This may be the strangest Sunday in the church year, the only time when we want you to leave worship feeling worse than when you came in.
Well, that’s not exactly true, of course. The celebration of not just Palm Sunday, but Palm-Passion Sunday, is, among other things, a reflection of how the fullness, busy-ness and worldliness of our lives condenses the spiritual, squeezing everything God-related into the very brief breaks we take from what we consider “real” life. But back in the day, good Christian folk could get away with singing nothing but “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, because the pastor or priest knew they would be back several times during Holy Week—for a foot washing, a Tenebrae service, Good Friday, maybe even an Easter vigil.
But not anymore. Now, few people have the time for Holy Week; even fewer of us are open to the depths of devotion, emotion and holiness that Holy Week was meant to foster. Now we are expected to pack all the significance, feelings, reflection, devotion, praise, despair, worship, betrayal, execution and meaning of the most sacred week of the Christian year into one worship service—and God help us if that service runs longer than 65 or 70 minutes. It all adds up to a rather disjointed experience. Did you enjoy that little parade we just had? Like that joy and praise and enthusiasm? Well, it’s all downhill from here.
But seriously, . . .
The issue at hand on Palm-Passion Sunday is not how to fit a lot of disparate things into one worship service, but how to live the Christian life.
The issue at hand is not how to weather the joyous, royal welcome Jesus receives as he rides into the belly of the religious-political beast on the back of a kid donkey, but how to handle the consequences that are sure to arise when faithful living threatens the power of empire.
The issue at hand is not about how to portray Christianity in a way that makes people feel good and attracts new church members, but how to follow Jesus in a way that brings healing and justice, true life and—yes—even salvation to the world God loves so much.
The issue is not, as Peter would have it, how to deny reality or dispel the impending doom coming Jesus’ way. The issue is not, as modern-day peddlers of the prosperity gospel would have it, how to make following Jesus all about what’s in it for you. The issue, it seems to me, is how to ensure that the way of the cross we all are called to walk is the way of love.
As we begin Holy Week, it seems to me that the issue for progressive Christians must not be how to discount, disdain, disrespect or simply ignore the cross, but how to redeem it. Because the hard reality is that if we are truly following the Jesus of the gospels, if we are faithful to what Marcus Borg calls “the only major religious tradition whose founder was executed by established authority,”1 if we are living as the countercultural faith community the church is called to be, there won’t be too many public parades held in our honor.
Oh, there will be lots of other benefits and reasons to celebrate and give thanks for Jesus and our life as a faith community: a joyful connection to the God of love, companionship and support, spiritual nourishment, and personal, spiritual and social transformation and enrichment, to name a few. But this is the one week of the Christian year set aside to count the costs, to acknowledge the reality that there are personal and social inconveniences to worshiping a God who has a passion for social justice; there are economic and social dangers in following the example of the Child of God who consistently broke the social and religious rules of his culture and made a practice of accepting and loving society’s outcasts.
And that brings us back to the cross. That forces us—like Jesus’ disciples—to make a choice between the power of empire, with its systems of domination and inequality, and the way of the cross, which leads to transformation and fullness of life for all. It is a choice that can be hard to make and re-make, day in and day out; it is a choice that many of us—like Peter—want to reject as unnecessary.
But unlike Peter, we have the benefit of history and hindsight. While Peter sees only failure and death, while Peter feels the devastating disappointment of realizing that Jesus is not going to liberate the Jews from Roman occupation, we know what is coming. But if Peter was blind to the good news on the other side of the cross, I think we are sometimes blind—thanks to at least a thousand years’ worth of institutional religious baggage and top-down theology—to the good news on this side of the cross.
It took me a very long time to get my head, heart and soul around this whole “cross thing,” by which I mean not only the symbolism of the cross itself but also the meanings and ramifications of traditional theories of atonement. For most of my life, I didn’t give the cross a whole lot of thought. I just believed what I was taught that the Bible said: that God chose to have his only son die a humiliating, agonizing and lonely death on the cross; that this was done so that God could forgive our sins; and that Jesus’ silent, selfless submission to God’s will and the cross was the ultimate model for Christian living.
But when I began working out my own theology of the cross, I ultimately rejected the view that Jesus had to die on the cross or that it was God’s will to sacrifice Jesus for our sins. After analyzing the scriptures more closely and studying a range of theological views, I came to believe that Jesus was executed for how he lived. His message of radical inclusiveness, empowerment and love—“his passion for God’s justice,”2 in short—was a threat to the religious and political-military powers of his day. I came to believe that Jesus’ crucifixion was a human-engineered travesty, not a divinely-ordained sacrifice.
To quote Marcus Borg:
In the judgment of the majority of mainline scholars, atonement theology does not go back to Jesus himself. We do not think that Jesus thought that the purpose of his life, his vocation, was his death. His purpose was what he was doing as a healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, and movement initiator. His death was the consequence of what he was doing, but not his purpose. To use recent analogies, the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were the consequence of what they were doing, but not their purpose.3
Well, this way of thinking helped me feel a whole lot better about God, but it made me feel much worse about the traditional Christian glorification of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. That view has justified—and even contributed to—the unjust suffering and oppression of women, the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, the least among us—and all of us, really. And I’m guessing that it is these traditional views of the cross—the views promoted by our dominant culture—that leave many of us, like Peter, still running from the cross instead of walking the way of the cross.
