Saturday, March 31, 2012

Palm Sunday 2012

Palm Sunday

Jesus Enters Jerusalem on a donkey...

Palm Sunday. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"  We hear these words, we sing these songs but I wonder if we understand the impact of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the people of his time? This day marked the end of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the beginning of his end. He was moving into the final week of his earthly ministry - a climactic moment.

It did not just happen - Jesus planned everything very carefully. He had even arranged for a donkey to ride on, and had agreed a coded message with the owner - so that when the Disciples turned up and took the donkey, the owner wouldn't complain.

It was very important for Jesus that he should arrive in the city on a donkey. He knew the prophecy from the ancient book of Zechariah,

‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your King comes to you;
Triumphant and victorious is he,
Humble and riding on a donkey
On a colt, the foal of a donkey’

Jesus’ actions were an unmistakable claim to be the Messiah, God’s messenger to the world. You see, Jesus normally walked everywhere. This is the only time we see Jesus travelling other than on foot. That is why the people pulled branches from the trees and shouted ‘hosanna’ – which means ‘save us’. That's why they threw their garments on the ground to welcome the King of Kings into the holy was an very ancient custom to spread out cloaks for a King...going right back to the story of King Jehu, in 2 Kings 9.

Yes, the crowd certainly understood Jesus' claim to be the Messiah. That is why they began to sing the psalm of praise, Psalm 118 that pilgrims always sang on the way to Jerusalem: a song of victory, a hymn of praise to the God who defeats all his foes and establishes his kingdom:
'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
...With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar!'

But what did his disciples understand by all of this? Throughout the Gospel records we see Jesus struggling to help his disciples understand the sort of kingdom that he had come to usher in. But some of his disciples, even on Palm Sunday, still harboured ideas of Jesus coming to overthrow the Romans and to restore the power of the Jewish State. Whatever Jesus said, whatever Jesus did – it seemed that his disciples couldn't free themselves from some very human notions of power and victory.

You see, Palm Sunday is unmistakably all about power – the power of God. But the power of God is of a different order to the powers of this world. God’s power is not a sort of multiplication of the power of Caesar or of Napoleon or of the USA. Somehow just bigger, better, more powerful power. God’s power is not like that.

That is the point made in one of the crucial moments of Jesus Christ Superstar - the Rock Opera. Jesus and his followers are seen arriving in Jerusalem. Simon the Zealot is urging Jesus to go ahead and get the crowd to follow him to get rid of the Romans. Simon declares. ‘You’ll get the power and the glory for ever and ever and ever.’ And do you know what Jesus replies? Very gently, against all the noise of Simon the Zealot, he sings, 'Neither you, Simon, nor the fifty thousand, nor the Romans, nor the Jews; nor Judas; nor the twelve, nor the priests, nor the scribes nor doomed Jerusalem itself, understand what power is; understand what glory is; understand at all.’

You see - God’s power is shown through Jesus and through his self-giving and sacrifice, and suffering. Jesus Christ and him crucified; that is the power and wisdom of God. As St Paul said, "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God". (1 Cor 1:18). It's a different order of power that works not through violence and victory but through love, service and sacrifice.

It is easy for us to see both those kinds of power at work today. On the one hand, we can see the power of violence and victory - as we see armies marching against each other around the planet, as we see selfish companies and individuals grabbing all the riches and wealth that they can, as we see man's inhumanity to man continuing to spread around the world.

But we can see the other kind of power as well. Every time that someone stands up against the violence and greed. Every time someone reaches out a hand to help another human being. Every time a hospital is opened, or a school is started, or a refugee is fed or given a tent - that's the power of God at work.  Every time someone decides to give up the latest gadget they desire, and chooses to give that money for the benefit of others...there is another power at work...the power of love, service and sacrifice.

And actually - I think - if you were to count up all the people in the world who are involved with education, healing, loving their families, relieving poverty, serving their church or their local community, or working for reconciliation - and then counted up all the people who are money grabbing know I think we'd see, pretty quickly, that God's power is very much in evidence. I think you'd see really who is reigning on Earth.

