Palm Sunday, Year B April 5, 2009
If Christ is where God and the world meet, if indeed if Christ is the point where the encounter between God and the World is the most intimate, then the story we have just read is a tale of a relationship fraught with as much violence as love, as much terror as compassion, as much selfishness as generosity.
Mark tells us the story of a world we know very well. It’s a world of terror where thugs come in the night: the death squads in Central America, The Tonton Macoute in Haiti, the Nazis rounding up Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s. It’s a world of the banal, the numb; death and conflict are commonplace, swirling around us, as they swirled around the disciples during that long, dark night. A friend of mine, near despair, once remarked on “how battered and stressed and desperate people like you and me tend to be these days. It has something to do with the fact that everything’s up for grabs, politically, economically, morally, and religiously in our world.”
The Jesus we meet in Mark seems to be giving up. “Are you the king of the Jews,” his accusers ask him. “You say so,” he almost shrugs. Surely he feels all the dread and fear that we would feel; he longs for God to change the divine mind; he sweats tears of blood, and at the end cries out, lonely and abandoned.
Mark never lets us think that the Romans are to blame for Jesus’ death. It’s the Jews who got out of control. Pilate appears to want to let Jesus go; it is the crowd who demands the release of the criminal Barabbas rather than Jesus.
What can it mean to us to follow such a Jesus? Will we meet an end of such loneliness and abandonment? Is this the cost of discipleship?
In the 1930s a young German theologian wrote a book called, The Cost of Discipleship. Many of the Lutherans in the Germany of the day were willing followers of Hitler, but Bonhoffer and his community resisted: they wrestled with what it meant to be a Christian in a society of monstrous and growing militarism and oppression. In the 1930s, he thought, it could work out, step by step. “I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life,” Bonhoeffer wrote, much later, when he began to question his attempt to learn faith, as though by following a manual.
It is very tempting to read the passion story hoping that it will all “blow over.” I very much want to make sense of the Passion, to make it into a tidy story with an ending, a lesson which I can learn and then come out the other side a good disciple, full of the fruits of the spirit and the joy of the resurrection.
Sixty-four years ago Thursday Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in a German prison, for the crime of plotting to kill Hitler. His resistance to the slaughter of the Jews began by preaching against anti-Semitism, then by banding with other Christians against the German churches which collaborated with the Nazis, and then joining in a conspiracy to fight the powers of death. It was during his years in prison that he began to question some of what he had written about faith as learned (and controlled) and to embrace an understanding of faith as “profound this-worldliness:”
... it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself ... By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world ...
This is a different way of looking at the “battered and stressed” aspects of life: not to tidy them up, give them meaning, as I would like to do, but to embrace them, to throw ourselves into the arms of God -- yet the arms of a God on a cross cannot embrace, nurture or offer us much comfort.
We are Christians, so we know this: the day of resurrection will come, but we cannot leave the here and now to get to it. To be a Christian is to hold both together, all of the time, to live a faith of profound this-worldliness; as Bonhoeffer wrote, “Characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection.” It means to live that ordinary life facing death, not expecting the triumphant outcome but knowing it just the same.
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