The Way of Life, The Way of Death
Palm Sunday, March 25,2018
Mt. 26:20-23, 25-30; Mt. 26:31-35, 69-75; Mt. 27:29-31 and Lk. 23:39-43
Just before they enter the Promised Land, at the very end of his life, Moses says to the people ‘I put before you the way of life and the way of death. Choose life.’
The story of the passion is written that way. Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem, the center of power, the Holy City (named ‘the City of Peace), so full of compromise and bloodshed- as intricate and contradictory as human nature itself.
Jesus comes with moral purpose, with spiritual integrity to the marketplace, to the Roman Imperial palace and he is met with cunning that comes from men used to the exercise of ruthless power.
Jesus gathers his disciples. The spiritual path is intimate. It is a deeper friendship that you form with people that you can pray with and pray for, people that you can trust to inspire and encourage you. It is never a big group, only big enough for you to be genuinely personal and humane. The authentic spiritual path is intimate.
He brings the disciples together and feeds them, physically and spiritually. They are gathered for the Passover that remembers the God liberating the Israelites from slavery and granting them freedom. It is the story of the Israelites becoming a people. This is the spiritual message.
God wants us all to be part of God’s family. God wants to nourish us, bless us like a spiritual family, where everyone has a place at the table and we are at peace.
But the way of his death will be determined by the crowd that will chant ‘crucify him’, ‘crucify him’. They are anonymous, impersonal, inhumane. Hannah Arendt said that when she was in Germany in the early thirties as the fascists were coming to power, they stumbled on the way that you can turn an atomized crowd into ‘the anonymous masses’.
The Nazi’s used huge marches at night, led by torches, surrounded by bonfires. It allowed people to lose themselves in anonymity.
They gave themselves permission as a group to think and do things they could never justify alone, as part of this great anonymous group, in the night air, more open to suggestion, more emotional than rational, your individual ego dissolving into the movement that you feel yourself to be a part of.
And when they simple dissolved into this ‘mass movement’, they lost their normal moral and spiritual sense of responsibility. It was exhilarating for a generation that was spiritually aimless. They were part of a movement, the people, the Volk, the soul of Germany was awakening and they were part of it.
Then it turned, seemingly just like the furies had been unleashed- fear unto loathing that morphed into bigotry and hate that morphed into wanton violence on Kritallnacht in 1938 smashing shops and Jewish neighborhoods to purge the Jews from the Volkland.
No one individual was responsible for it and they had a hard time explaining it later. It was a group thing that took over, they said.
Jesus embodies the way of life as humane and personally responsible. He is a servant leader, inspired by a cause, the Kingdom of God. He is humane and humble. He prays, “let this cup pass from me”. He doesn’t want to die.
And then he prays again, “not my will but thine”. He realizes that it is not about him. He is part of something larger than himself and his perk’s, something bigger than his own safety, even his life.
Out of many missions, he seems to have increasingly singular focus about doing what God wants him to do. He wants to find the divine way, not just his way.
The way of death, the Gospel writers depict in the 2 dimensional caricatures of the religious leaders like Caiaphas and the political leaders like Pilate and Herod. They dispatch Jesus for Barabas, not for justice, but out of expedience to appease and control the crowd.
They are 2 dimensional, like the utter banality of the faceless bureaucrats of the Soviet apparatchik that impersonally processed so many thousands of ordinary Russians through the Gulag, without recourse or memory, they just disappeared as Solzhenitsyn described in deadening detail.
They dismiss Jesus. They treat him with contempt, looking for what it is that he wants, this would be Messiah as if that is the only level of discourse they are capable of considering. They have the soldiers mock him. “So you are the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks derisively, now that Jesus is firmly in their control.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus responds to Pilate, “I came to proclaim the Truth”. And Pilate responds, “Ah, yes… the Truth… Tell me ‘what is the Truth?’”
Jesus embodies the way of life. He has the courage of his convictions. This part of the story is told through the plot line of Roman destiny, as though it had to be this way. It seems like that in retrospect anyway.
But Jesus gets more singular in his purpose as he moves towards the Cross, like he is preparing to endure more hardship, like he is increasingly focused on doing God’s will rather than his own, come what may.
And so would his disciples, (You and me) except for the fear. We forget how fear changes people.
