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Lent 2007 #3

Leaning Into God’s Holy Spirit Future

Reading: Luke 19:28-44

Introduction: In Tony Hendra’s novel, “The Messiah of Morris Avenue” (Henry Holt, 2006), Hendra tells the story of a contemporary world in which fundamentalist religion has taken over all of life in America and a new messiah appears on the scene. Avoiding all of the places the televangelists make appearances, this mysterious stranger keeps being seen or heard about, always in the margins of society. When we finally learn his name in the story, it is through the vehicle registration of a beat-up van that he drives. Jose Francisco Lorcan Kennedy has no known address, although his mother (Maria, of course) is of Guatemalan descent and she lives on Morris Avenue in the Bronx, New York.

As you can imagine, the story follows the calling of disciples, the growing distrust among the religious and political leaders, and an inevitable conflict that will lead to Jose’s death. The triumphal entry scene is a mile long procession of cars driving into New York City. The temple, as one might guess, is Madison Square Garden. The people who begin to line the parade route aren’t always certain who or what is causing the procession in the first place. But the parallels with our accounts in the ancient story of Jesus cannot be missed.

There is one piece of our story from Luke this morning that is left out of Hendra’s remake. In fact, this incident is left out of the other three Gospel accounts of Palm Sunday. It is that part of Luke’s narrative that serves to foretell the rest of the story. It is the scene when the parade slows and all the cries of the people announcing the coming of the king recede into the background of other angry voices. We hear the protesting Pharisees file their usual complaint and Jesus tells them they still don’t know what time it is: “If these people were silent the rocks would cry out,” he tells them.

And then Jesus stops altogether, and looks out over Jerusalem, and he weeps. It’s not just the Pharisees that don’t know what time it is. “If you on this day had only recognized the things that make for peace,” Jesus says. He understands that the shouts of blessing on this day will turn to angry demands for his death in less than a week’s time. Jesus will not weep again in Luke’s story – he will show a wide range of emotion as he drives out the money-changers in the temple; as he continually faces controversy with the religious leaders; as he sits at the Passover meal with his disciples; as he gets so agitated in the garden that Luke says his sweat is like drops of blood. In Luke’s account, there will be no cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” Only controlled words directed at women on the road to Golgotha, and words of forgiveness spoken over the entire scene in general and the repentant thief in particular. But here on this day, Palm Sunday, Jesus weeps over people who don’t recognize the things that make for God’s promised shalom.

The four accounts of this parade into Jerusalem are otherwise quite similar, with throngs of people getting caught up in a parade scene that is full of shouts of praise and blessing and the coming of the king. It’s the kind of journey every one of Jesus’ disciples had signed on for. The king is coming, with his closest associates. It’s the road to victory that is so much more attractive than that other road that we know is coming at the end of the week. And here is my own struggle this morning: I really want my Christian faith to just take me on this journey, without ever having to go through the conflicts of the next week, much less lead to that second road trip of suffering. I want my faith to lead to appreciation from others, I desperately want people to like me, say nice things about me. No, I don’t need to be king, or president, or provost even – but success and accolades and recognition for my accomplishments feel really good. I want to be associated with successful people, living in neighborhoods that are testimony to that success, going to church with other successful people. I want to live on Palm Sunday, where praise is the only word for the day. I want to live in a place where the beauty of Spring lasts forever, where the dogwoods are in bloom and one gets the feeling that the rocks really are about to cry out in praise.

But in this story, Palm Sunday and Triumphant Entry do not bring everlasting peace. And the call to discipleship is not an invitation to pick up palm branches and sing praise songs; it is the call to deny oneself and take up a cross and follow Jesus to the death of such self-serving pursuits.

Last week, I mentioned the reflection on our heritage offered up by a Lutheran theologian and church consultant named Pat Keifert who has spent a good deal of time in the last three years studying churches of Christ as part of his consulting work with Abilene Christian University. He said, “You Church of Christ people are great at studying and learning from your past, but you’re not good at all at leaning forward into the Holy Spirit’s future.” Several of you asked me about that comment afterward last week, wanting to know what it might mean for us in practical terms to stop dwelling so much on what has been and instead live into God’s kingdom future.

Obviously, if I had that information, I would have written the book and made my fortune by now and I would be celebrating Palm Sunday signing autographs! But I do wonder at times why our ideas of Christian living so easily get tangled up with cultural values of success and our efforts to be a community of faith get confused with marketing strategies for building a big business. And it is true that we want our faith to make a difference in our lives and we are attracted to churches that are full of people and full of life. I also know that “if we build it, they will come” is from a baseball movie, not the life of Jesus.

As I have tried to listen to this story this week, and think about the radically different roads traveled by Jesus in just a few day’s time, I’ve been trying to ask what Jesus was doing as he leaned into God’s future. Why tell the Pharisees that creation itself would cry out if the people did not? Why did he stop the parade and weep over Jerusalem, and then continue to utter words of forgiveness while hanging on a Roman Cross? Why let people announce him as king when they didn’t get it? You see he knew that the Triumphal Entry was a necessary part of his mission. The last thing he was going to do was stop the crowds from shouting Hosanna. But he also knew that his mission was not defined that day. Nor is human understanding accomplished when people say the right words and gather at the right time. The time and place and wording is all correct on Palm Sunday. But the understanding of the mission is wrong. But the mission is also more than Good Friday, and we can’t skip Friday and run straight to Easter. From Luke’s perspective, the mission of Jesus doesn’t fully take shape until the Exaltation and Pentecost. Only then do the disciples know and articulate the full content of Gospel.