We hear about the atrocities - the terrorist bombs, the famine and poverty - because they are real, and they are horrible. But what we don't hear about is the day to day normality that most people actually live with. God is the God of normality. God delights in the simple loving acts of families, and communities and churches all over the world. God delights in those communities around the world – like those I met in Ghana recently - who are not obsessed with grabbing power, and working every hour of the day to acquire the latest gadget, or the bigger house. God delights in those communities who take just what they need from the land, and spend the rest of their time pursuing friendship and art and community. His power is found there. He is there.

That's why we can sing, with such joy, that Jesus Reigns over all the Earth! Because although we hear more about the bad stuff in the world - the reality is that God is alive...and 'God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.'

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, on that first Palm Sunday, he was profoundly misunderstood. But the power of God that he was embracing and sustaining and sending forth throughout that first Holy Week has continued to shape and affect lives all around the world ever since.

The power of God is not about war and conquest, it's about love and sacrifice.

The power of God is not about gaining wealth, it’s about gaining simplicity.

One final thought.  By his actions on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus laid claim to the title ‘King of Kings’.  In this Jubilee year, when we will mark 60 years of our own constitutional monarch’s reign, we sometimes forget what it means to live under an absolute Monarch – like kings were in the time of Jesus.  A constitutional monarch, like ours, is very limited in their power.  Their power is largely ceremonial.  They can influence events, but they don’t have the power to dictate how the country is run.  An absolute Monarch had tremendous power.  Their word was law – quite literally.  If a King of those days said ‘jump’, the only reasonable response was to ask ‘how high?’.

By riding into Jerusalem in triumph that day, Jesus claimed to be the absolute Monarch of all absolute Monarchs.  He claimed that his way of living, his way of dealing with other people, his way of loving all whom he encountered – that was the new Law. 

What does that mean for us, who call ourselves Jesus’ subjects, Jesus’ disciples?  It means that we are called – no, we are summoned, - to obey the new law of our King of Kings.  It means living lives that are poured out in service to others, as his was.  It means living lives which seek nothing for ourselves.  It means devoting ourselves to the process of ‘unselfing’…of giving up all that our fragile egos demand, giving up what we want in favour of what is needed by the whole society around us.   

And so as we share today in the last supper of bread and wine, let us recall the new age that Jesus came to usher in, an age not based on military power or might but on suffering and service, love and obedience. And let us commit ourselves anew to being people of his Kingdom - people who embrace his way of living...the way of self-sacrifice and love.

As a sign of that commitment, I'm going to ask you to make a gesture this morning. When you come to the rail, to receive the sustaining power of the body and blood of Jesus, we are going to offer you a Palm Cross. After you have received the bread and the wine, or received a blessing, let me invite you to reach out and deliberately take that cross, as a sign that you are taking up the challenge that Jesus offers us. Take that cross home with you - and put it in a prominent place. Let it be a reminder, throughout the rest of this year, of the fundamentally different way of life that Jesus calls each one of us to embrace. Not the way of power, and wealth, and consumerism. The way of love, of self-sacrifice, of simplicity, and of peace.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Cross: Symbol of Our Sure and Certain Hope

John 3. 13-17

The Cross:  Our Sure and Certain Hope…

A homily for the end of a Lenten Quiet Day, at the Church of the Ascension, Portsmouth.

The Cross is a powerful symbol indeed.  It stands, for many, at the centre of their faith, and even at the centre of time itself.  A traditional belief, especially in the Orthodox church, is that after his Crucifixion, Jesus descended into the world of the dead, and released those who had died before him, but who were held captive because of their sin.  The Cross then, stands at the Crossroads of time.  Jesus’ atoning death is believed to have effect both forward and backwards in time.

