When God Goes the Wrong Way

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The “triumphal entry” of King Jesus into Jerusalem was through the back gate. Ironically, at roughly the same time, the other key player in the drama, Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, would have been arriving through the cities’ front gate on his way to the Roman palace just inside the city wall. Kings may outrank governors, but conquerors outrank the vanquished. So, while Pilate arrived in a caravan, with horses, trumpets, and armed retinue; on the back side of the city, the king of the Jews, arrived on a donkey. People bowed for both. For Jesus, though, they bowed in expectation rather than spear-point. Matthew 21:1-10 tells us, they shouted, “Hosanna!” and “spread their clothes and cut branches before him.”  These people were in.

The whole city was stirred.” They were all in.

At least they were on Sunday.

By Friday, though, they were all out.

By Friday, the crowds had abandoned Jesus. The 72 had abandoned him. Even his twelve closest friends abandoned him. By the time they nailed Jesus to a cross on skull hill, none remain save his mother and John, a teenager too young to matter.

Why did the crowd…so passionate on Sunday, jump ship so quickly?

Their disillusionment seems to have begun when Jesus entered the temple the next morning. It would have been a pregnant moment: the crowd anticipating Jesus, their long awaited political deliverer, to turn to the right, toward the Antonia fortress, built by Rome on the temple wall to stare down into the Jewish temple – Big Brother making sure Israel remembered who’s boss. Jesus would show them!

Except that Jesus entered the temple and, where everyone expected him to turn right and shake his fist at the conquering pagans, Jesus wheeled left and began overturning the tables of the moneychangers. Moneychangers had a nice little business converting secular money into special temple money to buy animals for the sacrifices. At a profit, of course.

This act must have been befuddling. “Jesus, we might be getting a C in following God, but at least we are trying. How could you go after us? The Romans are the problem here.”

Palm Sunday exposes an inconvenient truth: No matter how excited we are about God today, we are only days away from turning our back on all that is good and true. It is human nature to turn from God when things don’t make sense.

We can go from “I’m all in” to “I’m so out of here” on a dime. 

I do not want to minimize your pain. It is all too real. When the wheels come off, the crash is brutal. Circumstances appear purposeless. God seems to work slowly. Or worse, God seems to give evil and injustice the nod. It was true on that first Palm Sunday, and it’s true for us – Jesus Christ is not the savior we would choose.

We can’t imagine our deliverer turning (what seems to us) the wrong way.

Jesus Christ is not the savior we want.

But he is the savior we need.

The savior we desperately need.

When you are tempted to think Jesus doesn’t get it, remember this:

Jesus knew temptation: He was in the desert forty days…tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:13).

Jesus knew poverty: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20)

Jesus knew weariness: Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well.” (John 4:6)

Jesus knew sorrow: “My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death.” (Matt 26:38)

Jesus knew loneliness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)

Jesus knew frustration: He overturned their tables saying.…’how dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” (John 2:15-16)

Jesus knew disappointment: “O Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together…but you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

Jesus knew ridicule: “Again and again they struck him…and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they mocked him.” (Mark 15:19)

Jesus knew rejection: “many of his disciples…no longer followed him.” (John 6:66)

The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is a not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” He gets it.

In that day when the world least makes sense, the pain seems unbearable, when confusion reigns; do not lose hope. God will redeem even this. On your worst day, I believe the Lord is grabbing your face, gazing into your wounded eyes and saying:

“I promise you my child; the magnificence that will one day be yours will so overwhelmingly repurpose and overcome the suffering and pain you are experiencing right now, that it will turn even this tragedy to indescribable joy and unsurpassed splendor.”

So, friend, don’t give up. Don’t pack up your palms and go home. Stay the course. Hang onto your Hosanna when you expect God to go right and he jukes left.

Jesus Christ is not the savior we would choose. But he will never, ever, ever…be anything other than the savior you and I need.

 

 

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The Justice-ification of the Church: Where we went wrong and how we can do better

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Years ago a Catholic priest from India told me, “Ghandi said, ‘I look at Jesus and I want to be a Christian. But then I look at the lives of Christians…and I don’t want to be a Christian.‘”  The great scandal of the church, for Ghandi and for us, is the troubling lack of love shown by those of us who call ourselves “Christian.”

Having made pilgrimage to the Holy Land this spring, I was astonished at how small it is: The events in the Gospels can mostly be seen from each other: Bethphage, the village from which Jesus had the disciples borrow a donkey and her colt, is on the Mount of Olives. From this hill you can look across the narrow valley and over the Brook Kidron at the walls of Jerusalem and the gate Jesus rode through on the day we call Palm Sunday. The temple, from whose courts all four Gospel writers record Jesus casting the money-changers, was just inside the city wall. When Jesus entered the temple and focused on the failings of the religious establishment rather than shake his fist at the Roman occupiers whose Antonia fortress stared down into the Temple grounds, Jesus set the stage for the crowd’s turning on him when he stood before Pontius Pilate five days later. You can walk the Via Dolorosa, along which Jesus carried his cross to the place of crucifixion in minutes. The spot where Jesus was crucified and where he was buried are also remarkably close – so close that both the location of the crucifixion, Calvary, and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb are under the same roof today. It is stunning how little geography God used in the great saving acts of his Son.

