03 April 2012

The Way of Christ and the Way of the Crowd

Philippians 2: 5-11 & Mark 11: 1-11

Palm Sunday/ 1st April 2012

My friend, Bill Carter, a Presbyterian pastor in Pennsylvania, tells the story of visiting the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem several years ago.  The forty pilgrims in his group stepped off the tour bus. Their plan was to walk down a road that has been there for three thousand years.  At his left was the largest Jewish cemetery in the area, established in the old belief that the Messiah will appear on the Mount of Olives.  At the bottom of the hill is the Garden of Gethsemane, guarded by the remains of the olive trees that perhaps overheard the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.  Straight ahead was Mount Zion, with the ancient wall of the city of Jerusalem.  This is the route that Jesus took when he entered the city on Palm Sunday.

            Right by the bus were a couple of local men. They waited for the tourists like them.  “Would you like to borrow a donkey to ride down the hill?” they asked.  “Perhaps you would sit upon one and we can take your picture.” These were not kind offers by generous new friends; this was the way those men make a living.

            No one in Bill’s group took them up on the offer, particularly when they heard it was fifty bucks for the picture and one hundred and fifty bucks to “borrow” the donkey.  These guys could demand such fees because of the location.  Apparently, the Mount of Olives is the most famous place on earth to “borrow” a donkey.  I didn’t know this! Although when I was there, I missed the donkey-lenders.  They weren’t there that day.

            The people behind Bill and his group, however, were pious folk from California. They were shelling out cash right and left for the privilege of riding those donkeys down the hill. The scene was pretty comical.  Bill says that if these people really wanted to take their Bibles seriously, they should have insisted that no money should have changed hands – because that’s what we have in the text.[1]

            Two different ways of approaching Jerusalem from Mount Olives.  One was thoughtful, serious, and contemplative – Bill’s group was intent on walking along Jesus’ way, following the road into the city.  The other was comical, commercial.  Two different ways of approaching the story of what happened on that day when the people shouted, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”

            I have to confess, I have considerable ambivalence around this story.  It’s so often celebrated in the church as a triumphal entry with the cloaks and palm branches and the crowds yelling, “Hosanna!”  There was a time when I didn’t feel this way, have this ambivalence.  I loved the processions and the palms and the hymns – and, don’t get me wrong, I still do. I really do.  But when I really started to read the accounts of Jesus’ entry into the city and went deeper into the narrative, and knowing what we know happens in the city by week’s end, when I reflect upon this, that’s when I begin to have problems. 

            This week I think I gained more clarity around this feeling within me.  It’s pretty simple, really:  I don’t trust the crowd.  I don’t trust the crowd.  I’m suspicious of their commitment to Jesus’ mission.  I’m trying not judge them, but did the crowd waving their palms and shouting their “Hosannas” have any idea what was about to be unleashed in their city on Friday?  Did they have the slightest hint that this victorious king was going to sweat blood on Thursday?  Did they have any intimation that Rome and their religious leaders would together come down – and come down hard, inflicting a devastating blow to their hopes and dreams?  Did they know?  Even though the crowds rejoiced and welcomed Jesus here, we all know that the crowd is fickle; for by week's end the way of Christ will be at odds with the way of the crowd.  

            On the one hand, we can’t blame them.  They could not see into the future.  Just like you and me.  We cannot see into the future, which, I think is my point here:  the entire narrative forces us to acknowledge that our way is not God’s way, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, our hopes and dreams and expectations are not God’s hopes and dreams and expectations.  It’s quite evident that Jesus is clear about what God’s intentions are; it’s not all that clear what the crowd has in mind.  Do they get it right? Is it all empty praise?

            There’s an old Latin proverb of unknown origin that goes like this: Vox populi, vox Dei, meaning, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”  The voice of God is known through the voice of the majority.  The Protestant Reformers didn’t always agree with this view of political wisdom. Although we are democratic in our Church polity, led by the majority views of the Church, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) encourages us also to make space for the voice of the minority, because it just might be the minority that bears the voice and will of God. The majority is not always on God’s side.  Sometimes the majority can actually stand God’s way.  There’s an early reference to this Latin aphorism that dates to 798, in a letter of Alcuin of York (d.804) to Charlemagne (c.742-814), the Holy Roman Emperor, that goes like this: “And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”  The riotousness of the crowd might be close to madness, but so is the (self-) righteousness of the crowd, at times, close to madness. 

            Perhaps my suspicion of the crowd comes from hanging out too much with the likes of Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who said, “For ‘the crowd’ is untruth.”  Or, “the crowd” is a lie.[2]  He’s right. This isn’t true all the time. But sometimes it is, one has to admit, enough to put us on guard.  The crowds, mobs, the collective – what everyone else thinks or says or believes, the prevailing views and perspectives, whatever’s popular – are all sometimes just wrong. Sometimes it’s difficult of us, as individuals, to stand out from the crowd – like Jesus; to make our way through the crowd – like Jesus; to not be shaped by the crowd – like Jesus; not be hampered by the crowd – like Jesus.  We know the limitations and dangers and challenges of herd mentality, group mentality, and groupthink.