It should not surprise us then, perhaps, to discover the cross, or cross-like symbols, popping up throughout history.  Many crosses have been found throughout pre-history…way before it became important as a Christian symbol.  In most cases, the cross was a symbol of life.  It may be that the cross symbolised the making of fire by rubbing two sticks together…fire being a symbol of warmth, the Sun, and life.  In other mythologies, crosses symbolised a connection between heaven (as a vertical line) and earth (as the horizontal line).  Worship, therefore, took place at the point of connection between heaven and earth…at the centre of the Cross.  There are two pre-Christian crosses that you will probably be most familiar with. The first is the Swastika – which has a wide variety of meanings to many many different people of the world (see here for more details ) .  The second is the Ankh – an Egyptian version of the cross, with a looped head at the top…believed to be principally a symbol of life.  (See here for more details )

Initially, after Jesus’ death, the cross didn’t feature in Christian worship at all.  For many, it was a disgusting and degrading symbol, not worthy to be used in connection with the Christ.  For us, a modern parallel might be the use of a hang-man’s noose as a religious symbol.  Early Christians, as you probably know, preferred the use of the secret sign of the fish (here for more details ) - the Icthus, the letters of which could form an acrostic phrase:  Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.

However, as crucifixion faded from habitual use by the Romans, we begin to see the sign of the cross emerging in Christian worship…until, by our time, it has become a ubiquitous sign of the Christian religion…like it, or not!

The cross, then, comes to us with redolent history.  It is an ancient sign of life and healing - a divine union between heaven and earth.  Tradition has it that the ‘pole’ which Moses lifted up in the desert, for sick people to gaze upon and find healing, was in fact a cross…though in this case it was a ‘T’ shaped cross.  The same symbol – a T-shaped cross with a bronze serpent – is now a universal sign of the healing arts.

The sign of the cross speaks to us of life…and of a mystical union between heaven and earth.  But to Christians it speaks still deeper.  For it was on a cross that God showed how much he loved the world.  In the words of our Gospel reading, 'God so loved the world that he gave his only son, to the end that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but should have everlasting life' (John 3.16).  The whole narrative push of the Gospels was that is was necessary for Jesus to die on such a cross.

But why? Why was it necessary for Jesus to die on a Cross? It's frankly what the church calls (for good reason!) a ‘Mystery’.  My advice is that you should be deeply suspicious of anyone who tells you that they have understood exactly what Jesus was accomplishing on the cross.  The writers of the Bible itself wrestle with meaning – at various points they conjure with metaphors like ‘paying a ransom to the devil’ or ‘taking our sins upon him’ or ‘being punished for our sake’.  Later theologians have sometimes preferred to speak of the Cross as a grand moral example…a graphic, lived-out picture of how far it is necessary to commit oneself to the Gospel.  Others have pointed out how the Cross stands as a vindication of peaceful resistance over inhuman violence…because the subsequent Resurrection demonstrates that peace will eventually overcome all war.  Rowan Williams suggests through the Cross, the human power-mongers who promise that violence can rule the world are shown to be false prophets.  How can violence rule the world if it ends up pushing God to the margins of society?

So, as you can see, there are many different ways of understanding, or meditating upon the meaning of the Cross.  But through them all, one underlying reality holds sway.  It was to the Cross that Jesus turned his face.  He was reluctant…praying that this particular cup of suffering may pass him by…but it was clearly vital to Him, and to the completion of his mission.

For that reason, if no other, we look to the Cross. The Cross was important to Jesus…it symbolised the very apex of his mission.  And so to us, the Cross symbolises the very heart of our Religion.  It symbolises the sure and certain hope that we have that, as our Gospel reading made clear, ‘whosoever believes in Him, will have eternal life’.

It is perhaps worth pointing out, however, that Jesus did not dictate, in that passage, precisely what we were to believe about him.  We are not asked to sign up to any particular theological understanding of his atoning death, for example.  We are invited not to believe things about Jesus…but to believe in Jesus.  We are invited into something similar to a relationship with a person, not mental assent to a series of theoretical propositions.

Those who ‘believe in Him’ are those who have studied his life, as well as we can understand it from our distance in time.  Those who believe in Him are those who trust that His way of living, his way of giving, sacrificially, of all that he had and was…this is the way to eternal life.  The Cross symbolises the giving up of the last thing a man can give…his very life.  For us, especially in this time of Lent, may it symbolise the giving of our lives too…offered as living sacrifices for the God who is our sure and certain hope.