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The Paradox of the Passion: Reflections on Palm or Passion Sunday

I celebrated a quiet Palm Sunday liturgy this morning.  As I read the scriptures, especially the Passion Narrative of Mark the Evangelist I was moved in a way that I have not been for some time and found that my time of prayer following the readings and the recitation of the Creed was perhaps more impassioned on account of all the suffering and injustice that I see in the world.  As such I wondered what to write and thought about the story of Longinus the Centurion who was according to tradition the Centurion at the foot of the Cross of the day of the crucifixion.  I went back through a number of articles that I wrote last year about what I imagined a soldier and officer of his time might imagine in such a situation and I will repost those articles on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter. However today I decided to go back into my archives and repost with a few modification a more theological reflection on this Sunday which marks the beginning of Holy Week for Christians around the world. 

“Although we praise our common Lord for all kinds of reasons, we praise and glorify him above all for the cross. Paul passes over everything else that Christ did for our advantage and consolation and dwells incessantly on the cross. The proof of God’s love for us, he says, is that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Then in the following sentence he gives us the highest ground for hope: If, when we were alienated from God, we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son, how much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life!” John Chrysostom (AD 347-407)

“God speaking to Luther: “Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend—it must transcend all comprehension. … Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from His father… not knowing whither he went. … Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man… but I myself, who instruct you by my Word and Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all you choose or contrive or desire—that is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer the Cost of Discipleship

Palm or Passion Sunday always is a day that invokes mixed emotions in me. It is the last Sunday of the Lenten Season and in modern times has become a juxtaposition of two events, the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where he according to all four Gospels was greeted by crowds of people who lined the street with palms as Jesus riding on a donkey processed from Bethany and Bethphage where he had been staying with Lazarus into Jerusalem and the narrative of the Passion.  As such it is a roller coaster ride in our experience of walking with Jesus in the most difficult times.

This particular occasion is the Sunday where the disciples of Jesus are confronted with the reality that our earthy expectations of him do not meet the reality of his condensation to walk among us fully Divine yet fully Human but one too well acquainted with suffering, rejection and shame.  He shatters our expectations that he will bless any particular political or social ideology that we allow to take pre-eminence over him, even those that invoke his name. Thus our liturgy brings us to this strange day where in a sense we are confronted with celebrating the entrance of the King and in the next breath cursing him and betraying him to those who torture and crucify him.

In the Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgy the observance is divided between the Liturgy of the Palms which takes place outside the Church Nave either outside the church building or in the Narthex in cold or inclement weather.  After an opening collect and reading of the Gospel passage from one of the synoptic Gospels, which one depends on which of the three year liturgical readings that the church is in. Following the reading of the Gospel the congregation led by choir, acolytes and clergy process into the church reciting the words of Psalm 118: 18-29 or singing a hymn such as “All Glory Laud and Honor.”  Once the congregation is in the church the Liturgy of the Word continues and when the Passion Gospel is read and specific roles may be assigned to members of the congregation, while the congregation remains seated through the first part of the Passion the congregation stands at the verse where “Golgotha” is mentioned and remains standing.

The liturgy takes the congregation on an emotional and spiritual roller coaster.  As the congregation begins outside the following is read:

When Jesus had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Luke 19:29-40

It is hard when you read this passage and be caught in the reenactment of this procession not to feel the excitement that must have accompanied that procession.  It has the feeling of a victory parade but this road ends in a manner that those present, those seeking an earthly king and Messiah who would drive our the Roman oppressor and restore the kingdom to Israel would not expect with some of them perhaps playing a role in the drama that would take place later in the week.  I particularly like the hymn “All Glory Laud and Honor.”

All glory, laud and honor,
To Thee, Redeemer, King,
To Whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring.

Thou art the King of Israel,
Thou David’s royal Son,
Who in the Lord’s Name comest,
The King and Blessèd One.
Refrain

The company of angels
Are praising Thee on High,
And mortal men and all things
Created make reply.
Refrain

The people of the Hebrews
With palms before Thee went;
Our prayer and praise and anthems
Before Thee we present.
Refrain

To Thee, before Thy passion,
They sang their hymns of praise;
To Thee, now high exalted,
Our melody we raise.
Refrain

Thou didst accept their praises;
Accept the prayers we bring,
Who in all good delightest,
Thou good and gracious King.

