Palm Sunday Reflections

I am among you as one who serves. 

In abstract – in general, we can get our heads around this idea. Sure, Jesus is one who serves. Jesus washes feet. Jesus touches the leper. Jesus heals a sick child. Jesus provides food for the hungry crowd. In the abstract – in general we can get our heads around this idea.

Many of you will be familiar with Mark Twain’s novel, The Prince and the Pauper – and if not familiar with the novel itself, you will be familiar with one of the many television programs or movies or stage plays that have retold that classic tale. Two young men, through a chance encounter, discover that they look almost impossibly alike – yet they come from dramatically different worlds. The one is a prince, heir to the throne and to great power and wealth. The other lives in poverty, among the poorest of the poor.  The look-alikes as you will recall, decide to exchange places for a time – and as that wonderful little phrase goes, hijinks ensue. Each is more than a little lost in the other’s world. Each takes more than a few days to find his bearing in a world that functions according to a different set of rules. The pauper doesn’t know which fork to use at a royal dinner. The prince doesn’t know how to respond to the violence or injustice to which he is treated.

All’s well that ends well, of course. In the end the prince returns to his rightful place, demonstrates his identity through possession of the royal seal – and, of course, graciously lifts the pauper out of poverty.

When we think about Jesus, I think we often tend to think of his narrative pretty much in terms of the narrative of the prince in the story of the prince and the pauper. This prince, Jesus, finds himself suddenly displaced into this strange and brutish world of ours – and while he’s stuck here he ends up among the poor – he happens to spend time serving people, reaching out to the poor, the friendless, the unloved. But eventually, we think, Jesus gets back to what he’s really good at – you know, reigning as otherworldly king. It’s almost as if his years on earth are a charade, a bit of play acting that doesn’t have any real significance for the identity of God’s Son. If we just keep watching long enough, we’ll see the real, glorious, kingly Son of God, the one hidden behind servant Jesus.

But thinking of Jesus in this way misses utterly the point of who he was and who he is – it misses the point of Jesus life and identity. The New Testament points to Jesus as the revelation of God. He is God in the flesh. He is God among us. If you want to know the ways of God, then look at the ways of Jesus. See his life of service. This is God – this God’s way.

This life of service, this touching of the lepers, this washing of feet, this life of dedicated love toward those who had deep needs, is not just some temporary calling of which Jesus will finally be relieved. Recall that the one who sits upon the throne of God’s kingdom in the book of Revelation – the one who rules in that imaginative vision of God’s new world – the one who rules is none other than the Lamb that was crucified. The one who rules bears in his flesh, his being, the marks of his service.

The life of service – path of humble and strong touching and healing and caring defines Jesus and defines the God decisively in him. This is servant king is God, now and always. I am among you as one who serves. Is there any other life we can live? We are invited to live in such a way that we can say, with Jesus, to our neighbours, to our family, to our friends: “I am among you as one who serves.”

_________________________

Lord, should we strike with the sword?

Really, Jesus, they’re coming – they’re going to arrest you without cause. They’re probably going to kill you with no reason at all. Should we strike with the sword? Should we defend you with violence? Should we get them before they get you?

One of the disciples doesn’t wait for an answer – one of the disciples, obviously carrying a weapon, lashes out and strikes one of the members of the group that has come to arrest Jesus. He takes off his ear with one fell swoop – gave him what he deserved. But Jesus says, ‘no more of this.’ Can we hear Jesus’ words in a global sense – when the swords come out – when the F18s take off – when the tanks are deployed – when the snipers take their positions? Can we hear Jesus’ words in a global sense: “No more of this.”

Jesus’ way is the way of humble service. His way is equally a way in which the sword is refused. Put your sword away. No more of this violence.

Will this refusal of the sword mean Jesus’ death – certainly it does.  From the moment of this refusal of violence, Jesus demise is assured.

