“The Commitment to Love”

March 24, 2013


Luke 19:28-40


In recent decades there has been a growing call by some in our churches to use this Sunday before Easter to read and reflect upon the entire story of the Passion during worship. After all, we know the reality: many people can’t, or simply don’t, attend worship services on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. As a result, they miss out on the story and the sorrow that leads ultimately to the proclamation and the joy of Easter. So, it is suggested, let us use this day to put it all out before the assembled congregation. Start with the palms and the donkey and the entrance into Jerusalem, yes.  But keep going. Tell of the meal on Thursday, recount the betrayal and arrest in the darkness of that night, then the crucifixion and burial of Jesus on Friday.

Certainly there is something in this argument to commend it—for it is hard to celebrate the victory of Easter if we have avoided the defeat of Good Friday. But those who make this case miss another reality and another need. We will do well as Christians if we enter the week before us cautiously and proceed through it humbly and slowly. We benefit by listening to and looking closely at what happens when Jesus first enters Jerusalem. Only then can we fully appreciate the events that we will remember later this week.

We are disturbed by this story of acclamation that turns into an account of betrayal and arrest, trial and crucifixion, death and burial. Still, we must confess that all too often in our history as Christian people, this disturbance caused troubled hearts to take hateful actions.

Roman authorities sentenced and executed Jesus. As Jesus told his followers in Luke’s gospel, he would be handed over to the Gentiles and they would kill him. His crucifixion resulted in the threat of persecution and death for all who followed him.

Attempting to defend themselves and to gain some standing in a dangerous world, the early Christians often maintained that Jesus was innocent of any crime against Rome. They explained his crucifixion as the result of a Roman ruler bowing to pressure from religious leaders. Pilate, however, was known not for being weak and indecisive but for what one ancient writer called his “corruption, his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and unconvicted and his never-ending and gratuitous inhumanity.”

The horrible reality is that when Christians gained power, they—we—went on the offensive and a twisted and hateful reading of the Passion story led to the persecution of the Jewish people. This happened throughout the year, and Holy Week has been a time for some of the worst acts of anti-Semitism.

The story we tell throughout this week carries with it a disturbing history. As we begin this final week in Lent, as we watch while Jesus enters Jerusalem, we are called to repentance, to humility.

Let us, then, slow down. Let us take just one small portion of our story this morning.

As the week begins, listen once more. Listen to what Luke’s Gospel describes as a multitude praising God joyfully with a loud voice. Seeming to echo the song of the angels at Jesus’ birth , they cry out: “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

This noisy crowd around Jesus is the first thing that captures our attention. How large is it? Does it fill the streets of Jerusalem as in the movies? We don’t know. Some suggest that it may only have been a couple of dozen people.

We do know that, whatever the size, this group of Jewish people protects Jesus in the days ahead. We might even wonder if the Pharisees in the crowd who ask Jesus to silence his followers are simply trying to stop the people from getting out of hand and calling too much attention to this nonviolent opponent of Roman rule. Throughout the week, the people keep coming out to listen to Jesus, even as he infuriates the religious and civil authorities.

The voices we hear get our attention.

Now, look once more. Look carefully at what’s going on because with all the noise and the crowd it’s often easy to miss what’s important on this day.

Look at Jesus, who some time ago set his face toward Jerusalem.  Look at Jesus as he heads into the city. What we see is one human being pursuing his course with resolute determination.

It could have been different. Jesus could have stayed in relative obscurity and complete safety. Instead he made the difficult decision to act in accordance with his calling to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to proclaim the year of God’s favor. He could have quit—at any time. Instead, as it has been said, he did not flinch at the critical moment.

Later this week we will look at the death of Jesus. But first we must look at how Jesus lived—so that we might enlarge our own ideas of both living and dying. Death is more than the last moment of life. We die all our lives. While in one sense, we live into always expanding possibilities, in another sense life begins to be limited from the moment we are born, and continues acquiring limitations until we come to the last, final limit.

Look at the life of Jesus—how he took up the conflicts of life, how he embraced the journey of life. Jesus embraced death just as he embraced whatever life brought him—his joys and his sorrows, his conflicts and his confrontations for the sake of his message and his life, his way of living.