During the Liturgy of the Word one of the following is read, either Isaiah 45:21-25 or Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the second being the Song of the Suffering Servant.  The Psalm is Psalm 22 where the Psalmist foretells Jesus’ anguished cry from the Cross; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”And then we have the New Testament reading Philippians 2: 5-11, the hymn to Christ is read:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This year the Passion Narrative is that of Mark (14:1-15:47) but I find the passage in Luke 22:39-71 and 23:1-49 (50-56) to be more dramatic.  The three parts of Luke’s narrative that stand out in this narrative for me are Peter’s denial of Jesus, the interaction of Jesus with those crucified with him and that of the Centurion:

“Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.”

Peter’s denial is in large part because he has had his illusions about Jesus shattered and the fact that he had not understood the message up to that point.  As Bonhoeffer says “Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory. It must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples; for it is in fact an attempt to prevent Christ from being Christ.”

Likewise Jesus interaction with the condemned thieves that were crucified with him:

“One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Mark (15:25-32) records that interaction in this manner:

“It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.”

The final passage from this narrative that strikes me is the moment of Jesus’ death on the Cross:

“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

Mark records that event in Mark 15: 33-39. In Mark’s account the reaction of the Centurion (15:39) to the death of Jesus is even more salient than the account of Luke.

“When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

The darkness of this is event is perplexing to those who want to find God in some place where he is untouched by human suffering to them the Cross is folly for what kind of God would submit himself to such ignominy but as Martin Luther wrote “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly. For they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross, evil and the evil of a deed, good. God can only be found in suffering and the cross.” It is in the contradiction of this week that we come to know God, not a God who seeks not the righteous or the powerful, those who seek the power of an earthy kingdom backed by an ideology of power which tramples the weak, but rather those who will simply walk in the footsteps of Jesus the Christ who rules by serving the least, the lost and the lonely.

The liturgy of this day be from any of the Passion narratives takes us to the heart of the Gospel as we led by the writers through the triumph of the entrance into Jerusalem, to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the abandonment of him by the disciples and the denial of Peter.  As the writers lead us through his trial, conviction, scourging and trek to Golgotha we see the gamut of human emotions and reactions to Jesus and we know that we can be there as well in any of the characters simply because we are human and capable of compassion or betrayal.  As Jesus is on the Cross it is not the religious or upstanding that remain with him.  He is left with his mother, the other Mary and John the beloved.  He is shown compassion by a thief and recognized as the Son of God by the Roman Centurion, a gentile serving an empire oppressing the people of Israel and whose governor had pronounced the sentence of death upon him.  In this liturgy we have been taken from the heights of exhilaration in the triumphant entry to the depths of despair felt by his disciples that Friday afternoon. It is in this time that we realize how right Dietrich Bonhoeffer is when he writes “God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

It is the Centurion for which I have the greatest affinity in this story. He is a soldier and in the words of so many soldiers who have obey orders carried out the sentence upon Christ by crucifying him and then as the life ebbs out of Christ’s crucified body exclaims “surely this was a good man” or in other accounts “surely this was the Son of God.” That is the cry of a man who knows that he has executed an unjust sentence, the reaction of a true penitent, the reaction of a man who comes to realize even before many of Jesus’ closest followers understood.  According to tradition the Centurion was named Longinus who left the service of the Imperial Legion, was baptized by the Apostles and was martyred under the orders of Pontius Pilate by soldiers of the unit that he had once commanded.

