To Die For
Today is Palm Sunday, the day on which we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds welcomed him, only to turn on him a few days later and demand his crucifixion.
Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter Weekend. The events of this week traditionally begin on this coming Thursday night – Maundy Thursday – which remembers Jesus’ final supper with his disciples. Then we begin the downward spiral toward the crucifixion, remembered on Good Friday. On Saturday, we wait. This is the time of the tomb, of uncertainty, grief and hopelessness. And then, on Easter Saturday, we celebrate the ‘eucatastrophe’ of Jesus’ resurrection…the great reversal, the great joke, the mystery and victory of life arising out of death.
In some ways, it’s frustrating to celebrate Easter in the Southern Hemisphere. In the north, where the various symbols around Easter originate, it’s spring now, and the seasonal imagery of new spring life emerging after the seeming death of winter makes sense as an accompaniment to the gospel story of Christ’s resurrection following on from the Lenten fast.
However, here we are, and as it’s autumn, we can reflect instead on the imagery of change and loss that goes along with the more sombre events of Holy Week. Gradually, (and seemingly taking forever this year), the days are growing shorter and the leaves on the trees are beginning to turn and fall.
Jesus entered Jerusalem as a sapling, a lively tree, brimful of greenness. Matthew’s gospel tells how a very large crowd spread their cloaks on the ground to welcome him, and how they sang ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ The crowds anointed Jesus and his ministry with royal imagery, and praised him as a representative of God. The whole city was in turmoil. Jesus, at the height of his authority and strength went straight to the temple and threw out the money changers, healed the sick, taught the people using parables, and flummoxed the religious leaders.
Within a few days, he was dead.
And the same ones who had sung his praises had slunk away back to their normal lives again, their enthusiasm dampened, waiting for the new messiah hopeful to emerge in their midst.
On one level, Jesus’ death was a mistake, a colossal badness, something that should never have happened to this good man. It’s a sign of the corrupt and self-serving power structures of the time, that one who preached love for God and neighbour, and the presence of the Kingdom of God among the lowly, represented a threat great enough that he had to be killed. He was a threat to those with religious power, who managed the rules of purity and separation, and their own authority as mediators of God. He was a threat to those with political power who didn’t like to see the poor and marginal raised up told that God was with them.
But, as the gospels suggest a number of times, on another level, Jesus’ death was a necessity. Something that had a good inevitability about it. Something that as time went on Jesus set his face toward, and accepted.
I think we find a key to understanding this in the imagery of autumn. Imagine a fallen, brown autumn leaf. It’s a good leaf. It served a good purpose on the tree. But in order for the tree that the leaf came from to grow and stay healthy, that leaf had to change colour, and be pushed from the tree, to fall and be trodden underfoot. And for a long time, that tree is going to look dead. But deep inside the tree is the stirring of the sap that is preparing the new leaf to emerge in spring and renew the life of the tree.
Leaf fall is necessary to the rhythm of things, necessary for ongoing life, necessary to create space for the new.
Jesus used a different nature image, that of a grain of wheat. Hear him in John 12:
Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’
Jesus stresses that death is a necessary precursor to the renewal of life. And, it’s not just a one for one relationship between the thing that dies and the thing that lives. In death, the single grain gives rise to much fruit. While alive, it is only one. If it allows itself to die, its effect is multiple.
I think that this has several applications. On the one hand, Jesus is talking about himself. He is facing his ‘hour’ – the time when he will have to fall to earth…his death, which will give rise to eternal life for all who follow him.
On the other hand, he is talking about us, all of us. We are all the grain of wheat that needs to fall into the earth and die, in order that new life might emerge.
We could understand this metaphorically. Throughout our life, there are many things that we have to let go of. While we love our life the way it is, and strive to hold on to it, we will do whatever we can to preserve it without change, and therefore, without growth. If we fear change and loss, we will stagnate, and there will be no life in us. Sometimes, this is about habits, opinions, ways of thinking. Maybe we’re happy with the things we have come to think and believe about God, the world, other people. But life has a way of exposing the limits to our current ways of thinking, and at these times we have a choice…do we allow some of our precious ideas and ideals to die? Or will we hold on to them, at the expense of the growth of our selves?
Sometimes it’s located in our self – in our ego, our image of our selves, and the way we want to perceive ourselves and be perceived by others. In order to grow, we need to let aspects of our former self die, and sometimes this can feel like the most painful process…as we have so much invested in the person we thought we were.