Scandalous also is how small the distance between, “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Crucify Him!”

In the Gospels this took five days. In the Episcopal Church our liturgy places both the Palm Sunday and Good Friday scripture readings on the same day. My guess is that this is, in part, an acknowledgment that many will not prioritize attendance at the commemorations of our Lord’s redeeming acts in the Paschal Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. But it is also an acknowledgement of basic human nature: The distance between celebrating someone and demonizing them is also remarkably short – because, as humans, we have a remarkable capacity for…small.

With just a little dollop of disappointment we can move from kindness to vitriol in a single motion. We look for scapegoats, rush to judgments, and hold others in bondage with binary thinking. We litmus test and sort people into categories of our own devising. And we wish those short of wholehearted endorsement of the platforms we embrace cast into outer darkness. A few exhibits:[1]

  • Several months ago at lunch I overhear the animated conversation between a socially active pastor of another mainline denomination and an atheist college professor sharing our table. The pastor labeled group after group, “Evil!” until the atheist professor finally asked him, “Where’s the love, man?”[2]
  • A student asked me to breakfast the next morning and confessed (tearfully) that he was considering leaving the seminary. He was trying to grow in prayerfulness and was told that his pleas for his fellow students to act in love toward others was evidence of insufficient commitment to the social causes espoused by his peers. He was certain he would never gain their acceptance.

A progressive friend posted on Facebook several weeks ago, “I am uncomfortable that my church’s stance on every issue seems to completely mirror the culture.” I think he is right…

…but I am not nearly so nervous about aping the culture as I am about the next exit on this highway: the justice-ification of the church.

The conflation of church and culture is surely foolish, and I think, also small. But there is a great Protestant tradition of church by focus group. What I cringe at is the way Christians (progressive Christians in particular, but we are not alone in this), have managed to systematically turn social causes into “justice issues.” We do this with seemingly little self-awareness of the ramifications of these crusades. When we label an issue “justice” we stop working for sensible public solutions and begin brandishing swords. This is never so clear as on social media…

We call the press, issue positions, and forward polemics on our Facebook feeds.

But in the public sphere in a pluralistic society there will always be those who do not endorse our worldview. Can we make room for them? Can we “seek to understand before being understood”? Can we begin with the presumption that people are generally of good will and work from there toward solutions? What if, instead of “justice,” we argued our great disagreements starting with, “How do we find a ‘win’ for everyone?” And, “What will lead to human thriving?” Or better yet, remember that the church is first and foremost a place to worship Jesus Christ. How did the church become ground zero for the activism industry?

“But Matt,” you say, “justice is biblical. The Old Testament prophets spoke truth to power.” Yes, but you are not a biblical prophet, and this is not 2600 years ago. In our day “justice” is not helpful because it can never make room for another. Enraged justice usually results in the shaking of fists and mobs with torches in the night. When we drop the “justice” card then someone is guilty…and they must be punished. “Justice” is not served until the evil is purged.

When we label a disagreement “justice” it generally ends one place: “Burn the witch!”

But I do see examples of hope in the emerging generation of leaders: Two weeks ago a friend who is active in LGBT politics asked me if I would organize a meet and greet between an LGBT political action group and evangelical pastors. Yesterday seventeen young evangelical pastors and thought leaders met with Matthew Vines and others engaged in promoting same-sex marriage. While there was clear theological disagreement, it was a time of relationship building, healing, and mutual respect. Here is another: Next week I will be at a luncheon in the Roman Catholic bishop’s office to discuss spiritual unity between evangelicals and Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is a short way down the hill to Jerusalem. It is a short way from the cross to the tomb. It is a short way from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

But it is also a short way the other direction.

Going from “Crucify!” to “Hosanna!” is the exact same distance. It does take more work, but the Prince of Peace went up to Jerusalem and was crucified so that no one else need be.

Next week we will celebrate the forgiveness of both human and institutional sin on the cross. We could join Jesus in the way of that cross, extending our arms in love to all who are near. Perhaps if we did that, those who are far will see and notice. And the scandal of the church will be swallowed in the scandal of the cross.

As that old Indian priest said that day, “I implore you. Make Ghandi wrong. Be Easter people. May the love of our Lord Jesus Christ so shape and form you that all the world would see his mercy.

 

[1] Out of politeness I will only use examples from my own tribe. Evangelicals and Catholics will be able to think of many of their own examples.

[2] These evils included fracking, pipeline building, driving petroleum based cars, failure to recycle, and the fact that Darren Wilson had not been lynched. (The pastor was white.)