Peter, the symbolic every disciple, the man on whom Jesus would build his church, so to speak. Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed. And they all deny the possibility as one person speaking. Tell us ‘who’ will betray you?
And Jesus has the enigmatic response, the “one who dips his bread in the dish with me.” In other words, all of you. Every single disciple dips their bread in the same dish physically. Spiritually, before Jesus dies, every single follower will fade away. Some fall asleep, some run away, some curse his name. And in the end, he is left, in the utter solitary aloneness of his own death on a cross. Not one disciple left in the end.
Peter, speaking for all of us, says, “I will never betray you. Though everyone else will fall away, I promise you never.” But in the course of the next 24 hours, he will deny Jesus 3 times and the last time, he will curse his name.
Peter would be so brave and we all would, except we forget about the fear that comes from life and death challenges. We underestimate how much that is going to change us in the moment.
I remember sitting with a good friend from college, a doctor, after he’d received a terminal cancer diagnosis. He looked at me and said, “You would think that with all the people I’ve walked through this, I’d somehow be prepared for this moment but it is not like that is it?” No, it is not.
Courage is what stands us up. It is the divine moral force that transcends us when fear overwhelms us under mortal threat. We underestimate how powerful that fear can really be, how few of us can find our higher selves, our resolve, surrounded by fear.
Fear leads to betrayal in this story. And so does misunderstanding, that other perennial in human conflict.
If Peter is the symbol of fear, Judas is the symbol of misunderstanding. In the Gospel accounts Judas gets dispatched, like he is the really, really bad guy. But then, he died and didn’t get to tell his side of the story.
Scholars today think it is most likely that he just misunderstood Jesus like just about everyone else. They wanted a political Messiah, someone that would overthrow Imperial Rome and give them all freedom.
Scholars think Judas handed Jesus over, assuming that Jesus would reveal his real revolutionary mission and fight back and miraculously overwhelm them. It makes more sense of what we generally know of the many revolutionary groups that thought like this at the time of Jesus.
Judas thought he was doing a good thing like the spark that gets the fire going. Only it didn’t turn out the way that he wanted, our misunderstanding never does. In this case, as is so often the case with misunderstanding, it turned out tragically, so tragic that Judas accidentally gets Jesus killed.
And Judas becomes so despondent over what has happened and the role that he played, that introjects shame, anger, guilt and kills himself as a result.
Fear, misunderstanding, betrayal, brokenness… it is the way of death in our lives.
And so Jesus embodies the way of life, the way of reconciliation. He manifests this way of being all the way through to the end.
Only in the Gospel of Luke, we have a symbolic dialogue of Jesus on the cross, in pain, near death. The criminals around him. One of them makes a confession. And Jesus forgives him. Jesus blesses him. Jesus says, “Today you shall be with me in paradise”. Jesus remains the power of reconciliation to the end of life, in death, and in resurrection.
The way of life, if you work with humans, is the way of reconciliation. It is the way of forgiveness. It is the way of putting back together that which was broken. It is the divine way because we humans have such a hard time actually doing it.
We’d like to be reconciled, but we can’t quite do it. The human way… more often ends in tension, in court, in stony silence, in violence, in tragedy, in alcoholic numbness.
Jesus taught us in the gospel of Luke a parable about the Prodigal Son but it was really a parable about the loving Father. God is like an ever patient Parent, a Father that is waiting, looking down the road, hoping we will come to our senses, waiting for us to come to our senses. “And while the boy was far off” so the parable goes “the Father runs down the road to welcome him home. God comes after us in reconciliation.
It is the divine way and when Jesus embodies it, all through his life, right up through injustice, being spit upon, ridiculed, tortured, we said of Jesus, like the Roman soldier confesses at the very end of his life, “Surely this man is the Son of God.” We can’t be like this, this is like superhuman.
And indeed it is. And you can’t do it alone. But the story teaches us that if we open ourselves to God’s Spirit, if we let God transcend our human limitations, perhaps we can surprise even ourselves.
God will give you the power to choose the way of life.
And God wants to welcome you home. God wants to put things back together. God wants to put a robe on you and bless you. God wants to celebrate you and make a party because this alienation has been reconciled, whatever it was that has caused this rift has been overcome and been healed.
You are a child of God. An ambassador of God’s reconciliation. Choose the way of life. Live transcendently, eternally.
Be healed. Heal as you go. Make this the center of how you live. And may peace be with you.