Maybe this kind of challenge comes to us in our work, in some relationships, in our lifestyle…what we do with our time and money. Maybe it comes to us in our community life…where the ways we ‘have always done things’, or our expectations about what we are about as a group have to be put aside for the new thing that God is doing in our midst.
But I don’t want to understand this ‘grain of wheat’ teaching of Jesus’ only in a metaphorical way. Because for many around the world, and at certain times and places in history, following in the way of Jesus also might mean facing actual literal death…or at least a great deal of difficulty or suffering…the sacrificial pouring out of self for a vision that has grasped us.
This Tuesday past, was the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. He died on 4 April, 1968. We remember him as a man with a Christian vision of freedom, and the worth of every human being, regardless of colour, and a man who sought radical social change with a commitment to non-violence. The ‘Dream’ that drove King put him into the path of danger. Here are some things that MLK said, and enacted, about life and death: ‘The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important. If you are cut down in a movement that is meant to save the soul of a nation, then nothing could be more redemptive.’ ‘Everyone should have something to die for. A person who won’t die for something is not fit to live.’
I don’t think that Martin Luther King sought for death. Rather, he sought to live out his vision as faithfully as possible, knowing that this put him in the path of suffering and potentially death. In that sense the heroes are not just those who actually catch the bullet, but also all those who are part of the struggle that attracts the bullet in the first place. Maybe Martin Luther King’s struggle was unique, part of a particular time and place. He was part of a moment and a movement. But I also agree with him that for life to be truly meaningful, it needs to be lived in the service of a vision that’s strong enough for one’s physical life to be held lightly in comparison. In the words of an Iraqi Christian leader: ‘You die when you do nothing, but live when you do something. Everyone dies, but not everyone lives.’ Not many of us will end up in extraordinary situations, not all of us are driven by the passionate need to change things…but living with commitment to our faith will put us on our own personal roads to Jerusalem, no matter how ordinary our lives seem to be.
The other night I was talking with someone about the decline of the church in the West, and how this contrasts with situations in some countries where the church is persecuted, but still on the rise. I do not seek persecution for the Western church. I think that those people in our culture who wish for persecution to make the church vibrant again succeed only in making themselves obnoxious. But I do feel that one reason why the church in the West seems lacklustre and uninteresting is that we have lost that part of our voice that causes discomfort to the status quo. We have accommodated to our culture, by adopting security, affluence and respectability as our trinity of importance. We are no threat to the values that underpin our society. The Western church does not walk the road to Jerusalem. We might engage in the ‘Hosanna’ part of Palm Sunday, but we do not keep on to our death…the death of our social status, or our desire for affluence.
I believe that we need once again to find our voice, the voice that speaks out about injustice, that stands in solidarity with those whom polite society finds offensive and frightening…the sinners and the sick that Jesus healed and loved. Martin Luther King is not a hero because he died, but because he lived in a way that got right up the noses of those who made the unjust and inhumane segregation rules in his country. Mostly, the church in the West today gets up nobody’s nose. And I don’t think that’s because the rules that govern our world are particularly just…but because we’re not soaked enough in the vision of the Scriptures to even know when the things that happen around us are things that Jesus would call us to resist.
Those in the crowd on Palm Sunday were enthusiastic, full of praise, but unable to walk with Jesus toward his death. When the heat went on, the zest went out of their cause. Some called for him to be crucified, others denied him, others scattered in fear. They saw that they might have to die alongside Jesus, and were unwilling to stay with him. Probably, we will not need to die for what we believe. But maybe we will face discomfort, challenge, sacrifice, and loss. Today we opened our worship with the liturgy which included the words ‘Help us to follow you on the road to Jerusalem; to set our faces against friendly suggestions to live a safe, expedient life; to embrace boldly the way of self-offering.’
I pray for each of us, that we can walk our Jerusalem roads faithfully, accepting whatever lies at the end of them, knowing that sometimes, death is necessary to create the conditions for new life. And, that because we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who walked this way before us, we know that death – whether literal or metaphorical - is not the end of any of our roads, but the beginning of eternal life.
On this Palm Sunday, and with a nod to the anniversary of MLK’s death, I’m going to play an old-well-worn track that draws together the sacrificial paths of both of these men. The song invites us to step into a life motivated by love and the vision of the kingdom of God, whatever the sacrifice involved. I invite you as we listen, to reflect again on the words of our opening liturgy. At the end of the song, we will say again the final words in bold.