It is important for the Church not to lose this identification.  The Church is not to become enmeshed and co-opted by those who attempt to use the Gospel to promote ideologies foreign to it as is the temptation in times of crisis.  As Jürgen Moltmann notes:

“In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian… The Christian life of theologians, churches and human beings is faced more than ever today with a double crisis: the crisis of relevance and the crisis of identity. These two crises are complementary. The more theology and the church attempt to become relevant to the problems of the present day, the more deeply they are drawn into the crisis of their own Christian identity….Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent to which one has accepted that in him God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God, to whom one belongs oneself.” The Crucified God [pgs. 7, 19]

Nor is our task is not to attempt to invent “crosses” for ourselves in acts of pseudo-martyrdom but simply to be faithful in loving Jesus and our neighbor as Bonhoeffer noted “Must the Christian go around looking for a cross to bear, seeking to suffer? Opportunities for bearing crosses will occur along life’s way and all that is required is the willingness to act when the time comes. The needs of the neighbor, especially those of the weak and downtrodden, the victimized and the persecuted, the ill and the lonely, will become abundantly evident.” The mark of the Christian is not to blindly give his life for a cause or be consumed by the false “messiah’s” promoted by politicians, pundits and even preachers captivated by the lust for power and glory.

As we walk through the mystery of Holy Week together let us renew our faith in the Crucified One and not be conformed to those things that seek to turn us from the way of discipleship and the way of the Cross.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Deadly Chatter: The Danger of Talking and not Listening

“Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I am a man of words sometimes many but mostly in writing but when I am in the company of others, unless I know them well or feel an exceptional need to add to a conversation I tend not to say much. In fact many times what I contribute is nothing more than something funny or witty to break tension or point out irony, speaking of which I need to do my Summer White uniform shirt in the next couple of days because we have an inspection next week but I digress.

Since I happen to be a minister I often get to experience the incessant droning and chatter of many Christians especially ministers who seem to believe that God would have them pounce on every opportunity to prattle on feeling that they must contribute something even if they have nothing to say.  Since I have on occasion been guilty of this myself I must always remember to take the Lincoln Log out of my eye before I go pointing out the Sequoia in someone else’s eye.  But we Christians and especially those of the ministerial type can really be a pain in the ass about this and I speak from experience on both the giving and receiving end of this proposition. What I fin amazing is for some ministers, especially the really popular ones on television or the mega-mart, I mean mega-church variety can take a small section of the Bible, usually the most insignificant ones like The Prayer of Jabez and turn them into a series of sermons each lasting nearly an hour complete with the DVD and the book, or series of books on the subject.

I remember a pastor of a mega-church that would begin sermon series on various topics and never complete them. He had one that was on “mission, vision and passion” which died somewhere around the eighth week of hour-long sermons into the mission section.  The sad thing is I can’t even remember what his primary Scriptural texts for this. Likewise I have endured many other sermon series to nowhere by various pastors or simply been held hostage by pastors that won’t shut up even when they know that they are beating a dead horse.  As for me I try to spend no more than 15 minutes on a sermon and usually shoot for about 12 minutes and focus on one thing either from the Gospel lesson or tying that lesson in with either the Old Testament or Epistle reading.  I just hope that in that time I don’t put anyone to sleep and that somehow by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit that at least someone in the congregation takes a nugget from the message and that it is helpful.

Judy helped me in this when I was the Base Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania.  The congregation had an unwritten rule that the service would begin promptly at 1100 and end promptly at 1200.  Judy and I know some American Sign Language since she went to California State University at Northridge because of her rather significant hearing loss and as any boyfriend who was passionately in love and lust would do I followed her.  As a result I became fairly well versed in sign language though I have lost most of that capability over time.  However she was good to let me know during a sermon how much time that I had before I had to be done and if I waxed too poetically she would let me know that I was boring something that I should have figured out by the sleeping members of the congregation.  But what the heck, none of them were sitting on a window ceil. No harm no foul.

I have found in the ministry of Priest and Chaplain that more often than not people don’t really want me to pontificate about everything that I know and would much rather that I take the time to listen to them. I actually try hard to notice the words as well as the inflection and the non-verbal aspects of communication when I spend time with people because it is all a part of listening.  I don’t always do it well and many times I have to catch myself before I interject a comment, idea or suggestion that might not be what the person needs at all in order to ensure the sanctity of the moment.  I know that when I am not doing well, which I spent the better part of the past three years not doing after my return from Iraq that the last thing that I want is someone who spouts “answers” and pushes their agenda without ever taking the time to care for or listen to what I am actually saying.  I think that I am not alone in this.

