Sunday, April 13, 2014

Invitation to the Cross

As part of my Lenten observation this year, I'm taking a break from writing new blog posts and updating and re-posting earlier material. Today's post was first shared on April 1, 2012.  For another Holy Week post from the past, consider also Thank You for the Cross, April 17, 2011.

Black Crucifixion, Fritz Eichenberg, 1963, New York
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look,
he said.
The son looked. . .

On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it,
As though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

  (from "The Coming," R. S. Thomas)

There is something unsettling about the story of Palm Sunday. Crowds gathered to cheer a likely candidate, one of their own who could draw a crowd, who could take back Jerusalem from the evil empire, who could promote their agendas and ensure their safety.

It’s easy to picture the crowd. The objects waved might be different (flags? pennants? streamers?), but the energy is the same.

It’s not so easy to picture Jesus, riding the donkey through the crowd. Luke says, "as he approached Jerusalem he wept.”

Not normal hero behavior.

Did the crowd notice? Did they wonder why?

With the cheers of the adoring crowd echoing in his ears, Jesus went on to the temple, where he upset the economic order by throwing over tables: money changers, merchants of sacrificial doves, commerce sent scrambling. The accommodating (well-recompensed?) religious leaders were enraged: how dare he?

From there, he went on to tell a series of stories meant to alienate the insiders, the holders of power, those most convinced of their own righteousness.

Then the Passover meal, with talk of sacrifice and death, and the embarrassing scene with the bowl and towel.

Foot Washing,  Gunning King, 1936, UK
It’s an odd story, shifting from adoration, to alienation, to anticipated grief.

There’s nothing in the story that sounds invented, “mythic,” polished.

It’s told in each of the gospels with a sense of quiet amazement, with a raw honesty unexpected in religious text. Facts outlined, dialogue sketched, strange stories reported as the lauded candidate for coming king deliberately dismantles the grand expectations of friends, followers and crowd.

Vinoth Ramachandra, a Sri Lankan who has written and lectured extensively about pluralism, world religions, and the uniqueness of the Christian faith, notes in The Scandal of Jesus: Christ in a Pluralistic World:
If you wanted to convert the educated and pious people of the empire to your cause, whatever that cause may have been, the worst thing you could ever do would be to link that cause to a recently crucified man. To put it mildly, that would have been a public relations disaster. And to associate God, the source of all life, with this crucified criminal was to invite mockery and sheer incomprehension! This was indeed the experience of the first Christians
This message, if true, subverted the world of religion. For it claimed that if you wanted to know what God is like, and to learn God’s purposes for God’s world, you had to go not to the sages, the lofty speculations of the philosophers or to the countless religious temples and sacred groves that dotted the empire, but to a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. The world of the first Christians was every bit as pluralistic, if not more so, than ours- culturally and religiously. But for the Jews a crucified Messiah/Saviour was a contradiction in terms, for it expressed not God’s power but God’s inability to liberate Israel from Roman rule. For pious Greeks and Romans, the idea that a god or son of a god should die as a state criminal, and that human salvation should depend on that particular historical event, was not only offensive, it was sheer madness.
This message, if it were true, also subverted the world of politics. It claimed that Rome’s own salvation would come from among those forgotten victims of state terror. Caesar himself would have to bow the knee to this crucified Jew. It implied that by crucifying the Lord of the universe, the much-vaunted civilization of Rome stood radically condemned. The Pax Romana was a sham peace. Like all imperial projects, it was built on the suffering of the many. And God had chosen to be found among the victims, not the empire-builders. Little wonder that the Christians’ ‘Good News’ (‘Gospel’) was labeled a ‘dangerous superstition’ by educated Romans of the time.
Now, it is the madness of this ‘word of the cross’ that compels us to take it seriously. I am a Christian today because there is something so foolish, so absurd, so topsy-turvy about the Christian gospel that it gets under my skin: it has the ring of truth about it. No one can say that this was some pious invention, for it ran counter to all notions of piety. And nothing was gained by it. All who proclaimed it suffered as a result.
Ramanchandra goes on to explore further the subversive nature of the cross: it subverts not only our ideas of religion and political power, but of self, autonomy, family, tribe, national identity:
White Crucifixion, Marc Chagall, 1938, Russia
"When illustrating what it means to belong to the kingdom of God, Jesus takes as his paradigmatic examples those who had least status in his contemporary society. In a world where children had no legal rights, economic possessions or no social standing, he makes them the model for those who receive the kingdom of God (Matt.18: 1-4; Mark 10: 13-16). When, on the eve of the crucifixion, he washes the feet of his disciples like a household slave, and requires them to do the same for each other (John 13:3-15), he makes slaves the paradigms for leadership in the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God belongs to people such as slaves, the poor, and little children, then others can enter the kingdom only by accepting the same lack of status. The cross brings all human beings, men and women, rich and poor, religious and irreligious, to the same level before God. It is at the foot of the cross, that all human beings, without exception, are revealed as the objects of God’s forgiving and re-creating love. This is the egalitarian politics of grace." 
Jesus doesn’t invite us to Palm Sunday, to a triumphal politics of power, a proud exclusionary religion of exceptional righteousness.

He invites us to the cross, to the foot of the cross, to align ourselves not only with him, but with every marginalized, forgotten, condemned person who ever lived.  He calls us to set aside status, entitlement, self-justifying argument, self-protective agenda, and find a new home in his family of grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, struggling to understand the call of the cross in the face of Nazi fascism, wrote: 
“The Cross is not the terrible end of a pious happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (from  Discipleship and the Cross )
Come and die.
Christ of the Homeless, Fritz Eichenberg, 1982, New York
Jesus said “greater love has no one than this than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. . . This is my command: Love each other.”
The Christian faith is more than words, buildings, organizational structures, theological frameworks, philosophical exposition, like-minded people sharing like-minded values. At its core, the Christian faith is a community of deeply broken, deeply loved people, knit together by allegiance to a dying friend on a distant hill, choosing each day to sacrifice personal preference and self-fulfillment for the needs of a deeply wounded world.

Come and die. Not great ad copy. Not a catchy campaign slogan.

Yet that call sounds across the centuries, and we can trace the outlines of history through the lives of those who have understood and answered that call.

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.