Trust the down

I hate roller-coasters. It’s about the fear of letting go of control on the way down, that’s the problem. The couple times I’ve had the guts to go on a roller-coaster, I didn’t enjoy the experience because I couldn’t let go on the way down. Someone took a photo of me and my friend in the middle of one of those rapid descents: My friend who loves roller-coaster — his arms were up in the air and a big smile beamed across his face.

Sitting beside him, I was the opposite: My hands were glued to the bar in front of us, and my lips were pursed tightly and my eyes looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets. It looked as if I were staring death in the face, going down that roller coaster.

I read this week: “Humans are the only creatures who have knowledge of their own death. Its awareness creeps on us as we get older. All other animals, plants, and the cycles of nature themselves seem to live out and surrender to the pattern of mortality.

This places humans in a state of anxiety and insecurity from our early years. We know on some level that whatever this is that we are living will not last. This changes everything, probably more than we realize consciously. So our little bit of consciousness makes us choose to be unconscious. It hurts too much to think about it.” (1)

We humans find ingenious ways to avoid this journey, especially through Holy Week, that invites us to contemplate not only human death but the death of God in Christ Jesus. No wonder, especially among Protestants, attending services through Holy Week is not popular. This is not easy work, to face Jesus’s and our own mortality. No fun in that.

One way we avoid and deny this awareness of our own mortality is to find a scapegoat — by focusing all our negative energy on something or someone else. Our scapegoat is that which deludes us into believing that its destruction will somehow solve all our problems and make everything better again. Our scapegoat also shields us from taking responsibility for and dealing with our own problems.

Today, the scapegoats are easy to identify: The immigrants, the newcomers to Canada, the Muslims, the gays, the corrupt politicians, the government, the media, the church hierarchy — you name it. The blame game is alive and well, even in the church.

And then what happens is what many wise teachers through the ages have said: When we deny our own suffering we make others around us suffer. Which is unfair and unjust. Because the Gospel was given first and foremost to the followers of Jesus. 

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near,” The Gospel Mark thus records Jesus’s first words to his own people in Galilee. And to them he said, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). We are the ones addressed by the Gospel — those who are already in the church, in the family of God. Not those so-called ‘bad’ people out there.

Jesus was the scapegoat whose destruction would solve the high-priestly authorities’ problems. By having Jesus put to death, the religious authorities could maintain their power and privileged position in Jerusalem, the Roman Emperor’s fears of insurrection would be temporarily alleviated, and the Pax Romana (the Roman rule) would continue in the land.

As unjust as killing Jesus was — for many even in authority including Pilate saw that Jesus was innocent — Jesus was the convenient scapegoat whose death on a cross would make it easy on those in power. And maintain the unjust status quo in the land.

After hearing of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, the high priest, Caiaphas, advised the rest of the leadership in Jerusalem: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Rather than do the right thing in the moment, the end — a false peace — justifies the unjust means. Classic scapegoat -ism: Jesus became the convenient victim in the human power play of first century Judean politics.

It’s ironic that our fear, denial and avoidance of death is actually that which keeps us stuck in scapegoating, in blaming others, in all the motivations for war and violence in the world. You could argue that all of what is bad in the world today stems from humanity’s continued ambivalence and denial of death.

What’s amazing is that Jesus, knowing all along this human condition, chose to become a victim to it. From his privileged unity with God the Creator, he chose to connect with humanity. The reading on Palm Sunday from Philippians 2:5-11 describes this downward movement of God in Christ into the “enfleshment of creation” (2), and then into humanity’s depths and sadness, and final identification with those at the very bottom, “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7), to death on the Cross.

Jesus represents God’s total solidarity with, and love of, the human situation. It’s as if God is saying: “Nothing human, now, is abhorrent to me.” This is incredible.

The Cross represents the divine choice to descend. It’s almost total counterpoint with our humanity that is always trying to climb, achieve, perform, justify and prove itself. The witness of the Cross is the divine invitation to each of us to reverse the usual process.

Christians worldwide have a great gift and witness in the Gospel of Christ crucified. The divine union with humanity suggests that everything human — including death, losing and letting go that is so much a reality in all our lives — is embraced by God’s love. The reason God loves even our shadow sides, is because God experienced the fullness of its brutal and unjust consequences, in the death of Jesus.

Jesus is like the human blueprint for our own transformation. Because who would have presumed that the way up could be the way down? It is, as Saint Paul writes, “the secret Mystery” (Romans 16:25).

