Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday Homily

(St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield)
They’re still around in some places, but not like they used to be. I’m talking about those neon signs that proclaim in brightly glowing letters, “Jesus Saves.” Usually they decorated the roofline of an urban church building, and were often in the shape of a cross. Invariably, they signified a particular style of theology, and a particular genre of Christian piety.

Jesus saves. I don’t see the Chapter putting a neon sign on the roof of the Cathedral to that effect. But, nonetheless, I hope we believe it. It’s a pretty clear inference in the words of the Nicene Creed. And the expression raises a good question, one that needs to be asked: What, precisely, are we saying about Jesus, and about ourselves, when we affirm that “Jesus saves”?  How does Jesus save those whom he saves? These questions consumed the church during the third and fourth and fifth centuries, when the language of the Nicene Creed and other doctrinal statements was being hammered out. And again in the sixteenth century, the nature of salvation and what it means to say that Jesus saves us lay at the heart of the controversy among western Christians now known as the Protestant Reformation. And at any other time in the history of Christianity, the question has never been far from the front burner.

Jesus saves. One theological approach to what this means focuses on Jesus as an innocent victim, one who suffers in dignified silence at the hands of evil men. We’ve just read St Mark’s version of those events. The late Reginald Fuller, who was a very heavy hitter among Anglican New Testament scholars, suggested that the material we read came originally from two different literary sources that were combined by the St Mark into the form that we now have. One of these literary sources may have read something like this:
They led him away to crucify him. They brought him to a place called Golgotha. They crucified him, and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. With him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left.
These phrases, taken by themselves, emphasize the “lamb led to the slaughter” aspect of the Passion, and, in fact, may actually be calculated to echo passages like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. In the late Middle Ages, this angle of interpretation reached a sort of high point, with ultra-realistic crucifixes that looked like they were dripping real blood, and with the cultivation of intentional devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mel Gibson’s controversial film from 2004 certainly tapped into this tradition. And you may recall those T-shirts that depicted Jesus as a weight lifter, with the caption, “Bench press this: The Sin of the World.” Apart from the style in which it’s expressed, however, there is a theological nugget to be mined here: Anything that the powers of sin and death can throw, they threw at Jesus. He bore it all; he bore it willingly and quietly as an innocent victim, and his self-offering is sufficient in the eyes of God the Father. Jesus is indeed the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and brings us God’s peace.
But this is not the only way of saying what needs to be said. Another approach, rather than emphasizing the innocent suffering of Jesus, the victimhood of Jesus, interprets the cross as the venue of a cosmic, universe-shattering battle between God and forces of Evil.  If we look at the other literary strand that Dr Fuller suggests was woven into St Mark’s gospel, we get a narrative that would go something like this:
It was the third hour when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ Those who passed by derided him. Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. When the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. At the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice and breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
There’s nothing here about the suffering and innocent victimhood of Christ. This is consistent with earlier medieval views of the significance of the cross, when artistic representations of the crucifixion had an other-worldly, almost abstract, quality to them, rather than focusing on blood and pain. Jesus is in control, even as he is nailed to the cross. Indeed, he is often depicted in a fashion such as we have in the reredos over the altar right here—as a victorious king and priest, reigning from the tree. It’s all working out according to plan. He is in the very act of ransoming the human race from captivity by his death, Jesus satisfying the just demands of a holy God on our behalf, Christ triumphant and victorious and crucified all at the same time.  

Jesus saves, and we have two views of how he does it, one seeing Christ as a victim, and one seeing Christ in control. And they’re both true! The second view, “Christ in control,” if considered alone, can certainly become overly abstract. It can turn the whole event into something resembling an epic movie plot, maybe something like Star Wars, with a cast of thousands, intricate and subtle symbolism, and a fully-orchestrated musical score. It gets our adrenalin going, but, unfortunately, it can be difficult to see ourselves in stories like that. It can be difficult for us to connect the story to our real day to day lives and our real day to day needs.  So we need to see the real suffering of the real human Jesus, the innocent victim who feels the bite of the whip and the pounding of the nails and the agony of abandonment by his followers and even, in the moment of his death, by God. It is this real suffering that authenticates the cosmic triumph of the cross.

But the first view, “Christ as victim,” if considered alone, turns Jesus’ suffering into a mere feeling-fest, dripping with emotion and little else. This leads to an overly-sentimentalized and introspective spirituality. When I was a child, before I understood anything about sacraments and how they enable us to participate in the mystery of our redemption, I used to approach Holy Communion with a sincere effort to stir up some very deep feelings, imagining giving up even one piece of my own flesh the size of a piece of communion bread for somebody else’s sake, and then comparing that to Jesus being nailed to a cross and bleeding to death for my sake.  Without the corrective balance of the cosmically triumphant cross, “Christ as innocent victim” eventually becomes merely an ineffective moral example, one that does not particularly inspire us to imitate it.

These two understandings of the meaning of cross, the meaning of “Jesus saves,” need one another. Yes Jesus saves me from the eternal consequences of my sin, expressing God’s great love for me in the magnitude of his suffering on the cross. But this salvation is made possible because Jesus was doing cosmic battle on the cross, defeating the forces of sin and death by absorbing their full horror.

One of my favorite Latin poets is a fifth century fellow named Venatius Honorius Fortunatus. He puts it, of course, better than I ever could:

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow,
Where he who through our flesh was made,
In that same flesh our ransom paid.
O tree of beauty, tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear,
Gone is thy shame, each crimsoned bough
Proclaims the king of glory now.
O cross, our one reliance, hail!
Still may thy power with us avail
To save us sinners from our sin,
God’s righteousness for all to win.

In other words, Jesus saves. Amen.

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