Here are my thoughts for this Palm Sunday, 5 April 2009
As we come to the end of our Lenten Journey and our focus turns to the coming days of Holy Week and the events that will transpire, perhaps the foremost question on our minds should be “why did He do it?” Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd knowing full well that the crowd would be against Him and calling for His death by the end of the week?
Now, it is entirely possible that those who called for His death on Friday were not the same ones who were cheering for Him on Sunday. But it is certain that most of those who cheered on Sunday were probably not there on Friday.
And we know that even Jesus had His own doubts about what was to take place as we recall the words from Mark that described that Thursday night in the Garden
They came to an area called Gethsemane. Jesus told his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with him. He plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony. He told them, “I feel bad enough right now to die. Stay here and keep vigil with me.”
Going a little ahead, he fell to the ground and prayed for a way out: “Papa, Father, you can—can’t you?—get me out of this. Take this cup away from me. But please, not what I want—what do you want?”
He came back and found them sound asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, you went to sleep on me? Can’t you stick it out with me a single hour? Stay alert, be in prayer, so you don’t enter the danger zone without even knowing it. Don’t be naive. Part of you is eager, ready for anything in God; but another part is as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.”
He then went back and prayed the same prayer. Returning, he again found them sound asleep. They simply couldn’t keep their eyes open, and they didn’t have a plausible excuse.
He came back a third time and said, “Are you going to sleep all night? No—you’ve slept long enough. Time’s up. The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up. Let’s get going. My betrayer has arrived.” (Mark 14: 32 – 42 – from The Message)
For as much as Jesus was the Son of God, he was also human and it was those human traits that brought forth the fears and doubts that He would be able to complete the task before Him. Too many of us, I fear, let the fears and doubts prevent us from what we are called to do as Christians. In some ways, we are like Robert Jordan, Clarence Jordan’s brother.
Clarence Jordan, as I hope you know, was a Southern misfit. Raised a Baptist in rural Georgia, he came to question the hypocrisy of a church that could sing “Jesus loves the little children; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight” on Sunday and yet segregate those same children and their parents on Monday.
In the late 1940’s, Dr. Jordan established the Koinonia Farm as a way of showing the world how to put Christ’s words into action. Needless to say, this integrated Christian community was not well received by the white Christian community. And on more than one occasion, from its founding through the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s, it was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan.
After one incident, Dr. Jordan asked his brother Robert (a lawyer who would later become a Georgia state senator and state Supreme Court justice) to be the Koinonia community’s attorney. Robert declined, stating that to do so would destroy his political ambitions and cause him to lose everything, his home, his job.
In challenging his brother to do the right thing rather than that which was expedient, Clarence Jordan reminded his brother of the day they both answered the altar call and accepted Christ as their personal Savior. In response, Robert Jordan said that he followed Christ but only up to a point; to just before the Cross but certainly not to it.
This is how I think too many people are today and the value that they place on this Sunday. They are willing to celebrate Christ’s Kingship on Sunday but they are not willing to go to the Cross on Friday.
Now, Clarence Jordan suggested that his brother should go back to the church where they had first accepted Christ and tell everyone there that he was not a disciple of Christ but rather a very good admirer. Robert replied, in effect, that if everyone who felt like that did what Clarence suggested, there would not be much of a church left. Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church that he could go to. Later on, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society. (Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs – Saints and their stories by James C. Howell)
Clarence Jordan wrote, “It is one thing to enter ‘the narrow way’ of discipline and complete dedication to Christ and the kingdom; it is another thing to keep on climbing this upward trail.” (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan, Chapter 13) We see a lot of people who come to Christ full of ambition and enthusiasm. But when things do not go as they should, these are the ones who stop by the wayside. Perhaps that is why churches who preach the current “Gospel-lite” are successful and why they keep growing.
After all, if you don’t mention what comes next or what is around the next corner, there is no reason to give up or stop one’s journey. If the promise of the Gospel is a fancy car and riches beyond belief while you are on earth, why would you even think of tomorrow and what might lie ahead? The message that Jesus brought implies that the future will not be an easy one. The Good News that Jesus proclaimed involved sacrifice and effort on our part.
We live in a world where there are too many admirers and very few true disciples. We have changed the meaning of discipleship from what it once was into something entirely different. We have taken the translation of Matthew 28: 19 (“go into the world and make disciples of all the nations”) to mean that we can force people into being Christ-followers. But those who are forced to do something will quickly forget how to do that when the pressure is removed. But if we understand that this same passage can mean “make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you,” (from the Cotton Patch Gospel translation by Clarence Jordan) then we can offer people a better alternative to the world around them.
There are admirers of Christ who would close the doors of the church to anyone who is not like them. They want the church today to be exclusive, to deny membership and acceptance to those whose life is somehow different. They would change the community that is found in Christ.
There are those who say that religion is superstition and mysticism and should be removed from society. No secular philosophy addresses the fact that we are born alone and we will die alone. It is in our nature to seek the solace of divine truth amidst our mortal suffering. To be an evangelical Christian is to offer hope and peace.
To offer hope and peace in a world of violence and despair is a radical new way of life. It forces us to walk another way.
The world outside the walls of this church is a hostile world, one not receptive to the thoughts we have. The world of the early disciples was also a hostile world, a world in which a public pronouncement that one believed in Jesus Christ could lead to torture and death.
Because of His own arrest, torture, and crucifixion, Jesus knew what the disciples would encounter. He also knew that if He did not go to the Cross Himself, then no one would and the mission that He began three years before would fail.
We are not called to die on the Cross for Christ for Christ died so that we would not have to do so. Yes, there are going to be those who are going to die for Christ in the course of working for Christ (we call those individuals martyrs) but they did not go looking for their death. And those who look for death will be sadly disappointed in the results of their efforts.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and, if you will, martyr for the faith, wrote,
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. Luther said, “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone . . . I will not be with you then, nor you with me.”
But the reverse is also true: Let he who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. Luther also said, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me. (“Life Together”)
For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God, right now, is changing people and changing the world. This, he said, requires not only preaching, but also the living out of the kingdom of God “in community” and in social action.
So why did Christ do it? Why did He enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday knowing full well that he would be arrested, tortured, and crucified on Friday? Because He also knew that on the following Sunday, next Sunday, Easter, that the Promise of the Gospel message would be fulfilled and revealed and that He would conquer sin, death, and the grave. He knew and understood that His death on the Cross on Good Friday would give us the freedom that we seek.
We are not called to die on the Cross; we are called to the Promise of the Resurrection message of hope to the world. But we must understand that Jesus had to die for us first. That is why we have today.