Bonhoeffer made this amazingly succinct comment about just what I am saying here and he does it far better than I could have done. “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.”  Therein lays the danger for both the person seeking someone that will listen to them as well as the one with all the answers.    The danger is that when we are in constant transmission mode we not only fail to listen or to really hear the other but also become deaf to the still small voice of God. Bonhoeffer noted this danger saying “he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.”  I figured due to the wisdom of my long-suffering wife Judy that God stopped taking theology lessons from me a long time ago, if indeed the Deity Herself ever took them from me. Of course back in my younger days I knew everything but since I have learned that I really know very little but I am definitely sure that I prattle in the presence of God as much as anyone else, and that is reality. Taking the time in the Daily Office and Scripture is something that I struggled with on my return from Iraq when I even struggled with the existence of God.  I am aware of this and I am trying to take some time every day to “be still and know.”

Unfortunately our media and information obsessed culture beats us senseless throwing more information, much of which is useless, deceptive or destructive in terms of content that it dulls our senses to the reality of others around us and keeps us from listening and seeing those who cry out for someone that will just take the time to listen even if they cannot “fix” the problem. You see in much of Christianity we suffer the same ailment of the culture around us in that we would rather “fix” someone than care for them. You see care takes loving nurture and patience especially the latter. Fixing is a “fire and forget” kind of thing, the kind of thing that “miracle workers” do for a living even if they are miracles faux no miracles at all. However the real act of care by a minister appropriately called “pastoral care” or the spiritual care of souls by a lay person takes time and involves a relationship and that requires listening when the answers are not apparent.  It is standing near the cross and not abandoning Jesus in the crisis something that nearing Good Friday we should remember with fear and trembling. I’m no fool when it comes to knowing my limitations especially when it comes to something like survival and I would have probably much more like Peter who went into hiding after denying Jesus than John on that day when the sky turned black.

You see to care involves love and as the Apostle Paul so aptly described love and what it is not in 1 Corinthians 13: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Paul got it, even though he put a young man to sleep when preaching. The man fell out a window and died but thankfully the Holy Spirit wrought a miracle and raised the young man from the dead as he does so many weeks for so many of the faithful who suffer injury when passing out in the middle of a tedious sermon.  Maybe Paul wrote the epistle after that incident.

But simply to preach with no end is one thing but to fail to care or fail to really listen is worse.  Providing “answers” without understanding the question and to impatiently wait our opportunity to jump in and push our agenda no matter how noble or even “Biblical” it is is not faith nor is it Christian, insofar as Jesus would have understood it to be.

I remember an associate pastor of a mega-church that we attended in the late 1980s as I was getting ready to begin seminary. This pastor who was very charismatic and a wonderful preacher could not be bothered to care for or listen to the questions and struggles of a budding seminarian.  He would cross his arms and tap his foot to signal that his time was better spent doing anything other than listening to someone else. I had another senior pastor at a different mega-church who was one of my ordaining pastors back in my Evangelical Protestant days who told the congregation that someone asked him how sick that he would have to be for him to visit them in hospital he said “you don’t want to be that sick.” Of course he told the story during a sermon so the clear message was “if you are sick don’t expect a visit and don’t even bother calling me.”

Unfortunately this attitude has been all too common throughout the history of the Church and today it almost seems epidemic among pampered pastors who appear to be more intent on their personal gain than on caring for the flock that God has given them. Likewise it is all too common in church life. To  again quote from Bonhoeffer “This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”

This is a much bigger danger to Christians and the Christian faith than many if not most active clergy and laity alike across the denominational spectrum imagine.  The fact is if people don’t believe that we care about them and fail to show them the unconditional love that God shows us instead seeking to provide fixes that gel with our agenda then we will lose a generation. Perhaps we are already well on the way to this and it will be our fault.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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