Embracing the Upside-Down Kingdom of Jesus...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011.  For the first time in 30 years I am not going along with the new/old tradition of emphasizing the passion of Christ.  That is for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  No, we are going back to the old Reformed roots of exploring the Palm Sunday procession, but not from the perspective of triumphalism.  But rather in light of the upside-down kingdom of Christ's humility and God's glory.  If you are around, please join us at 10:30 am.

In St. Paul’s extraordinary letter to the young church of Philippi just 20 years after Christ’s execution on the Cross, we are given a hymn that not only articulates our earliest understanding of who Jesus Christ is as Lord and Savior, but also provides shape, form and meaning to the heart of our worship on Palm Sunday. In what most scholars believe to be the first song to clearly celebrate the upside-down kingdom of Christ’s church, we 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 and 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 – because of his humility and service and compassion and obedience to the Lord – God has now highly exalted him and given 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.

Right there – in all its ancient splendor and glory – is why we gather today on Palm Sunday. This is the day when every knee in the church should bend – and every heart and mind bow on heaven and earth – and every tongue confess that the humble, crucified, compassionate servant of the Lord – Jesus our Christ – is Lord.

• Not Caesar – or Pharaoh – not the Republicans or Democrats. Not the Catholics or the Protestants or the Anglicans or the Orthodox.

• And certainly not the Americans or the Chinese or the military or the corporations or our pension plans or any other power under heaven or on earth.

What did the church in Philippi sing to St. Paul? It is only“… at the name of Jesus that 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.” And today we gather to renew our commitment to worshipping the Lord Jesus as Christ as God’s ambassador into the always radical, constantly challenging, perpetually mind-blowing, eternally healing upside-down kingdom of God. As they say in the Pentecostal tradition: can I get a witness? How about an “amen!”

Now listen carefully, Christian friends, because I understand that this proclamation is not easy – or simple – and certainly contains as many risks in the 21st century as it did a mere twenty years after Christ’s cross. Are you with me here? This is serious business and NOT your ordinary festival of God’s love.

• You see, today – on Palm Sunday – we’re being invited – and it is always an invitation and never coercion, ok – we’re being invited to both name and claim that we are servants of Christ Jesus who endured the Cross for the glory of God.

• Which means we have to spend some time today wrestling with both the Cross and the glory of God for they define the humble, upside-down kingdom of which Christ is Lord.

The cross and God’s glory are at the heart of Palm Sunday – so let’s take a little time to be clear about what they are telling us, ok? Because, you see, both have been so watered-down, fetishized and denigrated that they often have no meaning whatsoever in either the church of our culture. As my friend, colleague and your former pastor, Rick Floyd, has written: “Over the years I have come more and more to view the cross as constitutive for salvation rather than illustrative… that is to say, that the coming of Christ – his life, death and resurrection – has accomplished something rather than merely demonstrated something about God.”

And in our era, we are more often than not unsure just what has been accomplished – especially when the Crucifix has become mere jewelry in popular culture and only 11% of our neighbors participate in any type of regular religious activity. St. Bono or Dublin was on to something, dear people, when he spoke of our time in the song “Vertigo” saying:

Hello – hello – I’m in a place called vertigo – it’s everything I wish I didn’t know – but you (meaning God) give me something I can feel… feel in a time when I can sell the beat as I ask for the check from the girl with Jesus round her neck!

Did you know that in the song, “Vertigo,” U2 includes a passage of scripture from the Ash Wednesday liturgy? After a fiery and chaotic guitar solo in the middle of the song, a haunting and menacing voice is heard over the dance beat intoning: “All of this… all of this could be yours… could be yours… just give me what I want and nobody will get hurt.” Recognize it? It is the voice of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness from Matthew’s gospel – just give me what I want – just fall down on your knees and worship me – and nobody will get hurt.
• Who says that God’s still speaking voice isn’t being heard in the culture even when only 11% of our neighbors attend a church, synagogue or mosque? God doesn’t quit speaking just because people quit listening.

• And what pop culture evangelists like U2 are telling us is that the Cross and God’s glory still matter; we can run, but we cannot hide. We can saturate ourselves in distractions but the destructive way of sin will root us out and confront us and seduce us in ways that will sicken our soul and corrupt the beauty of God’s grace unless…

… Unless we are clear about to whom are knees will bend and our voice confess and which kingdom we will seek: the kingdom of death or the upside down kingdom of God. Jesus – if we are paying attention in this age of vertigo – offers the upside down kingdom of God. And there are three insights about this upside down kingdom that the Palm Sunday texts invite us to affirm that are grounded in the Cross and the glory of God.

