April 11, 2011
Matthew 2:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7(8,9); Phillipians 2: (5)6-11; Matthew 16:14-27:66
“I will bury Jesus (in) myself.”
-From The Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244; Part 2, No.65
I’m not qualified to judge the theological soundness of that old saw, “God draws straight with crooked lines.” We know that Palm Sunday’s readings are a push into the arcing current of a great river. We know the river flows toward the unimaginable Paschal triumph. But the readings today have one and only one direction: down.
Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly, in a procession rich with political significance befitting a messiah, save for the public relations gaffe of riding a donkey rather than a military charger. But as soon as the cloaks are retrieved and the branches trampled beyond recognition, the triumph goes awry, spinning precipitously toward complete disaster.
In a matter of days, he will give his back to those who beat him, his flint-like face to those who pluck his beard. Those who care about law and order know what to do with his kind: he will be tortured, publicly vilified, executed.
He will suffer horribly.
He will die in shame.
We want to pass over this, we want to arrive at – and rest in – Easter. But there’s no way there except descent. The one way up is down.
There’s no way to enter the fullness of the kingdom except through utter emptiness. The one way to exaltation is kenosis.
There's no way to hear fully (ob-audire) the Good News except through obedience (ob-audire) to the point of death. The womb of resurrection is the cross. The door to freedom is marked with blood.
Fragile humans frantically search for another route. The self, the flesh, the ego – call it what you will – wants to build up, protecting the fragments of meaning it has shored against its ruin. We fear the blood on the lintel is ours entirely.
We seek any way out but down. The way down means submitting to the uncertainty (from our point of view) of God’s will. It means loss of control, a way of unknowing. It means transformation in loneliness and darkness so complete it resembles death.
Irony upon irony, we would rather stay as we are and be destroyed than be transformed and live. Be careful what you wish for.
Fragile churches and congregations also claw, terrified, for another escape. We long to build up, protecting the ruins of what we assume to be certain. We refuse to imagine God’s triumph in our communal failure.
The way down for our churches means surrendering honor and embracing faithfulness, surrendering growth and embracing discipleship, surrendering power and embracing service. But we would rather have our churches wither in spasms of desperate retrenchment or trendy irrelevance than be transformed into the living Body of Christ. Ask and you shall receive.
We want to rejoice in Easter without the Passion, but there’s no other way there –for each of us and for our churches. We’re not granted certainty – that’s why, presumably, we must live by faith – but we do have an examplar, a shepherd, a guide: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.”
He suffered. He died. He was buried. According to the Apostle’s Creed (drawing on, among other sources, Acts 2 and 1 Peter 3-4.), He descended to hell (descendit ad inferos). And on the third day (a day we can’t yet see)...
Come, let us follow him.