The Blessing in Christ’s Triumph

Christ humbled himself and was exalted by God.
Jesus’ triumph came not by his own strength,
but through weakness and frailty and death.
Likewise, in our weakness God’s strength is revealed.

Object Lesson: Follow The Leader

Text: Philippians 2:5-11  Also: Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Blessing in Christ’s Triumph”

What successes, what triumphs, does God ask of us and promise us?

We have read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12-16; Mark 11:1-11). Though the scripture texts do not use the phrase, the church has come to call this event in Jesus’ life “The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” We have also heard Paul urge us to have the same mind as Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5-11), an invitation to weakness, submission, humility (and perhaps even humiliation?). So just what kind of triumph is this? In what way is Jesus victorious in this event, and in the things that follow? And finally, what would it mean for us to do likewise, to have “the mind of Christ”?

He does not “win” anything or “overcome” anything visible.

There are no external measures of “success” to be applied.

Of course we know by faith that Jesus triumphs over sin and death on Easter Sunday morning. In Philippians 2 Paul makes clear that the victory was not won by Jesus, but by the Father, who raised him and exalted him. There IS a victory, a triumph over sin and death, but do they really belong to Jesus? This victory is accomplished THROUGH him, but not BY him. But perhaps that is what we are talking about after all. If so, what is there from which we may learn and which we can emulate?

I wonder if Jesus’ triumph is not much more human and direct than that? Recall how in Mark 8 Peter is affirmed when he proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, and almost immediately chastised when Peter suggests that Jesus should not suffer and die? (Mark 8:27-38) Jesus then proceeds to tell the disciples and the crowd that if they want to be his disciples, they must: “…deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (v34). Again, it is at first difficult to see the triumph in this.

The triumph, I think is in Jesus (and our) willingness to set aside the normative definitions of success, effectiveness, victory. Jesus certainly knows how earthly kings are made, History is replete with the stories and Jesus has witnessed it enough times in his own life. Kings are made by seizing and holding power through any means necessary. Kings hold power over others by fear and coercion and violence. Some believed that God would counter this system with even greater divine power that overwhelms, so they clung viciously to their earthly kingdoms. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Mt 11:12).

In response, Jesus did not take up weapons of war. Jesus did not gather the wealth of the world for his campaign and control. Jesus adopted the symbols of the coming Messiah – entering from the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:4) humble and riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9). All Israel expected that the Messiah would come in power, that somehow the reference to the donkey was perhaps some kind of ruse to distract and confuse the occupying force, lulling them into complacency till he should wield his great sword and cut off their heads.

Would it surprise us to learn that Jesus himself wanted to follow such a path, that Jesus wanted to be the warrior king with battle ax, mace, sword and bow with fiery arrows? If he was fully human, as our faith suggests, and tempted in every way that we are, as the writer of Hebrews indicates, then this very thought welled up within him. (Heb 4:15) We see something of this in his cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple. (Mark 11:12-25) Jesus is certainly filled with a righteous anger that bursts forth.

Perhaps Jesus’ triumph this day is in not calling down all the powers of heaven and casting the mountain of Jerusalem into the sea, as he tells the disciples they can do by faith through prayer. Jesus triumph is in not exercising the power he has. It is in resisting violence as a solution. It is in resisting (again) the invitation to exaltation.

Jesus faced these same temptations in the wilderness after his baptism. Mark does not enumerate them, but we learn from Matthew and Luke the nature of their severity, their seduction, and Jesus’ triumph. (Mt 4; Lk 4) Something in Jesus must have been drawn toward power and glory, or these would not have been temptations. It could not have been said that Jesus was “tested”. So Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the moment when glory and power are his for the taking. It would have launched his political career. Instead he seizes it as the opportunity to demonstrate the way of God’s kingdom: The last shall be first and the first, last. The way to true LIFE is through death. The way up is by first going down. “God’s grace is sufficient for us, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)

The triumph? Jesus triumphed over his own inner desire to receive what was being offered to him – a false and temporary reward. Jesus had been steadily cultivating and practicing this Way. He fasted and prayed and studied and worshipped. He allowed himself to be tested in small ways, continually building up his own resilience, training his spiritual muscles to respond in the right way when the time came.

He was also wise and strategic. He understood that arriving in this way would stir the energy and enthusiasm of those who longed for something different, even if they did not like his methods. As this zeal swelled, it would reach a crescendo. It would not be the Mount of Olives torn in two, but the veil that separated people from God. Jesus understood that to accomplish his goal, to see the Spirit of God let loose, death conquered and the church birthed, Jesus would have to resist all the earthly wisdom that suggested he should seize control. Only because Jesus triumphed in these clearly human ways was God’s plan to triumph in divine ways made possible.