First, scholars have observed that, “Jerusalem is not a large city.” As preacher David Ewart puts it, “What the authors of the Bible take for granted and often fail to mention is that while Jesus is parading in on a donkey through one of the back gates, on the other side of the city Pilate is parading in on a war horse accompanied by a squadron or two of battle-hardened Roman soldiers.” (Holy Textures)

• Here is the Cross and God’s glory in miniature: Jesus humbles himself on an ass – the symbol of peace-making – while Pilate parades into town on a war horse – the symbol of empire and intimidation.

• To follow and obey the Lord Jesus, therefore, means we choose the road less travelled – the counter-cultural option – the ethics of peace and humility not the path of cruelty and coercion.

Second, let’s be brutally honest: Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem to die – and not a hero’s death or in an obvious act of rebellion either – but a lonely, ugly, humiliating death as a loser and enemy of the state.Whether or not he consciously comprehended this fate at the start of his ministry – and my hunch is that he did not even if God knew differently – there is no ambiguity on Palm Sunday. Jesus entered Jerusalem to die alone as one betrayed and humiliated. Man, talk about a counter intuitive, counter-cultural, upside down notion of God’s glory, yes?
• Here again is the wisdom of the Cross and God’s glory given to us on Palm Sunday. For theologically speaking we can say that Jesus chose to accept the shame of the Cross only by faith. He trusted that God’s love was bigger than human and social sin.

• You see, he was so saturated in his Jewish tradition – so grounded in the Exodus and Passover liturgies wherein God hears the cry of the oppressed and leads them from pain into the land of milk and honey to say nothing of the stories of the Lord’s providence to Abraham and Isaac and all the prophets – that he trusted in his heart that God would not fail him even if the details of that salvation were murky. 

• And I believe they were profoundly murky as Jesus was looking through a glass darkly, trusting that later he would see face to face.

By faith – by God’s inspiration and grace – Jesus endured the Cross. He didn’t do this all by himself in some super-human act of courage. You know that, right? It was God’s presence within his heart and soul – and prayers and liturgical experience – that allowed him to take on the shame and pain of the Cross. And that is, perhaps, the third insight for today: that same faith and inspiration – that same power from above in the Spirit of God’s holy love – was not just created for Jesus on the Cross.

• It is intended for you and me, too. It comes to us most often as forgiveness of sins – grace – a love we neither deserve nor can earn, but which cleanses and inspires and encourages and fills us with gratitude.

• And when we have been touched by this love – when we know it is real – we know the glory of God from the inside out. And open ourselves to living our lives within the wisdom of the Cross.

Beloved in Christ, we can’t do this ourselves: it is beyond our ability as human beings just as it was beyond Christ’s human nature, too. One of the paradoxical tragedies of our age that works so hard at healing wounded self-esteem and emphasizing individual fulfillment – all of which have their place, mind you – is that we have come to believe that we can do God’s will if we just try hard enough.
• I can’t tell you how many sermons and exhortations I have read in my nearly 30 years of ministry that say if we just try hard enough – and pray deeply enough – and open our hearts honestly enough – we can live as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

• That is, in essence, what the “power of positive thinking” and the mega-church strategy of our generation is all about: think good and positive thoughts and you can accomplish miracles.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a person who looks at the glass and notices that it is always half full not half-empty – I have been convinced through personal experience that cynicism and whining are not of the Lord. But let us be very, very certain that we cannot accomplish the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, the bold and revolutionary love of Jesus or the way and wisdom of the Cross through the power of positive thinking or our own blood, sweat and tears.

No, for this we need the Lord – the Lord’s presence, the Lord’s grace, the Lord’s healing – which St. Paul tells us is always a stumbling block for some and foolishness to all.

• Is that clear?

• Have I made sense of some of the radical, upside-down beauty and challenge of Palm Sunday?

As one beggar who has found solace and bread in Christ Jesus, I’m just trying to tell you what I have found to be true. St. Paul got it right then – and he is still right today. Palm Sunday invites you into the glory of God by…

Thinking of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. But because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father. 
And what was true for Jesus then, is true for us today – and THAT is the good news for those with ears to hear.

