Jesus into the royal city—for that is what Palm Sunday is all about. It celebrates the “triumphal entry,” a kingly procession, festooned with the symbolism of the Messiah who comes to reestablish the Kingdom of David: the palms, the cry of Hosannah, the colt mysteriously awaiting its rider. This procession is designed to be an affront to the powers that be in Jerusalem: the Sadducees Jewish party who control the temple and their Roman backers who keep their thumb pressed firmly on Jerusalem. We are challenging the rulers and authorities and vying to take back the holy city; we are claiming to install Jesus, right here, as the ruler of this new and holy Jerusalem, the City of God. This is a procession full of audacity, chutzpah. We even are quick to assert, like the disciples, that we are ready to suffer for this kingdom. Remember how that went? Jesus said to Peter, “Satan is going to sift you like wheat.” And Peter said, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” How did that turn out? Or when Jesus asks the sons of Zebedee, who were vying for top places in Jesus’ kingdom, whether they are able to drink the cup that Jesus is about to drink, meaning the cup of his suffering, they reply, “We are able. Now can we sit in the luxury box?” But sure enough, when the authorities crack down on Jesus, his followers deny knowing him, they go into hiding, they scatter.
I would do the same, if suddenly the powers I’ve been criticizing paid attention and took me seriously enough to show me what they could do to me and my family. I’d pipe down pretty quickly. Wouldn’t you? But fortunately for us our rulers and authorities aren’t nearly as violent and ferocious as Rome was. Our powers operate mostly invisibly, and work through our own self-interest. In this way they ingratiate themselves to our own inclinations and easily win our allegiance. Lucky for me, and for us.
But for all that, I’m not sure our system is any less godless. And if you doubt me, consider this: every day 1000s of people around the world die preventable deaths, and many more endure ceaseless suffering that could be alleviated. Our system does offer tokens of help, but it could be saving most of all of them and alleviating most or all of this suffering, if it really made doing so our top priority. But our system doesn’t care to call us to such a lofty goal; it would rather leave us to our own devices. And we’re pretty content with it that way. Instead of sacrificing to save others, we’d mostly rather work our way up our career ladders, start our charity at home by looking out for our own families, enjoy the game, lose ourselves in mindless entertainment, shop for the latest gadgets and fashions, and amuse ourselves with the media circus of petty political squabbling and party grandstanding. I’m right there with you. But remember, I don’t do guilt trips. You and I are just playing along; we did not create this situation, this system. I’m not sure exactly what we can do about it, how we can fight this. I know that I don’t always enjoy the pat on the head and the “attaboy” I get from our system for playing along. And I wonder what Jesus is saying to us as he dwells with and in the one who is hungry, and thirsty, who is an unwelcomed stranger, the one naked, sick, and in prison—all those that we are encouraged and rewarded to neglect as we go about our business. While I enjoy its perks, I sometimes really feel ready to dump this city of neglect and live in that holy city of New Jerusalem. And if you are also ready, then we can start to think together about what way-of-the-cross is going to get us there.
But the truth is that while our lives can embrace a cruciform shape, while we can die to ourselves and live for that City, the original, true cross is Jesus’ alone to bear. And that’s just as well, because I don’t expect that you and I are going to get very far down that road to the New Jerusalem. We’re going to try. But we noted last week how our grandest aims and efforts in this life inevitably come up short. We remain weighed down by our fallen humanity, our human limits, subjected as they are to failure and death (we can barely get a quorum!). If that weren’t the case, then we’d be the world’s savior! The church could leave Jesus behind, for now we’d be the Messiah. But we are under no such delusion. We can and must do more for the world, but I’m pretty sure that at the end of the day, as we heard last week, “The poor will still be with us.” And so woe be to us if there is nothing more for us to do than espy with God’s help what that beautiful, loving, just city looks like, and inevitably fail to reach it. God help us if we forget that this Jesus we’ve been following is not just the one pointing the way to a destination called the Kingdom of God, but is himself somehow the mystery above, or, I don’t know, beneath, or within this Kingdom. God help us if we forget to prize him and the mystery hidden within him, the eternal God hidden within him, in our rush to implement many programs and initiatives that, while helping many real, suffering people, will inevitably fall short.
But if we didn’t get that message last week, if we didn’t learn to prize the presence of God in Jesus as well as the good things Jesus us calls us to do, then it is about to be forced upon us. For Jesus is about to be taken from us, and we are about to turn away. Here we are, marching alongside of him, shouting Hosannah, on the way to the New Jerusalem. And we have no idea how quickly events are going to spin out of control. Jesus is going to challenge the whole establishment: cleansing the temple and mocking its pretenses, confounding those opponents who fear and envy him, and threatening Rome even as he challenges the vengeful fantasies of those who would violently rebel against Rome. He’s going to cement the bonds of his enemies as quickly as he won over the crowds. And once one of his own disciples betrays him, and we realize that following Jesus isn’t as us-versus-them as we thought, then his own disciples will quickly fall away.