Similarly for us, God still chooses to work in and through frail humanity to accomplish divine purposes of redemption and reconciliation. It makes no earthly sense, but Paul is right. If we want to be successful in God’s eyes, and in the work of God’s kingdom, this will only come through our own humility and vulnerability. This does not mean meekness – there is nothing meek in Jesus’ cleansing the temple. It does mean that power is not ours to hold, but only to exercise on behalf of others. We stand with others when they are attacked, but do not defend ourselves when they attack Christ at work in us.

What does the mind of Christ look like in us, on the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry? It means that we say no to opportunities to gain or wield power for our own benefit, or power over others even for the greater good. We do not advance the Love of God in the world by dominating or excluding others. We do it by loving them, which means seeking their good along with our own, and believing that God will honor our sacrifice and fill our weakness with power.

** Sermon preparation reflections for 032915


Some cultural references…

Limitierte Triumph Bonneville Tridays-Edition

Triumph Bonneville

Triumph TR2 1954 front - Triumph TR2. Launched in 1953, the TR2 used a ...

Triumph TR2

Triumph - 2010 - Diamond Collection (Limited Edition) 10 CD

Triumph

John 20 vs1-18 – Sermon Notes for Sunday 04152012

Many of the formative stories of Israel’s faith journey begin with God calling someone’s name: Adam; Noah; Abraham; Moses; Samuel; Jeremiah. And in the Christian story, we read of Joseph (Mt 1:20); Zechariah (Lk 1:13); Mary (Lk 1:26-38); Peter, Andrew, James and John (Mt 4:18-22); Matthew (Mt 9:9-13); the 12 Apostles (Mt 10:1-4); Martha (Lk 10:38-42); Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10); Lazarus (Jn 11:1-57); Peter (Jn 21:15-19); Paul (Acts 9); Ananias (Acts 9).

There is something powerful about being called by name. This may be contrasted by other stories where there is no mention of being called by name – most of the prophets stories are told in this way. The prophet Ezekiel reports that the LORD simply called him “O mortal.” Perhaps the lack of direct naming is a way of emphasizing humility and the universality of their calling. However that may be, our story for today is very clear that the Lord called Mary by name, and that in this calling she was able to recognize him.

Several things to notice about this story:

  1. Mary comes to serve the Lord with very limited theological understanding. She is being as faithful as she knows how to be in the circumstance – and Jesus honors that.
  2. Mary invited others on the journey with her – and they also had limited understanding.
  3. Mary stayed longer than the others to linger over this painful mystery. She does not run or hide from the pain – and it was because of this that she was able to encounter Jesus.
  4. Mary was in prayerful conversation with God’s messengers (angels) sharing her grief, confusion and fear.
  5. Mary saw Jesus moving in her life but did not recognize him – in fact misidentifying him as someone who was possibly undermining her relationship with God. She supposed him to be a gardener who had possibly moved the body of her Lord.
  6. Mary speaks to Jesus without recognizing him – she is in relationship, is in conversation with Jesus despite her lack of recognition or understanding.
  7. Mary did not believe in the resurrection when she experienced Jesus call her by name. (neither did Peter and John or anyone else).

So, do you want to hear Jesus call you by name?

  1. Serve him as best you know how. Don’t allow your lack of knowledge and understanding keep you from doing what you can.
  2. Share your journey with others who are also seeking the Lord.
  3. Be honest with yourself and God about your fears and heartaches.
  4. Seek Jesus passionately.
  5. Ask those you encounter where they may have seen Jesus.

As we hear again in Jeremiah 29:

7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Did you hear that from Verse 13-14? “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart I will let you find me.” This is what Mary was doing. Was she a sophisticated theologian? No. Was she a great champion of faith? No. Was she a noted leader in the community? No. She was one of the women whom Jesus had healed, and who had chosen to provide material support to Jesus and the apostles on their missionary journeys. She was there at the foot of the cross as Jesus was crucified, and now was one of the women who came to the tomb to honor and remember him. She was looking and longing for the presence of Jesus in her life. That was enough.

Psalm 145:18 The LORD is near to all who call on him; to all who call on him in truth.

Learning to serve the poor

When I was in college I was fortunate to serve as Mission Intern at a big-steeple downtown church. When people came to the door seeking financial support, I was their liaison with the church. I had afternoon office hours and a monthly budget – I always exceeded both. Each month my supervisor would meet with me, show me the budget and how much I had given away, point out the overage and grimace in a way that expressed compassionately, “This can’t happen next month.” “I know,” I’d smile back, both of us recognizing that it probably would, and it did. I also coordinated the church’s running of a Saturday Soup kitchen, using the model known as Second Helpings – where restaurant food is collected, deep frozen, and reserved to those in need. A small group of us from a campus ministry, full of the idealism and indefatigable spirit of the young, cornered the senior pastor of the above mentioned church and said, “We’re going to start a soup kitchen, and we’d love it if you all help.” Without missing a beat the pastor responded, “We’ll do it at our place!” and sure enough, over time that’s exactly what happened.

