April 02, 2009

Spoilin’ for a Fight

by Joel Shuman
Mark 11:1-11 (John 12:12-16); Psalm 118 (Palm Sunday/Liturgy of the Palms)

In her wonderful autobiography An American Childhood, Annie Dillard fondly recalls her Sunday School days in her parents’ mainline Protestant church. She notes of her introduction to the Bible, “The Bible’s was an unlikely, movie-set world alongside our world. Light-shot and translucent in the pallid Sunday-school watercolors on the walls, stormy and opaque in the dense and staggering texts they read us placidly, week after week, this world interleaved our waking world like a dream.”

Although my first memories of church are of a one-room frame building at the foot of a West Virginia hollow a mile from the house where I grew up, Dillard’s narrative resonates with me. For the longest time the way I read the stories of Jesus, including his final, “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem, was shaped, if not determined, by the Sunday-School images of my childhood and early adolescence; Jesus was a kind, quiet, and exceedingly humble man who rode into town on a colt – perhaps so as not to appear too intrusive. He loved children and animals, and almost everyone loved him. But he was grossly misunderstood and ended up being crucified by some bad men who felt threatened by him.

I was twenty-one and a good six months into my first “serious” attempt at Christian discipleship before it occurred to me that there might be more to Jesus than the teachers and preachers of my childhood let on. One afternoon I saw footage on the news of a Mennonite man, younger than I was, who was on trial in Federal Court for refusing to register for the draft. He was immovable, and he attributed his position to Jesus.

Hearing that young man speak that afternoon summarily disassembled whatever theological assumptions I had managed to cobble together to that point. I started learning to read the Bible in a completely different way, and I met a whole different Jesus, whom I am still trying to understand.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that afternoon on the back of a colt, he was, quite literally, looking for trouble. At a time when Jerusalem was full of Jewish pilgrims and Roman soldiers, when political tensions and the potential for a popular uprising were both swollen by circumstance, Jesus enacted messianic prophecy, proclaiming to anyone who cared to hear that God’s messiah was entering the city. The people who threw down their cloaks and the branches from nearby trees understood and became part of the unfolding drama, chanting the Psalm (118) that says “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! / Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.”

We know the rest of the story. We know Jesus spent the week in the Temple courts, agitating and teaching, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom and inviting all hearers to participate in that kingdom by following him. We know he got the fight he was looking for. And we know things did not go well for him.

It is always tempting at this point to rush headlong toward the resurrection, to say “Yes, Jesus was arrested and beaten and eventually killed, but God raised him from the dead and it’s all OK.” And of course, our haste is understandable. The cross is not exactly a pleasant thing to contemplate. But Jesus challenges us to wait a minute, to take time to consider the days leading to his arrest and crucifixion. He reminds us that his death was no accident, but rather something provoked by his faithful embodiment of the Gospel. He reminds us that the Kingdom entered history not only in his resurrection, but also as he remained faithful even as he was arrested and lied about and beaten and crucified. He invites us this week to join him as he enters Jerusalem, preparing once again to empty himself, and in so doing making present the peaceable Kingdom of God.

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