Lent Course – Text

25/3/18 Palm Sunday “The Way of the Cross”
Philippians 2.5-11 John 12.12-19

Anne and Betty have been turning heads today on the Square. Why? Because they are donkeys and donkeys are a novelty. We don’t see donkeys around our streets. However, we shouldn’t imagine that a donkey in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus would turn any heads. A donkey then was like a Skoda now. A dull, reliable beast of burden that nobody notices.

It’s not that Jesus is making a show of humility. He isn’t making a show at all. He’s coming to do a job. He’s arriving as a workman and soon he will say it is finished.

Like any workman, all he asks for is a brew every now and then. His focus is on the job sheet, or what he calls ‘my Father’s will’.

If you had known nothing about Jesus, you wouldn’t have given him a second look. But the people did know him, enough to have expectations. And even though everything about his entry said the opposite, they hailed him as if he were a conqueror arriving on a war horse to take the city.

The job was to suffer and to die. And we hear today’s story and pray using the words of our collect, ‘grant that we may follow the example of his patience and humility’.

Be careful what you pray for. It is a prayer that we may walk in the way of the cross. And I’m not sure we believe that is the way for us. We can tend to think that Jesus became low and suffered so that we don’t have to.

After all, our epistle tells us that Jesus’ humility and obedience to death were followed by his exaltation to the highest place – and aren’t we raised with Christ?

Doesn’t that sound as if Jesus is no longer the servant, the humble workman, but the boss at the top of the ladder? He has status. He is given the name that is above every name.

It’s worth thinking about that phrase, ‘the name that is above every name’. I could be pedantic and say it makes no sense. For the highest name can’t be higher than itself. So it can’t be above every name – it can only be above every other name.

You say, ‘Oh come on, it’s a figure of speech’ – and of course you are right. And that is the point. All figures of speech break down if you apply them literally. And that’s why they are a very good way of speaking about God. Indeed, the only way to speak about God is by using figures of speech – by using metaphor, or simile, or analogy.

God can’t be held within our language. How can the Word, the one who is the source of all meaning and language, be described by that language?

The second commandment forbids us to make graven images, and we normally interpret that to mean images of wood or stone, but it’s equally true of words.

We can speak of God, and we can speak truthfully, but we should never imagine that any form of words captures the whole truth. That’s one reason why we sing. We make music because the words are never enough.

So we shouldn’t imagine there is a literal hierarchy of names, where Jesus has been given the top name, equal with God. God is not a member of any list. He is the reason there are lists.

To speak of Jesus as now exalted is saying something true and important about him being now present with God, sharing the divine life, utterly one with God. But it is absolutely not to say that he is no longer humble or a servant. John the evangelist is at pains for us know that whenever we see Jesus, we see God. And that includes when we see him on a donkey, when we see him riding to work.

The world of the Bible was a world of hierarchy, a world of political monarchy and a world of patriarchy. All that is assumed as the accepted order in much of the Bible, including much of the New Testament. And yet the Gospel comes through again and again to challenge it. It’s possible to read the Bible as supporting that hierarchy, and many still do. But the subversion of it is there at the centre in Jesus Christ. We see the beginning of a breakdown of hierarchy taking place in the Early Church, but it has been a very long process, and it has yet to be fully worked out, even in our time.

That was a world where the order of importance and value went clearly downwards, something like this: God at the top, then angels, then kings, then men, then women, then children, then slaves. There are many more detailed variations of it, but you get the idea. You were assigned a place in that hierarchy, and that’s where you stayed.

And it mattered to put God at the top of the list, because then you could maintain order by divine authority. To challenge the order is to challenge God. But what if God isn’t on any list? What if it is a form of idolatry to see God as the most important person around, because it is to fit God into our ordering of the world? It is to make God into our image, a part of our system.

What if instead we recognise Jesus Christ as the image of God? A servant, riding into work on a donkey. Then, all that human ordering, which was designed to keep certain people in place, comes crashing down.

Children love to sing songs like ‘Our God is a great big God’ or ‘My God is so big, so strong and so mighty’. We love to worship in a church like this, where the high altar is a long way away, and the ceiling, representing the heavens, is so high we can barely see the angels.

All that is trying to say something true about God’s transcendence or otherness. It’s trying to make me realise I am a creature, dependent on every breath, whereas God needs nothing other than God. And we’ve no other way of expressing transcendence but to speak of size and distance. The danger though is that we think God is at the far end of a scale, and, most dangerously, that we’re all in different positions on the scale.

Ideally we need different types of building, as Liverpool has two very different cathedrals. That’s not possible here (one is enough to maintain), but we do have a wide range of service styles. Similarly, each says something true about God, and each says something which needs to be corrected.

And we do need to be aware that people can come to this place, people who have come to consider themselves to be fairly low down the scale, and are considered by others to be fairly low down the scale, and they can think that a building like this reinforces the idea that there is such a scale, and that the God of whom we speak is not for them.

There is no such scale. There is Jesus Christ who goes to work on a donkey. No-one ever gets above that, and no-one ever gets below it. He serves us. And we serve him. And we serve each other, and are served by each other.

And so we pray for each other in St Paul’s words: Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Mark Hart

"Know God, Show His Love, Grow His Church."