At first glance, our scripture reading from Mark would seem to support these oppressive interpretations. Indeed, traditional interpretations of this passage—that is, what many white, male, First World theologians have said—support the view that Jesus’ ministry was all about suffering and self-denial and that Jesus calls us to live the same way.
But I happen to believe that God’s truth is meant to set us free, that God’s word will liberate us, not oppress us. And so when I encounter a scripture passage that seems, instead, to promote self-denial and the acceptance of injustice, I try not to take the easy way out. Instead of simply rejecting it, I keep looking for the good news and liberation by approaching it from other perspectives, including those of various liberation theologies, which interpret the Bible in light of the real-life experiences of the oppressed, the marginalized, the impoverished, the invisible—those whom Dietriech Bonhoeffer described as being on the “underside of history.”
So, let’s take another look at these words from Mark—this time with the mindset of Jews in first-century Palestine and from the perspective of those who already suffer because they are women, because they are African American or Latina or members of another racial or ethnic minority, because they are poor, because they live in a country that was colonized by the Christian capitalism of the Western world, or because they are not heterosexual, able-bodied or in other ways like the world’s most powerful people.
This passage is often titled, “The Cross and Self-Denial.” Just after Jesus has predicted his own execution and resurrection and then rebuked Peter for challenging this outcome, Jesus tells the crowd that anyone who wants to follow him will have to take up his or her own cross. Sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it?
But feminist biblical scholar Joanna Dewey, noting that first-century Jews had no real concept of the individual self, would not have heard “deny yourself” the same way we do. In their time and place, “deny yourself” was a call to leave their “kinship group[s]” and much of mainstream society to join a kingdom movement, which would be persecuted by the forces of empire. “Any reading of this passage as encouraging individual suffering is a misreading of the text,” she concludes.4
What does it mean, then? Well, the next verse begins with the word “for,” as in, “I’m about to tell you why you need to take up your cross and follow me.” And the “why” seems to be this: Those who try to protect themselves and their way of life will lose everything, but those who give up what looks like life—which in our dominant culture can be summarized as the over-valuation of individualism, and what Borg calls “the three A’s of appearance, achievement, and affluence”5 —for the subversive ways of God’s kingdom will come to know true life.
In other words, Jesus does not call us to deny our God-created selves but to reject what our culture says gives us value. Jesus calls us to give up what we think life is for the real thing. Jesus is not saying, “Your life is not important,” but rather, “Your life is extremely important to me. That’s why I’m trying to help you see that true life, abundant life, is not what you may think. True life is not to be found in the ways of this world—in power, greed, oppression and putting yourself first. You may think that makes for a great life, but ultimately you’ll find that while you’ve lost your truest, best self.
Jesus was concerned not only with righting social, economic, political and religious relations, but also with healing inner brokenness. And the road to real self and richness of life, like the path to justice, is rewarding but not always easy. To get there, we must walk the way of the cross, which, quoting Borg again,
is the means of our liberation and reconnection. It is not about the subjugation of the self, but about a new self. … The way of the cross involves dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and being raised to a new way of being, one centered in God.6
Jesus tells his followers to take up their crosses, and yet we are surrounded in our world by people who, like Simon the Cyrene, have had crosses of untold suffering thrust upon them. Civilians in Iraq, soldiers and their families, African-Americans, single mothers, the tens of millions of persons afflicted with HIV/AIDS, abused and neglected children, the one in five people in the world who live on less than $1 a day,7 the 50 million Americans who have no health insurance, those who have lost jobs or their land to globalization, gay and lesbian ministers defrocked by their churches, those who struggle with addiction, Sudanese refugees in Darfur, undocumented immigrants in our own country, those who are oppressed because of age, physical or mental health . . . the list of oppressed cross-bearers and unredeemed suffering goes on and on.
But when we realize that there is no redemption in the cross itself, when we understand that Jesus calls us to take up the cross of transformation, not suffering, when we begin walking the way of the cross, from death to a false self to new life in the Spirit, our eyes and hearts are opened to see the crosses of the world. We come to understand that walking the way of the cross means renouncing the crosses of injustice. And that is what we will do together on Good Friday.
As we prepare to consider the execution of our beloved Jesus on a cross, let us neither deride him or the God who “left” him there, as the eyewitnesses did 2,000 years ago, nor glorify that heinous act of capital punishment, as do many of our churches today.
Instead, let us renew our commitment to the way of the cross, the way of redemption and transformation. Rather than glorifying and romanticizing Jesus’ horrible death, let us resolve to live as Jesus lived. If we follow the way of the cross—we and our world will be transformed. We will discover the power of solidarity and the richness of community, the healing of identities and relationships, the lifting up of the poor and oppressed, the justice of the God’s kingdom or realm.
We will have saved not only our lives but also the life of the world God so loves. We may live in a world of Good Fridays, but if we walk the way of the cross, Easter will have the last word.
1 Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 91.
4Joanna Dewey, “Let them renounce themselves and take up their cross”: a feminist reading of Mark 8:34 in Mark’s social and narrative world.” Biblical Theology Bulletin, Fall 2004. Found on the Internet at “http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0LAL/is_3_34/ai_n6260526/print”.
5Borg, op. cit., 116.
7Statistic taken from the ONE Campaign, http://www.one.org/Issues.html.