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. The hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 says that Jesus leaves the ascent to God, in God’s way, and in God’s time. Because Jesus went to the bottom of all that is human, “God lifted him up, and gave him the name above all other names” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Of course, they say the joy of a roller coaster’s twists, turns and rapid descents is knowing and trusting that the ride eventually and surprisingly goes up. What an incredible rush! Carl Jung wrote: “Not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die.” (3) The roller coaster analogy suggests that when we refuse to descend, when we avoid facing our own mortality, and avoid taking responsibility for our own suffering, we also don’t really live.

Conversely, we can only truly live when we have faced and come to terms with the reality of our own mortal, imperfect human lives. Being fully human is being fully spiritual, faithful and alive. Saint Irenaeus was first to say in the second century that the glory of God is human being fully alive.

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. When challenges, disappointments, defeats and failures come your way, don’t rush into avoidance techniques, distractions, denial of the problem or blaming others for the circumstance you find yourself in. What do these events have to teach you? Where is God in the midst of your suffering? What are the signs of grace therein? Christian faith asserts that God is revealed precisely in those lowest moments. Jesus believed this. It was trust in his Father that got Jesus through his passion, suffering and death.

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. Resurrection was just around the corner.

 

1 — Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent” (Cincinnati Ohio: Franciscan Media, 2011), p.100.
2 — Rohr, ibid., p.123
3 — cited in Rohr, ibid., p.123.

The good crowd

I was ten years old when my parents shuffled me and my brother into one of the front rows of the main, outdoor theatre in the small, Bavarian town. The crowd pushed and shoved for privileged seating to watch the story of Jesus’s last days acted out daily by the town’s folk every ten years.

In fact, the crowd on the large stage did not appear any different than the tourists who got up very early in the morning for tickets to the Oberammergau Passion play.  

This coming Holy Week is rich with story. And when we read the stories about the last days of Jesus — full of drama, plot, and character — we will naturally identify with elements of the story-telling. Our worship is designed to help us identify, for example, with the crowds.

This morning, we sing “Hosanna” and wave our palm branches identifying with the enthusiastic crowd that first day when Jesus entered the city. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees …” (Matthew 21:8). Some years in Holy Week we dramatized and therefore simplify the trial scenes. We have individuals and groups speaking the various parts of the story. So, for example, ‘the crowd’ is played by the whole congregation who chants those lines together, such as “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:23) and “He deserves death!” (Matthew 26:66).

Undergoing some mysterious metamorphosis sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, the crowd turns to the dark side. In a tradition that goes back centuries, Christians have most often portrayed the Jewish crowd around Jesus during his last days as rabidly and violently against him. We see it in Passion plays, the most famous of which is at Oberammergau in Bavaria. The evil crowd is also central to Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

This over-interpretation has unfortunately led to harmful, anti-semitic justification against the Jewish people throughout the dark side of Christian history.

It may be easy to identify with these ‘bad’ crowds more than anyone else in the stories. Through the journey of Lent, we have struggled with the shadow self of our own lives, carrying our own cross so to speak, alongside Jesus. We have confessed our sin. Indeed, at the climax of Christ’s Passion, we pound nails into the cross on Good Friday. We so readily identify with the crowds, even saying that ‘we’ have crucified Jesus by our sin. It is little wonder why we come to these rather negative views, from Scripture.

What these portrayals fail to address, however, is this: Why, if the Jewish crowd was so against Jesus, was it necessary to arrest him in the darkness of night with the help of a traitor from among Jesus’s followers? Why not arrest him in broad daylight? And why do they need Judas?

What we discover is a positive, more balanced approach to the identity of the crowd. First we need to understand why the high-priestly authorities wanted to do away with Jesus.

“[The chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him …” (Matthew 21:46).

If the chief priests and Pharisees let him go on like this, everyone would believe in him, and the Romans would then intervene and execute them (John 11:48). Moreover, the authorities were not just afraid of the Roman Emperor, who was the recipient of Judean tax money and demanded political allegiance from those put in a position of power by the Emperor to keep the Pax Romana in the region. Insurrection in Judea would not be tolerated by Rome.

“… but they feared the crowds …”

Pilate and the high-priests also felt threatened by the whole crowd of people who, if they didn’t do something about Jesus, would eventually turn on them, which in 70AD (around the time most of the Gospels were written), did in fact happen. (1)

The Gospels reveal a clear disconnect between the high-priestly authorities who wish to execute Jesus, and the “whole crowd” who are “spellbound by his teachings” (Mark 11:18) and who “regarded him as a prophet” (Matthew 21:46).