And I think Jesus sees all this coming. I think he senses that his mission will fail, the crowds will fail, his disciples will fail, and he’ll be left alone: the last link of hope between an exasperated God’s lofty aspirations for the world, and that world’s hard-heartedness, with which it inevitably pursues its own, heartless, power-mad course. Jesus is that last, fragile link between God and humanity, and the world and its powers are about to give one final, gritted-teeth pull. And that link will be torn apart, like the temple curtain, on his cross. Jesus sees this, and he doesn’t like it. He’s not really in control of things. It’s not what he wants. But his trust in God is unbroken. He will bear the cross.
But what good does that do, anyway? Wouldn’t it have been better if Jesus lived to an old age, continuing to teach his disciples and gather more people to their movement? Buddha and Mohammed lived to respectable ages, and died naturally. Why the cross?
Well, it may frustrate you, but you will never hear me give a single, simple answer to that question. The cross is a bottomless mystery; it is the mystery, the axis upon which all God’s mysteries find their concentrated center. When it comes to Jesus’ death on the cross, somehow there is always too much to be said, and yet no words ever seem to do it justice. Nor can we just talk about the cross without also talking about the resurrection. But if we were to do so, it should be today and this week; this is the Sunday of our year when we turn singularly to the cross and ponder it, even if from afar.
The cross makes us uncomfortable, whether we are conscious of that or not. Oddly, the cross has become so commonplace in our church. There it is, always there. And we put it on jewelry and tattoos and as a little decoration on hymnals and stoles and whatnot. (Remember, the modern day equivalent symbol would be a noose or electric chair.) We are naturally inclined to think that something that is always just there must have a clear meaning. But it doesn’t. We might as well, just about, replace the cross we put everywhere with a big question mark. Can you imagine? Wouldn’t that make you feel unsettled, to have our unifying symbol be something so ambiguous and uncertain? Faced with this anxiety, the church has done the cross a great disservice by trying to tidy it up with neat formulas: Jesus was paying the penalty of our sins on the cross, and as a result we are washed in his blood. We find this language scattered throughout our hymnals. But the Bible doesn’t feel the need to stick a singular formula on the cross, so why do we? The cross is also God’s victory over the powers of sin, and it is a testimony to Jesus’ obedience to God alone no matter what cost, and it reveals just how contrary to God the world can be. And the cross says much more, especially when we bring in the resurrection.
Now while I want to liberate the cross from that singular, old-time formula we have saddled it with, there is a profound truth in that idea of sacrifice. But let’s try putting its truth in fresh words. Recall that in Jesus, God is present and at work. That means that, in some mysterious fashion, when Jesus is on the cross, God is on the cross. Some people have speculated, maybe God wanted to feel our pain. I’m not so sure about that. I trust that God knows us already; God is already close to us and knows us from within, better than we know ourselves, right?
But God on the cross might be taking the pain and suffering of the world into God’s own being as a way of taking responsibility for the sorry state of the world. The world is God’s creation, after all. We are told it was created good, and yet however far back we look, we don’t see a completely good world. Even nature is more brutal than the picture we get in the beginning of Genesis, where it seems there are no predators. But we human beings kick up the brutality of nature to new levels. Even our ordinary daily lives are mired in godlessness that runs very deep, and as we’ve been discussing in our Lenten series, very high as well, encompassing the rulers and authorities. God can’t let the world alone, in this sorry state. God can’t disown the world. God must reclaim this world, even in its meanest state. And the meanest state of the world is to reject and kill the very presence of God in person. Perhaps God allows this as a way of taking responsibility for the world. “This is my mess,” God seems to say. “I started all of this, and although humanity has disregarded my will, only I can bear responsibility for sin.” God doesn’t love the way the world is, but announces on the cross that nonetheless the world still belongs to God.
And that is sometimes the way I am affected by the cross. I’m not always sure God loves me in the way I tell my son I love him: God doesn’t think that I’m perfect the way I am; God doesn’t think that I am special. I’m not the apple of God’s eye. At least, that’s not what I feel in my somewhat haggard middle-aged years. I think God respects the fallenness in which I participate and contribute to. Maybe with me at least, God is more like the concerned mother who comes to bail her son out of prison, than the doting daddy of a three year old. That may not be the kind of love I recognize from God on the cross, but I certainly do recognize that I belong to God, despite it all. God has claimed me, and not just special little me; God has claimed us all, as only God can. For God has taken responsibility for the worst we can do. God was not responsible, but God bears responsibility even as Jesus bears the cross.
You and I cannot do that. We can own up to our responsibility for the messes that we have made. We can take responsibility for what people have done to us, allowing us to forgive and to love life too much to let others ruin it for us. We can begin to take responsibility for the sinful ways of the world, by trying to show the world its errors and to mend the hurt, and to invite others to live a better way with us. But only the creator can take full responsibility for it all, and to reclaim all of it, infinitely, as God’s own. God has taken the infinite pain of that responsibility into God’s own being through Jesus.
And wait, there’s much more. All that pain and suffering that God has taken responsibility for, God has overcome. You’ll see.