Perhaps our contemporary struggle to find what it means to live into God’s Holy Spirit Future is that we have settled for a Gospel that is too small, and for a definition of church that is more about coming to a building than going into the world. For too long I have lived with a gospel that promised me forgiveness of sins so that I can get into heaven when I die, and a definition of church that is full of sound doctrine about what can and must be done in the assembly on Sunday morning – and however many other services I’m supposed to show up for. In my lifetime, I’ve gone from ignoring the traditional church practice of Easter because we claimed to celebrate Easter every Sunday, to acknowledging Easter because the world around us tends to show up in our assemblies that day. But I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve paid attention to Good Friday – even though one can’t have Resurrection Sunday without Crucifixion Friday. And it was just last year, for the first time, that I give any thought to Pentecost as a necessary part of the Gospel. How can one lean into the Holy Spirit’s future without the Holy Spirit?

Perhaps Jesus knows that creation is groaning because his own mission is filled with the Holy Spirit. Perhaps he sees Jerusalem and weeps because he is indeed so aware of the future and the way in which the road to victory is not only through the cross but also through his Holy-Spirit-filled body of believers.

In his book “Embracing Grace” (Paraclete Press, 2005), Scot McKnight redefines the Gospel by redefining sin. And he asks this question: what if we define sin relationally rather than judicially? He goes back to beginning – not the Fall of humans in Genesis three, but the creation of humans in Genesis one. In the beginning it is humans who are made in God’s image, and that seems to be their job on the planet – to care for the rest of creation, be in charge of the rest of creation by imaging Creator God. When Adam and Eve are in the garden, all of life is in relational harmony with the creator. There is no distinction between wild and domestic animals, no shame in the relationship or appearance of Adam and Eve. When the serpent tempts Eve and Adam to eat from the one tree that has been forbidden and they eat, it is not just God’s law that has been broken it is relationship that has been lost. The image of God in the humans is damaged, apparently beyond repair. Relationship between the humans and God is destroyed. The relationship between humans and the land is cursed, relationship among humans is now marred by shame and the need to hide – not just from God but from one another. The relationship with self even is lost because the life purpose of imaging God is lost.

That is the context, McKnight argues, for the rest of the Biblical story, which is God’s relentless efforts to renew relationship with his creation. It is the reason he starts over with Noah and the flood, the reason he calls Abram from Ur in the Chaldeas, the reason he rescues his people in Egypt and brings them to Sinai, the reason he gives them covenant and land, the reason his steadfast love endures even when the people repeatedly fail to live in covenant faithfulness. It is ultimately why God becomes flesh and lives among us to show us what life lived as the image of God on this planet is supposed to be. When you read the stories of Jesus through this lens, it is easy to see that all of his life and ministry are about making humans fully human again. The healing stories and exorcisms are all about those seen as less than human being made whole. And there are hints, like these words about the rocks crying out and that split second reference in Mark’s account when Jesus is in the wilderness with the wild animals (Mark 1:13) that suggest what Paul later affirms in Romans 8 – that all creation is involved in this transformation.

The Gospel – the good news – revealed through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit is that through the faithful activity of Creator God, relationships have been restored. The cracked image of God within not only has been healed but also given empowered presence by the Holy Spirit with us. Much more than getting to heaven when we die is involved. Every aspect of our being on this planet is changed. We are recreated to image God on this planet. Relationship with self is made whole; relationship with God is restored; relationship with others is healed; even relationship with the land is redeemed.

The implications for leaning into the Holy Spirit’s future may not yet be obvious but they are all encompassing. It means that as followers of Christ we the sacred space of God on this planet. The Spirit of God indwells us. Worship is a way of being, not just a time and a place. Church growth is not, if we build it they will come, but if we go as God’s image in the world, others will want to join us.

To lean into the Holy Spirit’s future, thus for me at least, is a radical call to a different kind of discipleship and a different way of conceiving church and church life. Yes, being together in settings like this is still vitally important. Participation in the body and blood of Jesus through bread and cup is a needed transfusion of life and identity. Singing and praying and studying together are nourishment for our souls. But we are sent out to be the church – to be gospel in this world, to be the embodied Christ, the sacred space of God. It means that every corner of our lives is to be sacred – we are the ones charged with eliminating the distinction between secular and sacred on this planet. We are the ones now blessed to live in relationship with creation and therefore ought to be the people most interested in the environment. We are the ones leaning into the Holy Spirit’s future who stop in the midst of praise and see all of the hurting in our midst and weep for those who still do not know the things that make for peace. Much like Tony Hendra’s Messiah of Morris Avenue, we are still being sent to the margins – although have you noticed how one can feel marginalized in almost any circumstance, including church? We are the ones empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to live and love and lay down our lives for others. We are the ones empowered by the Spirit to do what otherwise is impossible – love one another.

To lean into the Holy Spirit’s future this morning is not at all to deny our roots or poke fun at our traditions. It is certainly not to run away from the biblical story, but rather to live into it. We are the ones now invited to be the Christ ones, living testimony of Gospel – good news that grace is more than a giant get-out-of-jail-free card pulled from the church community chest pile that we redeem when we die and otherwise live as we please for now. Grace is the Creator’s gift of empowering presence and relationship, freely given that we might free give to others.

It is that Gospel that frees us to sing his praises this morning and to say with great expectation, Lord, Come Quickly!

Delivered at Otter Creek, April 1, 2007

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