The Narrative Lectionary readings for March 24, 2013:
Optional Reading: Psalm 118:19-23 or 118:20
If you didn't already know the story of Jesus inside and out, you might wonder if today's lessons are an early April Fool's joke. Here is the Incarnation of God, and look how the people treat God. We get the whole Passion Week story in today's readings. It's tempting to drift off, especially for those of us who will return to church on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But stay awake. Pay attention. Try to hear it again, as if for the first time.
Jesus continues to teach the same lesson as he has been teaching his whole life: it is better to serve. If we weren't familiar with the story, we might wonder at its strangeness. We make ourselves better by humbling ourselves? We might hear the echo of other Gospels: Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus riding through Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus has sent out the disciples with nothing--and they want for nothing. There's a lesson here for our possession-crazed culture. Empty yourself, so you can find what's essential.
One of my favorite images of Jesus is this scene of him praying that the cup be lifted from him. How often have I prayed that same prayer? How often have I learned what I needed to learn when the cup was not lifted? It is this scene that shows Jesus at his most human--that yearning to avoid great suffering.
Here we see Jesus moving through varying ruling branches of his society: the church, the government, the masses of people. One day they're on your side, the next day they're not. Things haven't really changed all that much, have they? Here, too, Jesus makes it clear what following him will mean for our earthly life. Marcus Borg calls Jesus "what can be seen of God in a human life" (Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, page 7). In other words, Jesus shows us our highest potential as humans, what we can strive for, what we can reasonably expect to accomplish in our own lives--and it won't necessarily be greatness in the way that earthly life defines greatness: who gets to sit at which position of power and authority. According to this way of thinking, we can't let ourselves off the hook by saying, "Oh, but Jesus was divine, so what was expected of him would be different than what would be expected of me."
No, Jesus came to show us how to live a life for which we yearn. And how do we do that? By serving others. By sacrifice, perhaps the ultimate sacrifice of our lives, but certainly of our time and our treasure.
Sacrifice. It's such a grim sounding word. And yet, think of the times when you've felt most at peace, most like you were fulfilling your destiny. Those were probably some times of sacrifice. We finish an academic degree, which requires much sacrifice of time and money, and we get an incredible amount of joy. We weather tough times in our personal relationships. Any long-term relationship demands some sacrifice of ourselves. We can't always put ourselves first and expect people to stick around for that.
I've met (or read the books of) people who have made even deeper sacrifices, people who have formed intentional communities to better serve the poor and outcast. Those communities have made a deep and lasting impression on me, so much so that I spend a great deal of time yearning to return, wondering if I, too, could make that commitment. Those communities, like Sojourners in Washington, DC, or Jubilee Partners in Comer, GA, seem filled with peace and purpose. One senses God's presence there, in a way that one doesn't ordinarily in regular life, like, say, when stuck in rush hour traffic. These people in intentional Christian communities seem to be living a life most like Christ's. And though they may lack for things that our Capitalist culture tells us we NEED to have, like the latest electronic gizmos or speedy Internet access or health insurance or meat on the table for every meal, they seem to have found a way to fill the yearnings that many of us feel in our souls.
When we feel these yearnings for something more, many of us turn to food or exercise of Internet wanderings or alcohol. What would happen if we turned towards God?
Soon Easter will be just a hazy dream, and we'll have to return to life in ordinary time. We'll have forgotten about the story of Christ's passion and returned to focus on our own passions. But Christ calls us out of ourselves, to focus on the suffering of others. Paradoxically, here is where we will find our deepest joy, by serving others.