            I find it fascinating how the Lectionary for today juxtaposes Mark's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and Paul's use of an ancient hymn to Christ, the Carmen Christi, in his letter to the Philippians.  What struck me was Paul’s reference to the “mind of Christ” and my own ponderings on what the “mind” of the crowd might have been like welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem.  I found myself imagining Jesus on the colt, surrounded by the crowds, yet clearly striking his own way through the crowd.  He knows exactly who he is; he’s obviously in control the situation, his destination – the temple – is clearly in his sights.  He arrives at the temple, looks around, and because it is late, leaves.  He returns on Monday to “cleanse” the temple and says, quoting Isaiah, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” – which then lights the fuse that explodes on Friday.  Mark writes, “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard this, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (Mk 11:18).  They know the crowd is still with him, but what does the crowd expect from him?  Jesus doesn’t say a thing; he withdraws from the city.  In Mark’s Gospel the crowd is generally viewed in a positive light.  That is until the end, after Palm Sunday, when the crowd turns on Jesus and prefers Barabbas instead of him at the trial.  “Hosanna” one day, “Crucify him” another.  Same crowd?  Different crowd?  We’re not sure; there was probably some overlap. It’s still the crowd, the clouded wisdom of the crowd. 

            So what was/is the mind of Christ?   We don’t hear this kind of language in Mark’s Gospel, but in Paul.  When we hear “mind of Christ” or “put on the mind of Christ,” it’s natural for us to think he’s talking about “mind” as we conceive it.  But he’s not talking about thoughts or ideas.  He’s not saying that we must think our way into Christ.  It’s not an intellectual exercise. Paul urged the Philippian Christians to have the same “mind” that was in Christ. We could also translate the phrase this way, “Let the same attitude,” or even, “Let the same way,” be in you that was in Christ.  There’s an active, dynamic quality to the Greek here.[3]  In other words allow his mind, his attitude, his way unfold in you, flow in you and through you.  And what is this way?

                        Though he was in the form of God,
                        did not regard equality
                                    with God as something to be exploited (or grasped),
                        but emptied himself,
                        taking the form of a slave,
                        being born in human likeness. 
                        And being found in human form,
                        he humbled himself
                        and became obedient
                        to the point of death – even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8).

            We see something of the same "mind" or "way" on display when Jesus enters Jerusalem, humble on a donkey.  In obedience to his call he follows his way, “steadfast He to suffering goes”,[4] the way that leads through the crowd, the way of love, ultimately deflecting all the projections of the crowd upon him, a crowd that could not fathom the depths of such commitment, obedience, and love. In obedience to his call he does whatever it takes to demonstrate the power of God’s grace and love.

            Where are we in this story?  On the way with Jesus?  Or lost in the crowd? Believing along with everyone else, acting like everyone else, whether they’re right or wrong, believing all kinds of things about Jesus and God and the Christian life, but just basically going along with the crowd?  Probably a little of both – because it’s all happening, both ways, at the same time in the text.  They overlap.  The story, though, urges us to proceed with caution.  Who’s way are we on? Are we on the way of Christ or the way of the crowd? Are we on the difficult path, walking the way that’s marked by humility and obedience to God’s call in our lives, urged on by the power of God’s radical love?  Marked and sealed in our baptism and therefore ready to transform the world? Or are we taking the easy way, walking en masse in the way of crowd, lost in untruth? 

            Like most things of importance in life it’s not a question of either-or, it’s not that simple.  Like most things in life that matter, truth is rarely a question of either-or, but often both-and.  That’s what I’ve found to be true.  Some have even said that’s what I’ll have inscribed on my tombstone: “Both-And.” 

            The way of Christ.  The way of the crowd. I know where I am and would rather be.  What about you?

Image:  Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864), "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem" (c. 1842).

[1] I’m grateful to William Carter, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Clarks Summit, PA, for this story, from which I quote liberally.  It’s taken from his Palm Sunday sermon on this same text, “The Best Things Are Borrowed.”  It can be found at the Day 1 website here http://day1.org/3714-the_best_things_are_borrowed.  Day1 is the voice of mainline Protestant churches, presenting outstanding preachers from the mainline Protestant denominations. Day 1 began broadcasting in 1945 as “The Protestant Hour” and has been on the air every week since, currently on more than 200 stations.
[2] Sören Kierkegaard, “On the Dedication to ‘That Single Individual,’” in Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits (Copenhagen, 1847).
[3] I’m thankful for Cynthia Bourgeault’s reflections on the “mind of Christ” in The Wisdom Jesus:  Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston:  Shambhala, 2008), 171ff.
[4]From a poem by Samuel Crossman (1624-1683/4), which became of the text of the hymn “My Song Is Love Unknown.”  The hymn tune (LOVE UNKNOWN) was written by John Ireland (1879-1962) in 1918.

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