This favourable support of Jesus by the predominantly Jewish crowd does not stop after the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday. It continues throughout the days leading to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem.

The crowds aren’t perfect, to be sure. Their motivations for supporting Jesus may very well have missed the mark, especially those who still sought in Jesus a violent solution to the end of Roman rule in Judea.

Yet, they are captivated by his teachings. There is some good, therein. The ‘whole crowd’ can be personified by each of us. Which part of ourselves identifies with the crowd that is for the most part good and supportive of Jesus, even during his last days on earth?

I ask this question, especially in the midst of the most penitential season of the church year. I ask this question, and make this point as a spiritual antidote to what can easily, and so often does, slide into self-hatred on account of all our sinfulness.

We must remember we live in Christ Jesus, and the living Christ lives in us through the Holy Spirit. There is some good therein. We don’t need to be so hard on ourselves.

“The secret of life,” say the American Indigenous people, “is in the shadows and not in the open sun; to see anything at all, you must look deeply into the shadow of a living thing.” (2)

We may begin Lent and Holy Week — indeed our Christian pilgrimage on earth — by confronting our shadow self. It’s important to do so. But by the end of Holy Week we cannot avoid the open sun and see the empty tomb. The ending is always as it was in the beginning when God created everything and everyone, and said that it was good. “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

 
1 — Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), esp. p.87-91

2 — cited in Joyce Rupp, “Walk In A Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino” (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), p.161

Slo-mo prayer

Everyone’s happy for the extra time off in March. For those in school, children and teachers can enjoy some leisure and vacation time. Then, at the end of the month, comes the extra long, four-day weekend at a time when Spring and warmer weather brightens our days.

Indeed, the holy days are upon us. But it’s not really just party time. It looks like that on the surface or at the start: The singing of hosannas, palm branches waving, praising the coming of the Messiah into Jerusalem riding a … wait. A pony? Is this a joke?

Palm Sunday starts the final leg, so to speak, on our Lenten journey. And what seems on the surface like the start of a holiday (that is, to relax and enjoy some well-earned leisure and play) is in truth an invitation to go deeper and reflect not only on the good life, but to go underneath and look at our suffering and pain. In Christian language, we call it the crosses we bear.

It is time now to look at the big picture of our life without ignoring the present sometimes difficult reality. How can we do that?

This Holy Week we are invited to slow down. And take a deep breath. And be honest, with ourselves and the truth of our lives. Not to grovel in a depressive, morbid mire of self-hate. But to lift to the light everything that has been hidden, kept secret, denied, overlooked, suppressed in the shadows and dark recesses of our hearts. In the end, it can be cause of a deeper joy and freedom; at first, though, it can be distressing and anxious-filled.

The path of Jesus shows us the way through it all. Where Jesus goes and how he does it offers us a way to forgiveness, release and true happiness. But first we must bear our cross. As we slow down, we pray.

Pray. As Jesus, on the night of his arrest, commanded his sleepy disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane not once but twice: “Get up and pray, that you may not come into the time of trail” (Luke 22:40,46). Jesus not only shows us what to pray, but also how to pray.

I follow the Ottawa Senators NHL team on Instagram. And before every game they post a short video montage, lasting no more than 15 seconds or so, of the players getting ready for the big game.

What’s attractive about the video to me, is to see how they splice together several brief clips of various moves the players make on and off the ice: back-slapping a team mate, practising a slap shot, the goalie making a glove save, skating towards the puck, a pre-game ritual.

But what keeps my attention is where the editors choose to speed up and slow down a few of the segments. Strategically done in an appealing way, the montage goes back and forth between periodic slow-motion action clips and real-time moves.

The whole presentation is enhanced because the real time rapid action shots are interspersed with slow motion shots. In fact, because they slow down some of the action, I can appreciate and enjoy a particular move even more — for all the skill and intention it entails.

In other words, it’s not boring. Slowing down, from time to time, actually gives energy. Slowing down, from time to time, gives clarity, focus and meaning to the activity and the whole picture. Slowing down, from time to time, allows me to get a good look at what is actually happening in all that I do.

And that’s what we do when we pray as Jesus did. Throughout his life of ministry, Jesus moved around a lot in the region of Galilee — healing people and teaching them about God. He covered great distances by foot. He didn’t even have a home base. 

