Monday, April 2, 2012
The death that gives us life...
Palm Sunday can be a confusing day to a people accustomed to getting what we want when we want it. Often, what we seek is to feel good about things, about ourselves, about life in general. But Christianity is not a feel good faith. Christianity is the religion of the cross. Period. Not a cross on your way to glory, not a cross first and then glory, not glory to make up for the cross. Just the cross.
Did the crowds on Palm Sunday have a hint how this story would play out? Even though we know how the story ends, we still struggle with a message that proclaims Christ and Him crucified as the heart and soul of Christianity. This is certainly no self-esteem faith or self-worth faith or self-help faith. Just the opposite, this Gospel first strips away the layers which we use to hide the truth of sin and its death. They strip them all away until nothing is left to boast about. Other religions are for living or propping up life. Christianity is for dying and for the life that made possible by death.
If you want a self-help faith try Judaism. It is no wonder that the advice columnists tend to be Jewish. Rabbi's are full of life's little tidbits designed to improve you. Not Christianity; it is cross centered. If you want a religion of black and white, right and wrong, justice not mercy, then try Islam. Rules have consequences in Islam and there is not much room for mercy. Not Christianity; it expects mercy. If you want a spiritual religion, try Eastern religions or mysticism or New Age stuff. Nothing is more self-satisfying than spending your time thinking about you, pampering you, being you... Not Christianity; it is not about us but about the Christ who died for us. If you want a religion of self help and a better life today, try America's favorite TV preacher. He'll help you find happiness and won't bother you too much about things religious. Not Christianity; it does not promise a better today but it does bestow and eternal tomorrow.
Christianity is the religion of the cross and of the Christ who suffered there. The Pharisee feels good about himself looks for a faith that affirms him. The Publican can't stand himself; he looks for a faith that has something to other his nothing. Christianity is not for Pharisees full of pride but it is blessed hope for rejoicing for the Publicans who come empty and with nothing to boast about except the mercy of God revealed in the cross... who come guilty seeking forgiveness... who come lamenting their failures seeking freedom from their captivity to screwing it all up... Christianity is the religion not of me but of Christ, not of living good until death but of dying that gives life.
The cross reminds us that God does keep score even if we don’t. Sin counts. Death is not made up, it is real – the very real consequence of sin. We would instinctively prefer an Easter without a Good Friday but they must go together. Lent and Easter are not a choice. You only get to Easter through the cross and apart from the cross Easter is a fragile balloon of hope waiting to be popped. In contrast, a cross shaped Christian is as solid as a rock, resting not on self but on Christ. Faith born of a desire for self-improvement will come and go buy faith resting on God’s promised kept in Christ will never move.
Interestingly, Mark’s Gospel shows us only the cross, only the Christ of the cross. There is no real Easter story in Mark. No triumph except the cross and no glory but the glory of the cross. Only people as frightened by the prospect of life as they are fearful of the reality of sin and its death. There is no happy ending to this story. Jesus always dies. It always ends this way. But it this ending which is not our shame but our hope, the death that pays for sin, that gives birth to life, and has power to redeem every lost and condemned person.
An old Roman poet once said, "I wish no trouble on anybody but I am grateful when it befalls someone else – other than me." Christians do not sigh with relief at Christ’s cross – as if "boy are we lucky; somebody had to die but I am sure glad it wasn't me." We come to hail our King because we are amazed that it could be anybody but me. Only a God whose love is the greatest power of all could suffer, die, and be laid in a grave for us. You cannot skip the cross on your way to the empty tomb. There is no empty tomb unless there be the cross.
So we wave our palms and shout hosanna today not because it might not end in death; we shout hosanna and wave our palms because it ends in death – the death he died so that forgiveness, life and salvation might be fully ours. The cross which was thought was the back door of death turned out to be the front door of life.
The Palm Sunday story holds no surprise. Jesus comes a king to die as a king. We killed Him. But that is not that bad ending – that is exactly why He came. He came to die on a cross for us, a cross that was made by us. And it is precisely His death that gives us life.