Does this make Jesus a pacifist? Does this make Christianity a pacifist religion? Perhaps it does. Perhaps not. I don’t know the full and final answer to that question. There is at least some tension within the New Testament on this question – it is certainly possible to argue for the legitimate use of force in some circumstances.

But is there any doubt that our first inclination as humans is to pick up the sword? When push comes to shove, our instinct is not to walk in Jesus’ way of non-violence. Our instinct is to do everything it takes to protect us and ours. Our instinct is to give them what’s coming to them. We see that the New Testament might give some legitimacy to the use of force and we almost trip over ourselves as we rush past the non-violence of Jesus to pick up weapons. We refuse to let our imaginations run wild in exploring the variety of ways we could respond to difficult and dire situations with something other than violence.

Truth is, most of us think that this idea of non-violence – that Jesus’ refusal of the sword – is just unrealistic. He’s so naïve. Can’t he see – it’s not realistic to forgive your enemies. Can’t he see – it’s just not realistic to lay down the sword. Above all, perhaps, we tend to think that Jesus’ non-violence represents weakness – a failure of strength.

But the truth is that Jesus’ refusal of the sword – and Jesus’ refusal of violence – required tremendous strength. It required him to resist the imperatives of the culture around him. It required a deep confidence in his identity as the beloved Son of God. It meant steadfastness in refusing to be caught up in all-too natural cycle of violence. An eye for an eye. Jesus is not simply a weak victim, run over by history. He is one of tremendous strength who doesn’t invite us merely to be victims, but to be strong and imaginative as we resist the tendency to violence. Lord, should we strike with the sword. No – put it away.

______________________

They beat him, they mocked him, they spat upon him. And then they crucified him – nails pounded into flesh, a cross erected on a hillside, he breathes his last. Alone, abandoned.

Is this just the great wheel of history crushing another innocent victim? Is this just another moment in the entirely random, hostile universe we live in? Wrong place. Wrong time. Jesus never had a chance. Meaningless suffering in an essentially meaningless world. It’s hard to imagine what other interpretation many of our contemporaries could give to the cross.

Looking with the eyes of faith we see something of Jesus as victim. The suffering of Jesus is a suffering in which he empathizes with us, understands the sufferings we experience. We are not alone in our sufferings. God comes alongside us and embraces us and supports us in our suffering. God in flesh experiences the most dramatic suffering with us – Jesus, abused, mocked, killed.

There is an impulse in contemporary society, however, that would turn us all into victims – passive, subject to hurt and harm – defined primarily by realities, experiences, happenings outside ourselves. But we are not merely victims. To suggest that we are essentially victims, in fact, is a thoroughly dehumanizing suggestion. Can we not acknowledge that we are more than those influenced by external realities – sometimes, generally, we are responsible actors. And as responsible actors we are those who sometimes hurt others, who neglect others, who act out of jealousy – we are very often those who act out of the conviction that we are the centre of the world.

And this is where we must see the cross through another lens – or, where we are invited to see the sufferings of Jesus through another lens. He does not only suffer alongside us in our sufferings. In some profound, mysterious way, his suffering is a bearing away of all our wrong-headed living and acting and speaking. In his suffering he takes all of our human wrong-headedness, our sinfulness, our acts of jealousy and rivalry and selfishness – he bears it all in a decisive way, and doing so he leaves the promise that in his resurrection we might walk in the way of a new humanity. There is no merely human logic that can explain this, account for it, or defend it. Paul says that the cross, the idea that Jesus in some sense bears our wrong-headed living away, is foolishness to some, a stumbling block to others. But this is our hopeful message.

Jesus is not merely a victim crushed by the wheel of history. The cross is not just another moment in the entirely random, hostile universe of ours. Yes, Jesus suffers. But this path of suffering is one he has accepts and pursues out of love for the world – out of a loving intention that we might experience and live to the fullness of our human identity. And his acceptance of the way of suffering means life for us, it means hope, it means forgiveness, it means freedom from shame, it means joy and peace. It means dancing and celebration. Thanks be to our loving God, through Christ his Son, Amen.

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