When we look at the Jesus who enters Jerusalem to the acclaim of the multitude after three years of teaching and healing, in the midst of increasing conflict and threat, what we see is commitment—the result of faith that dares to act with no iron-clad assurance of success.

We need to take our time, we need to pause as this week begins because when we listen to the Palm Sunday story too quickly, we can get the mistaken idea that everything will work out.

The disciples obey Jesus. They go into the next town. They find the colt just as Jesus said they would. Even when they meet with some resistance—the owner who asks, “Why are you untying this animal”—a few words overcome the obstacles that they face.

Everything seems to work out.

With Jesus on the colt the group heads toward Jerusalem. Heaven and earth meet as the people cry out: “Glory in the highest heaven.”

Everything seems to work out.

Many would like to live in such a world.

Some people see this as a model for the life of faith. Do what God tells you and everything will work out. But this is what we might call a “Discover Card” faith—a faith that pays you back with good fortune and a smooth flowing life. This is life without the valleys of shadows, a life without the long, dark nights that all of us have known. It is a life of faith without the limit of death that we know in part and will know fully.

We know the whole story of this week. And we know that everything does not work out.

We live, not with a promise of certainty but with a call to commitment—the commitment of love. Reinhold Niebuhr said that “Basically, love means responsibility toward our family, toward our nation, even toward all humankind, which includes our enemies.”[1] Love honors the commitments that we make even in the face of all that would stop us. Love does not depend on “everything working out.” It acts with responsibility even in the adversity that can be all too familiar.

This love to which we are called moves toward forgiveness—the awareness of our own sinfulness that gives us the humility, the strength, and the ability to forgive others.

I invite and even encourage you to join us for worship this coming Thursday. Our worship on that night is one of the high points of our life together as a congregation. New members and long-time members, everyone in between and those who are on the edges of our community gather to remember the events that make us a congregation and continue to nurture our individual and common spirits. We will hear the story of the meal that Jesus shared before his death and share in that same meal. Take the time—make the time—to be a part of this service of worship that is so important for us as a congregation.

And if you are able, given your schedule, join us at noon on Friday.

But I also want to invite you to do something else for yourself this week.

Make some time to sit down and read through the story of this last week of Jesus in one of the four gospels. You will discover in each Gospel a different picture of the one Jesus who entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

Matthew and Mark draw a stark picture of the human abandonment of Jesus that is dramatically reversed by God at the end.

Luke shows us a Jesus who heals even as he is broken, who forgives even as he is cursed, and who dies commending his spirit to God.

And John presents Jesus going almost defiantly to the cross, always in control, whose final words area solemn decision: “It is finished.”

It is possible for people with very different needs to find meaning in the cross.

Sometimes we cry out with the Jesus of Matthew and Mark: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” and find that, despite appearances, God is listening and can reverse tragedy.

At other moments, suffering finds meaning in our being able to confidently entrust ourselves into God’s hands, as Jesus does in Luke.

At still other times, with the faith we find in John’s Gospel, we understand that suffering and evil have no ultimate power over those who are God’s children.

If we will go through the days ahead with humility and repentance, we will discover that we are walking on a path of commitment and love. On this path we commit ourselves and our energies to a world where love, peace, a community of sister and brothers, and openness to God, will be possible if not less difficult for us. It means that we will turn from situations that generate hatred, division, and the practical atheism that surrounds us. It means we will proclaim—and practice in that love—justice in family relationships, in schools, in our economic transactions, and in political relations.

In this world truth and justice, love and beauty—even incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth—can be defeated and trampled down. Evil is strong indeed.

Our hope is not in positive thinking. Our hope is not in looking on the bright side and waiting for spring.

Our hope is in God’s power to begin again, in God’s power to renew destroyed lives. Our hope is found in the continual springtime of God’s mercy.

We are often defeated.

Even Jesus was defeated and died.

God however is not defeated.

But that is Easter. And we have much to learn in the days to come before we once again face the empty tomb.

May the crucified and risen Christ continue to lead our way.

[1] Justice and Mercy, pg. 35.