But as was his custom, even before suffering betrayal, arrest and branded a criminal to die a horrific death on the cross, Jesus slowed things down. He went to quiet places on a hillside, by himself usually, to pray.

The feeling I have every Palm Sunday is like I’m seeing a video montage of Jesus’ life, ministry, and Passion. Just short segments highlighted with the larger flow of the story. Certain shots are in real time, sometimes even sped up because we also see the cross on Palm Sunday. But then there are the segments that slow right down.

Jesus was already practised in the art of slowing down to pray, so that from the cross came two prayers that can not be rushed, denied, suppressed, hidden: There’s a prayer for forgiveness (“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” – Luke 23:34) and a prayer of relinquishment/release (“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” – Luke 23:46). (1)

Whom was Jesus forgiving? The disciples who deserted him, the Roman soldiers who killed him, the ruling religious elite who condemned him to death, yes. Was he forgiving us all forever, for all our sins? This is the Gospel.

Did they “know what they were doing”? Only in part. None of us knows the full extent of our sinning or the full harm we do. God’s forgiveness covers all.

In his prayer of relinquishment, Jesus offers to his Father – Abba – what he has been offering all along: his life into the hands of God who is ever faithful. Jesus quotes Psalm 31, an evening prayer which may very well have been the bedtime prayer for Hebrew children and their parents. It is the prayer of “letting go”.

And Jesus asks his disciples to do the same. So, we can say, especially bearing our own crosses: “O God, take my sticky fingers off the controls, and place my life and life of my loved ones in better hands than mine. In your hands.”

It’s in our nature not to want to slow down. It’s in our nature to go-go-go. Slowing down, being silent and still, forgiving and letting go, is especially difficult in our day and age when we are so used to being stimulated by rapid-fire activity, lots of noise, and when we have total control.

The irony is that our lives of activity and go-go-go will have even more effect should we also intersperse that activity with regular times of slowing down to pray as Jesus did.

It has always been a tradition for Christians to pray silently, to just be, in the presence of God. We pray without having to do a whole lot. And this reminds us that God is already with us, Jesus already loves us and is already doing stuff in the world — even before we do anything. The practice of prayer has given Christians through the centuries great energy and peace for life, even more so had they not made the time for prayer.

If someone would do a video montage of your life to date — reviewing all the things you have done, places you’ve visited, people you’ve been with — would it also include shots of you being silent, still, praying by yourself and with others?

I think that would make a really cool video!

(1) – H. Stephen Shoemaker in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word” Year C, Volume 2, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2009, p.183

Cross directions

In response to the changing realities of the church, the Eastern Synod this year is making a significant change to the way it organizes itself for ministry and mission

No longer will there be Conferences — like the Ottawa / St Lawrence Conference to which we belong. This Spring the Conference structure gives way to smaller units called ‘Ministry Areas’. This transition will likely be the focus of church-wide meetings over the next couple of months. We will be a part of about 8 or so congregations forming the ‘Ottawa Ministry Area’ whose local leadership will be appointed by the Bishop.

How will this new structure operate? Certain technical aspects of how elections to Synod and national conventions will work, for example, are part of these constitutional changes that will be considered. But how will it work in the sense of achieving the mission of the church?

Lately, again, I sat around a table of pastors and lay leaders of Montreal Ministry Area congregations who, literally, are up against a wall — for their shrinking resources and inability to afford ministry the way they used to. They know they have to work closer together, and share resources such as church buildings and pastors. And they have come up with some small, concrete plans for the near future: They are planning some combined worship events and more focused leadership meetings. But how will this new cooperation function and look like? That’s still up in the air.

And it’s not too long into our future in Ottawa when more and more of our congregations here will be pressed into a greater need to look at different models for ministry. How will that work? What will be the end result?

In reviewing the results of the pastoral care survey that was circulated over the last month here, one of your top choices for workshops was to get more information and help around making a housing change — downsizing — when physical limitations increase with age. You instinctively know that this is the direction, eventually, that many of us eventually take. But, for you who haven’t yet made that big change, how will that look? Where will you go? You may not know precisely how that will pan out, especially when spouses and their health are in the equation as well. You just know that a change will need to be made at some point.

Palm Sunday is just that day in the church calendar where the need to know the end result is tempered by the realization of what it will take to get there. On Palm Sunday, we focus on the direction more than the goal itself.

And this may be why Palm Sunday and especially Holy Week worship is not a very popular draw for Christians in our day. Because we are saving all our church energy for Easter, right?