These experiences, along with time spent as a volunteer coordinator for a Habitat for Humanity chapter, left me frustrated. I kept feeling like we were putting on band-aids, doing triage, but not helping people to address their foundational issues that put and kept them in need of help. I wrote my senior thesis on “The Socialization of the Homeless: A Call for Change” wherein I argued that the homeless in general, and the poor more broadly considered, need more than for someone to hand them resources; they (like all of us) need to participate in a community of support where transformation can occur and inner capacities can be discovered and developed to their fullest capacity. This is also the argument made by Robert D. Lupton in TOXIC CHARITY: How churches and charities hurt those they help (and how to reverse it).

Dignity is a key theme for Lupton – he emphasizes maintaining and even enhancing the dignity of the poor through all policies, programs and practices intended to help alleviate poverty. This also results in heightened dignity-with-humility for those who serve – doing for is dehumanizing for those with power as well as those without. This focus on dignity then leads to numerous shifts or outright reversals. from “doing for” to “doing with”; from focus on need to focus on relationship; from emergency assistance to development assistance; from focus on meeting our needs to meeting the needs of those being served; from “charity to parity”; from “going on tourist mission trips” that displace local labor and leave little long term change to sending skilled community developers; from food pantry to food coop; from gentrification to re-neighboring; from “experts” leading to community leaders leading with “experts” (i.e. people with knowledge, skills, resources and networks) serving in support capacities. All of these shifts result in heightened dignity for all involved.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, a phrase oft used in literature and perhaps originating with Bernard of Clairvaux, certainly applies in this present context. Churches and charities (and governments and individuals) mean well. We need to look at the unintended consequences of our actions before we take them. We need to act in partnership and community with those being served. We need to develop opportunities for reciprocity wherever possible. We need to build on strengths while filling asset gaps.

I am also now fortunate to serve in a community where some people understand these premises and are seeking to develop community awareness while enacting policy and developing program. We have much to learn. Jesus called the adults around him to learn from the children; I think a parallel principle applies here – the poor have much to teach those who would want to help them. Needing help does not make one helpless – meeting needs unilaterally does.

Repentance as preparation

 

Pastor’s Study 03/2012

Jesus’ disciples went to the upper room after the ascension – 40 days after Easter (Matthew 28, Luke 24 & Acts 1). They went because Jesus had sent them there to wait, for the coming of the promised gift of power from on high – the gift of the Spirit from the Father. Jesus did not tell them how long they would have to wait, or what to do in the meantime. He just said, “Go, and wait.”

So what are we doing? We are waiting for the revealing of God’s good gift, the revealing of God’s dream for us as God promises in Jeremiah 29. And while we wait for the leading of the Holy Spirit, we are praying. We also enter now with Jesus into this Wilderness Season. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness between slavery in Egypt and their new life in the Promised Land. Similarly Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness between his baptism and affirmation (which marked his exodus from secular life) and his entry into the promised blessing of ministry.

This season of 40 is a time of preparation, strengthening, and repentance. The word repent literally means to turn around. It refers not only to repentance from sin, but any turning from one direction to another – one focus or way of living to another. Whether or not we sense some great sin in our lives, we all have room for a turning toward LIGHT and away from darkness.

I wonder if, as we wait for God’s revealing, there is not some repentance need in our common life? From what do we as individuals, households, and congregation need to turn? How have we been focused away from God toward self or other things? How have we failed in the past without returning to properly repent, confess, and seek to be reconciled and to make amends? Remember, it may not be a grave sin, such as that for which David is repenting in Psalm 51 (the murder of Uriah and taking of Bathsheba). Instead, it may simply have been a short sightedness, a small selfishness or pettiness that prevented us from loving others as Christ loves us – that’s probably a pretty long list, if we are to be honest with ourselves.

You might ask, “Do we really have to dredge all of that up?” Great question. Do we need to drag it all out in public? No, I suspect that wouldn’t be healthy or helpful. Do we each need to go back over the past years and see where we have wronged others, either intentionally or not, by what we have done or failed to do? Yes, absolutely. Should we always go to that person to address the failing? No – not if doing so would cause further injury (for instance, if we have reason to believe that they have moved on with their lives and relationships in healthy ways that would be disrupted by our intrusion). This may not be something you can figure out on your own – you may want a spiritual conversation partner or confessor in that process – your elders are here to minister to you in that way, and others you trust may also serve that function.

Either way, I believe that one obstacle to our experiencing the full Holy Spirit revealed power of God’s dream for us is the presence of these past failures. The point of all this is not guilt, shame and self-loathing. Rather, it is freedom. We are invited to receive God’s mercy, forgiveness and grace in love as we draw near to Jesus and live as his disciples. I urge you to take this Lenten season to repent (turn around) from selfish, small minded and unhealthy ways of thinking, speaking and acting. Instead, through prayer, study, conversation and worship, turn toward God’s will for you as revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, whom we follow as Lord and Savior.

May the love of Christ inspire us all – In Him – Ken