A sermon for Palm Sunday, 2017
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an acclaimed theologian of the twentieth century. He became iconic after his martyrdom at the hands of Hitler’s Nazi government, shortly before the end of the second World War. According to Bonhoeffer, it was not necessary that Jesus should suffer alone, but that he should be rejected. Rejected by the authorities, secular and religious; rejected by his friends, Judas and Peter and the others; rejected by the very people who on Palm Sunday had cheered him into town in a parody of a parade, riding on a donkey.
There is a distinction here between suffering and rejection. Had he only suffered, Jesus might still have been applauded as the Messiah. All the sympathy and admiration of the world might have been focused on his passion. It could have been viewed as a tragedy with its own intrinsic value, dignity, and honour. But in the passion Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory.[i]
Such rejection was inevitable, given that Jesus is ahead of his time, and beyond it; because he is the ultimate image of God made human. He is everything to which we aspire and everything which we deny within ourselves. His rejection was inevitable.
It was necessary, in order that we should know that he is not king because we made him one. He is not Truth because we believe in him. He is not Life because we let him live. He is not the Way because we follow him. He was not elected on a wave of populism and celebrated at rallies across the nation – it is easy to see where Bonhoeffer’s imagination was running over to self-anointed, popularly-appointed leaders of men.
The rejection of Jesus was necessary because we would still need to know, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, that Jesus is Lord not because of us, but despite us. That his Truth endures whether or not we believe it. That his Way is not the path of least resistance, but the lonely and lunatic way of the cross.
Even the resurrection was not a popular story, to begin with. They tried to bury it before it had even happened. Those whom we reject, they felt, should remain as quiet as the grave, out of sight, out of mind, off of our collective conscience.
It is that mindset that allows us to weep for the children of Syria, to express our outrage in an act of measured violence, all the while continuing to reject the applications of their siblings for refuge. It allows us to mourn the children of Newtown, while defeating any attempt to rein in the proliferation of the weapons that allowed their efficient slaughter. It is the mindset that writes off whole regions of the African continent threatened by famine, and whole cities of our own country where the water is poisonous to yet more small, brown children.
The prayerful gymnastics of Palm Sunday and the Passion, in which Jesus is welcomed into town as the Messiah and crucified as a madman are the prayers of a people who have decided ahead of time what is the mind of God, and whose side God is on. It is a mindset exemplified by a rigid adherence to the belief that we are right, that God is on our side. When it is challenged – when Jesus turns over the temple tables, for example, or allows himself to be taken prisoner without violence, turning the other cheek, absorbing evil to turn it to good, embodying death in order to turn it to life; such measures we reject out of hand.
It is much easier to decide in advance the direction of Jesus and his destination of glory than to follow in the way of the cross.
Jesus had to be rejected so that we would know that we did not make him in our own image, sanctified and glorified and altogether unreal, bearing no relation to those middle-eastern men weeping on our television screens. Jesus had to be rejected so that he would be remembered not as the hastily-crowned leader of the moment, before whom we spread our coats and branches of palms; not as the leader that we want, but as the saviour that we need.
You have heard it said that it was all about politics, his arrest and trial; that it was all about religion; that it was all about the afterlife, or justice in the here and now. But life is more than politics, more than religion. The life that God has given us spans eternity, and it is not divided into then and now, but in God it always is.
That is the life that Jesus led: always and in all things remembering from whom he came, in whose image he was made, to whom he would be restored. Loving God more than self, putting the interests of others before his own. It is such a perfect way that too often we reject it as unreasonable, unattainable, unworkable in the real world.
In the real world, we say, there is danger and there is terror and we cannot be too careful. But the real world is God’s world, and it was into our reality that Jesus came. He knew danger. He knew terror. He knew the outrages perpetrated by Pilate, mass murder by the roadside. He knew all too well the real pain and suffering of rejection, and still, he insisted that the way of the cross was the way of God: the way of sacrifice, of love beyond any reasonable boundaries, and mercy beyond any measure of our justice. No wonder we rejected him.
In the end, of course, the resurrection proved him right; and that is how we are able to return time and again to the streets of Jerusalem, strewing palms in his way, hoping each time that this time, we will not be called to follow him to the cross, but might be able to skip straight to the resurrection.
But he rejected our calls to save himself. He rejected our populism and the prophets who cry “Peace!” where there is no peace. He rejected our glory so that we might know the true glory of God: the compassion that passes our comprehension, the love big enough to break our hearts; the peace that still surpasses our understanding.
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan, translated edition 1949), 95-96