Our culture, and the dominant belief system of the secular world today, is mesmerized by goals, and goal-setting. I was sitting around a table with Lutherans from the Missouri Synod, ELCIC and CALC. We are planning together a musical event to celebrate the Reformation, later this year. It was at our last meeting when someone said: “What is our goal? I need to know what the goal is for this cooperative effort.”

Management by results seems to be these days the methodology of choice, evidenced by how our politicians govern to how churches run their activities. While I believe time is never wasted in clarifying purpose, we may need to practice exercising a bit of humility when it comes to anticipating certain results.

A man and a woman were married for many years. Whenever there was a confrontation, yelling could be heard deep into the night. The old man would shout, “When I die, I will dig my way up and out of the grave and come back and haunt you for the rest of your life!”

Neighbours feared him. The old man liked the fact that he was feared. Then, one evening, he died when he was 98. After the burial, her neighbours, concerned for her safety, asked: “Aren’t you afraid that he may indeed be able to dig his way out of the grave and haunt you for the rest of your life?”

The wife said, “Let him dig. I had him buried upside down … and I know he won’t ask for directions.”

Perhaps it is time for Christians to ask more questions about the direction of our faith. We know the ultimate end, as Christians. We know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. We know what our destination is. It is the direction that causes us trouble no matter how often we affirm in our creeds and sing from our hearts about heavenly glory.

Palm Sunday, as it ushers in Holy Week and the Passion of our Lord, may be a good time to reflect on the way, the direction, that Jesus calls us in our lives on earth. While Jesus may very well have know for certain the end result of his passion and suffering, Holy Week emphasizes the direction — the humility, the emptying, the letting go, and the loss — that the Cross of Christ stands for.

The children’s video we viewed this morning ended significantly: the path Jesus saw from his vantage point atop the donkey amid the Hosanna-cheering crowds was leading Jesus not to the glory of resurrection, but to the condemnation of the religious leaders and Roman authorities awaiting him.

It’s the direction we are asked to consider during Holy Week, not the goal.

What does this approach ask of us?

In a recent, popular, healthy-living book by Maria Brilaki called “Surprisingly Unstuck”, she makes the argument to focus on a lifestyle change as opposed to fixating on results. Rather than motivate or will yourself towards a goal — for example, lose five pounds in a week — instead practice making small choices: Eat an apple for a snack instead of a chocolate bar; walk up the flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator; refrain from that second helping at dinner, etc. Greater success comes to those who focus on small, healthy habits in the moments of daily living rather than forcing or willing some grandiose change based on a perceived goal.

Making small steps in the direction and according to the values of one’s faith, is better than expecting that by our strength alone we can engineer our salvation and the salvation of the world.

In the lectionary study this past week, we reflected upon the second reading for today from Philippians. One of the very good questions arising from our conversation was: How do we become humble, like our Lord? It’s hard to imagine what a humble life might look like in the manner of Jesus. Because, after all, none of us is Jesus. So, what does it mean to be Christ-like, or “little Christs”, as Martin Luther put it?

Saint Paul described the character of a humble lifestyle in the context of this reading from the second chapter of Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (v.3-4); “…for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v.13).

The result of this life-style may look very different, person from person. Mother Theresa in the 20th century exercised genuine humility differently from the martyrs of the early church or from millionaires today who sell off their riches in order to serve the poor in developing countries, or from a teenager who volunteers tirelessly in a nursing home, or asking a neighbour her viewpoint on something you hold near and dear to your heart, even if that opinion is different than yours.

While the result of our work may not be clear, from our vantage point now, we have enough to go on in the direction of our faith. Call it instinct. Call it conviction. Call it the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is God’s work enabling us in the direction of our faith.

So, if down-sizing is inevitable, what to do? If we can’t see exactly how it’ll turn out in the end, perhaps we can practice now little habits of letting go — whether in the way we pray, or giving away treasured possessions little by little.

If we can’t see now how the church will be organized in twenty years, but instinctively know significant things will have to change, perhaps now we can do little things to share ministry with other congregations, build friendships with those from other congregations, organize events with other churches and share space.

That path set before us, as it most definitely was for Jesus over two thousand years ago, may be difficult, challenging and uncomfortable. But perhaps by focusing on the little ways we can share the love of Jesus with each other and the world around us — we will, in the end, experience God’s work and power in our lives.

Let it so be. In Jesus’ name.

Palms and Passion II

Like I said, maybe you might want to stay home on Palm/Passion Sunday.

