Sunday, April 1, 2012

King for a day

Text: Mark 11 1-11 (Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem)

Love is the difficult and puzzling word we use to represent our deepest calling as individuals and as a people of faith. Love, of course, has different phases: infatuation, falling in love, maturing in love, extending ourselves for the benefit of others, love of God as expressed in care of neighbour, and so on.

Today is Palm Sunday, and so we hear again of the love shown to Jesus as he enters Jerusalem after the long journey of Lent. Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, a week in which every day contains key moments of Jesus' final activities: on Monday, his cleansing of the Temple, on Tuesday, his anointment with perfume by a woman at Bethany, on Thursday, a Last Supper with his friends, his trial and execution on Good Friday, and the vigil of Holy Saturday.

There are many ways for Christians to travel to Easter through this difficult week. Today, I use our journey in Holy Week to discuss some of the phases of love in our lives and how they transform into each other.

In one commentary on our Gospel reading that I read this week, the author discusses how the adulation shown to Jesus upon his entry into Jerusalem is a sign that Jesus' followers have fallen in love with him. That comment in turn brought to my mind the 1970s rock opera, "Jesus Christ Superstar"

"Jesus Christ Superstar" has been back in the news lately. A Canadian production from the Stratford Festival in Ontario last summer recently opened on Broadway in New York City. And as you may have heard, this production has a Saskatchewan connection. The actor who plays the role of Jesus is Paul Nolan, a young man who grew up on a farm near the town of Rouleau.

In Superstar, the act of falling in love with Jesus is best illustrated by a ballad sung by Mary Magdalene. It is titled, "I don't know how to love him." Considered by many to be the highlight of the musical, it is also one of its most controversial moments because the attraction for Jesus that Mary shows in it is romantic and erotic.

When "Jesus Christ Superstar" first appeared 40 years ago, it was so controversial that the BBC would not play it on the radio. They considered the music to be sacrilegious. In contrast, an article in last month's United Church Observer notes that today Superstar [quote] "seems to have lost its edge, turning into the kind of show you could take your grandmother to see at a Sunday matinee." This is yet another marker, I suppose, of the increasing secularization of our culture.

When I was confirmed in the 1970s, we listened to music from "Jesus Christ Superstar" at a retreat. It was an attempt, I suppose, to spark discussion among us and to make church seem more relevant to us as teenagers. I don't plan on using Superstar in our confirmation classes in Coronach, which begin on April 12. But I think the creators of Superstar, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, were on to something when they wrote the song "I don't know how to love him."

In the biblical commentary I mentioned earlier, the author contrasted the process of falling in love -- exciting but perhaps superficial -- with deeper and more costly forms of love that develop over a lifetime. The latter would include love between spouses, the love of parents for children, and the love of God and neighbour, which represents the highest calling of our tradition.

The move from falling in love to deeper kinds of love is, I believe, a picture of the road laid out for us each Holy Week as we move from Palm Sunday to Easter.

Falling in love involves projecting our wishes for ourselves onto another person. We see what we most value in a distorted and idealized vision of another person. This is, of course, a wonderful and necessary part of life. But if we never moved beyond the stage of falling in love, life would probably disappoint us.

The inevitable ups and downs of life help to mature love. In that process, we slowly take projections off of our beloved. The hope is that we will see our loved one for who they truly are, and realize that our projections point to what we most value in life and the qualities that we want to develop within ourselves.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus possesses star power. The crowds lay down their cloaks for him. They shout Hosanna, or "Save us." They hail Jesus as the new king, who like David, will lead Jerusalem to freedom from a foreign power. However, their hopes are soon crushed. Just five days after Palm Sunday, Jesus is betrayed, arrested and executed.

On Palm Sunday, the crowds are star-struck by the charisma and power of Jesus. On Monday, they see him act in anger at the Temple. On Thursday, at the Garden of Gethsemane, they see Jesus torn by doubt and fear. On Good Friday, they see him mocked, beaten and abused. Then they see him die in agony with a cry of despair on his lips. Finally on Easter Sunday, they are told by a mysterious man in an empty tomb that God has raised Jesus to new life. Jesus' followers first reaction to this news is fear. Their fear, I believe, shows the difficulties involved in moving to a new stage of love beyond the traumas of Holy Week.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus' followers project onto him their wish for a liberating king and for a closer relationship with God. Then comes the crucifixion and resurrection. When God raises Jesus, he raises him within our hearts. As St. Paul writes in Galatians, "Christ now lives in me." The grace of this goods news is that we are free to continue to love what Jesus represents -- sovereignty and divinity -- even as we realize that these qualities lie not only in Jesus, but also within and between ourselves.

After the resurrection, followers of Jesus stop looking for a king to rule from a throne in Jerusalem. They now recognize that the king or Christ lives in each person.

After the resurrection, followers of Jesus stop thinking that God lives in a glorious Temple. They now recognize that God's love flickers within and between each person.

During his ministry and journey to Jerusalem, Jesus' followers fall in love with him. This is probably an inevitable stage of projection and idealization. After the resurrection, the sovereign power and divinity that dazzled them in the person of Jesus are no longer projected solely onto that singular hero. After the resurrection, sovereignty and divinity are also seen within each one of us, broken though we may be.

The tough news is that transforming our infatuation with Jesus into something more mature involves crucifixion. This fact shows, I believe, how difficult and painful the process of growing in love can be. Waking up to the gracious reality that God's Love lives within us as the Risen Christ is facilitated by humility; and what could be more humbling than the pain of the cross?

For much of our lives as both individuals and as a church, we may be stuck at the exciting but superficial stage of Palm Sunday. But then reality inevitably intrudes. Our loved ones disappoint us. Church life becomes consumed with conflict. Our children rebel and make the inevitable mistakes of any life. Our own fragility and mortality is revealed in sickness and pain.

One possible outcome of these disappointments is cynicism and and end to love altogether. The message of Holy Week is that love can survive even the most terrible of life's tragedies. The coming of Jesus as a new messiah or king does not mean the end of such tragedies. It does not mean that Jesus leads his people to victory over the Romans. It does not mean an end to all injustice or pain. It means that we are shown how God helps us to accept ourselves even though our own roads leads us to suffering and loss just as the road to Jerusalem did for Jesus.

During Holy Week in Jerusalem, Jesus enjoys a short reign as the King of the Jews. He has a few days of triumph before the forces of religious authority and imperial rule arrest him and execute him.

Then the strange reversal of Easter morning occurs. God raises Jesus to new life as the Christ in our hearts. Jesus never gets to sit on David's throne. Instead, he gets to reign as the inner Christ in the hearts of broken and humble sinners everywhere and forever.

In "Jesus Christ Superstar," Mary Magdalene wonders how she can love Jesus. Palm Sunday shows one way that is exciting but perhaps superficial. The events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday test this love in the most painful ways. Finally, Easter Sunday shows us a new and assured way to love Jesus, by loving the Christ within each broken sinner who travels with us on the wonder- and pain-filled road to our own cross.

Palm Sunday marks just one day of Jesus' triumph. God in Christ reigns and triumphs within us all every day and forever.

Thanks be to God.


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