1) Jacob Lawrence @ mattstone.blogs.com
2) Romare Bearden @ www.nga.gov/feature/bearden/170-012.htm
3) Gertude Mueller-Nelson @http://www.sundayschoollessons.com/palmsun.htm
4) From BBC @ http://ardwyn.squarespace.com/concerts/2011/1/28/bbc-radio-4-broadcast-palm-sunday-17th-april-2011.html


Philomena Ewing said…
Thanks for this amazing post RJ on so many levels.
Today, by chance I was reading a book called Kissing The Dark by the monk Mark Patrick Hederman and he quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke that fits well with your words: " The cross should not be stamped on us on all occasions like a brand mark...Jesus intended simply to provide the loftier tree, on which we could ripen better...we should not always talk of what was formerly, but theafterwards should have begun..this tree should have become so one with us and by it that we should not need to occupy ourselves continually with it... instead of setting out from the place of the crossroads,.. instead of moving onwards from this place of the cross, Christianity has settled down there and claims that it is living there in Christ"
All Blessings to you and yours this coming week.
Black Pete said…
Hey, thanks, Philomena! Talk to ya tomorrow, James!
RJ said…
So sweet to read this quote from Rilke - one of my favorites - and very, very encouraging to me to know this resonates. I have been thinking about you lots this Lent and holding you in my prayers. Thanks for your good word. And, I look forward to your wisdom tomorrow, too, my man Peter.
Black Pete said…
I think the jury is out on Pastor Rick's suggestion of "constitutive"--perhaps, although that is demonstrated most clearly by the transformation in the survivors' lives afterward.

But I still struggle with the idea of Jesus as the Living Christ (emphasis mine). If he did not die or was alien-kidnapped to heaven to continue to be a presence, then he was not fully human--he was something else-- and to me, he has no spiritual value if he was not fully human.

I very much gravitate toward the freely-given Grace idea, having experienced it personally and around me. And maybe I should add that i am not a person of belief, but rather a person of experience in faith matters. The above might be a reflection of my not having experienced the Christ.
RJ said…
Well, Peter, I agree that Jesus had to be fully human - but does that automatically negate the Living Christ part? I don't think so. For most of my life, I have wrestled with this notion, too; and have clearly experienced the Living Christ from the inside out. My understanding of this experience continues to seek words and is rarely satisfied with most of the traditional explinations of atonement.

At the same time, however, I suspect that these all too limitted explinations were/are rooted in their own time and context and served as a work in progress that have now out lived their usefulness. I am going to try to go deeper into this notion that something "constituitive" took place in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus over the next few days - yet another work in progress - that takes seriously the theological work to date as well as their respective gaps. We shall see...
Black Pete said…
I think something "constitutive" (neat word) is happening now and that God has its fingerprints all over it, though not in a way the Religious Right would appreciate or have us believe.

You've just shed a bit of light for me: I realize that I am struggling with a certain exclusivity I observe in Jesus' life and divinity, as portrayed in nearly all the theology I've read and certainly in the Greek Testament.

I find myself trying to escape that gravitational pull and trying to find an orbit that allows for what Pastor Rick calls something "constitutive" (just gotta use that word again!)happening in a host of people and all around and within us, without pinning it solely on a Judean prophet murdered 2000 years ago.

I believe that God is acting now and galvanizing people now as much as then, and in a very real way, I see Christology and Cross-tology as a distraction. Incarnation? That's us! If we deny our divinity and carnality and focus on Jesus' divinity exclusively, we lose something critically important to realizing God's desire for the world and in our own redemption.

I remain in the camp (though on the fringes trying to keep my tent from blowing away) of the "illustrative" way of looking at Jesus' life in how I am to act in this plane of existence. That said, there is no doubt that he was as much an event as a person.

Hmm, just remembered Bucky Fuller's dictum that God is a verb...
RJ said…
One of the most complex challenges of ministry - for me - is the both/and aspect of Jesus and other traditions. I resonate with you in trying to break down the barriers, but I can't let go of the unique insights I have experienced in Christ. I don't have very good replies to the issues you have raised; I am currently part of a quartet of Christians and Jews trying to understand what we mean when we each talk about prayer and blessing and incarnation. Often we have different words to mean similar things; and sometimes we are just operating from very different places.

I think I want to go deeper with this, Peter, but it is going to have to wait until after Easter for me, yes? Even as I explore more of the nuances of atonement...
Black Pete said…
Yes, after Easter.

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