But before you make alternate plans, hold on a minute. The reading from Philippians (2:5-11) appointed for this Sunday might help us deal with the liturgical and contextual disconnect of Palms and Passion. This ancient Christian hymn describes God’s work in Jesus – particularly Jesus’ self-emptying to take on human form and be of loving service to others.

If you look at the shape of the text itself, perhaps the most notable structural element is the space between verse 8 and 9. Yes, the space.

Your bibles most likely preserve the extra-line space between two, clearly visible sections of this poetry. The first part puts the onus on us, because it is introduced by the words: “Let the same mind be in you …” (v.5). We are encouraged to embody the gift of Christ’s presence, Christ’s mind, in us – the attitude of loving service to others.

In the context of what we do on Palm/Passion Sunday – this is the Palm part. Bear with me.

You see, the crowds heralded Jesus as the King who would save the people from Roman domination. The crowds believed in the kind of Messiah who would come and make their lives better, who would change their external circumstances for the better. And so when Jesus rode in majesty, riding on a donkey, the crowds understandably laid palm branches on the royal highway and cheered “Hosanna! Hosanna!”

The Palms part of the service represents our often meager attempts at worship, at service, at prayer and Christian faith. Well-intentioned, perhaps. But, in this sometimes zealous defending of the truth or passionate display of piety, we are still seeing into a mirror dimly, aren’t we? (1 Corinthians 13).

For all their misguided, imperfect, muddied expectations, beliefs and desires – this was the human response to Jesus. I believe we can relate: Because how often do we catch ourselves falling far short of the mark? How easily do we come to confession, bearing our misdeeds and failures? Don’t we, as the Christian family, need to confess our divisions, our fighting, our self-absorbed compulsions that lead us astray, distract us, and bring us to our knees? That’s why we need to ‘do’ Palm Sunday.

But we also need to ‘do’ Passion Sunday.

Because the Palms part alone is not the full story. Doing the Palms part alone means we haven’t truly ‘emptied’ ourselves, as we are called to let the mind of Christ be in us. How can we embody the “mind of Christ” by emptying ourselves of ourselves? Is this even possible?

That’s why the space between verse 8 and verse 9 is so important. Because however we decide to respond to this scripture, to Jesus, to our living faith either individually or communally – our response dies at verse 8. After that, God takes over.

If every knee will bend at the name of Jesus, if every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, it is because God highly exalted Jesus and gave him that name that is above every name. Human volition – our action, our choice, our striving – ends at verse 9. The most important word in this text is, “Therefore”. Because now, God takes over.

We cannot do what Christ did in the Passion. We cannot atone for our sins, ourselves. We cannot by our good works save ourselves. We cannot by our even valiant efforts make ourselves right with God by what we believe and by what we do.

I know so much of our Christian culture orients itself about imitating Jesus – What Would Jesus Do? All well and good. But the Passion reminds us that it was Jesus, and only Jesus, who walked that path to the Cross for us. The Passion puts in perspective who is the author of our faith, who makes things right in our lives, who creates in us a clean spirit, who lives in us in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The space between verses 8 and 9 is the equivalent of the grave in which Jesus lay, dead as dead could be – perfectly obedient to death – with no pulse, no thought, no will (p.175, Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word Year C Vol 2). A famous preacher, Fred Craddock, says: “The grave of Christ was a cave, not a tunnel”; that is, Christ acted for us knowing that his human life had to completely stop.

That is precisely what God has exalted and vindicated: self-denying service for others to the point of death without first claiming any return, no eye upon a reward (p. 42, Philippians – Interpretation Series). Otherwise, it wouldn’t be death, would it? Our human thoughts and beliefs and wishes all have to die. So it was for Jesus’ humanity. Love for others, to the point of death.

I read the Processional Gospel from Luke this year. What immediately follows this text we didn’t read. The form of the Lukan text implies that Jesus went immediately from the triumphal entry on the donkey to the hillside overlooking Jerusalem, where he weeps over a people so misguided and delusional. But unlike a natural human reaction which would dismiss and discard with disdain, Jesus weeps out of love and great desire to gather everyone under protective wings as a mother hen her chicks. (Luke 19:41-44)

Jesus reconciles Palms and Passion in his love for sinners. That’s us. Despite our sin, Jesus sees in us a beauty and a reflection of God’s goodness worth dying for. Worth going to the Cross for.

That is why on Palm/Passion Sunday, in the end, we do not focus on what we believe about Jesus. We focus on what he did. And what we can do because of what he did.