On the Edge I: Faith

Sunday 17th April 2011
Palm Sunday
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained", goes the proverb that, on the day of the Chinese Grand Prix, brings to mind the motor racing track where men and machines are pushed to their absolute limit, where not to push is to fail but where to push just that scintilla too far is also to fail; but whereas the first case, of not pushing quite hard enough, leads only to abject failure; the second case of pushing too far combines failure with disaster. Likewise, on the day of the London Marathon, a runner may be criticised for breasting the tape with energy to spare but pushing too hard may lead to total breakdown. To get the optimum absolutely right requires the most delicate fine tuning.

Riding on a donkey into Jerusalem, Jesus had reached a point of no return; it was going to be failure from falling short, a decisive victory through fine tuning, or the disastrous failure of over-reaching. We know the result of Holy Week but the spectators did not; and although Jesus knew that his life of service to his Father was lived within a Scriptural compass, the details surely eluded him as he rode towards the magnificent Temple, the centre of Jewish piety and hope.

The middle option of triumph was the least likely because neither party was in the mood for compromise: the religious authorities had been sorely shaken by the raising of Lazarus and were soon to receive the triple blow of the cleansing of the Temple, the parable of the wicked vineyard tenants and the report of a proto-Messianic anointing. The first two incidents were public and although the third was private it's pretty obvious that there were spies who knew what was going on at Bethany where the raised Lazarus dined with Jesus. So if you look at the incidents, after the raising of Lazarus, in sequence, from the point of view of the authorities: they were challenged by the expulsion of the traders; they were accused of betraying their vocation in a story which echoed the scandal of Naboth's vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-20), and then Jesus' pretentious at the end of that story were confirmed by his anointing. From the moment when Caiaphas declared that one man must die for the people there was no turning back; and Jesus was in no mood to compromise.

But although Jesus was on the edge, between failure and disaster, he took the unconventional course of demonstrating his vulnerability rather than trying to hide it so as to mislead his opponents. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a horse, and although the accounts of his entry variously refer to his followers and to a crowd of well-wishers, there is nothing of the military triumph about his entry. The authorities might have been irritated but at the level of street theatre this was child's play compared with the would-be king leading a fighting force.

It was, precisely, child's play.

Vulnerability was neither a Roman nor a Jewish virtue. In an age of macho males, the exercise of patriarchal authority and judicial violence were much more in evidence than self restraint and meekness; not even the prophets, as they hacked their way through Philistine limbs, were men of restraint and meekness. How odd Jesus' commendation of the meek must have sounded in the Sermon on the Mount. And here he is now, the absolute apotheosis of contradiction, with words as strong as his power is weak.

And we, who are, so to speak, in the crowd upon his entry into the Holy City, and who will be with him every day this week until the Crucifixion, need to ask ourselves what we make of it, not in the sense of history critics but in the sense that we are to lead our lives in the imitation of Christ. Where do we figure on the meekness spectrum? How blessed are we?

I suspect that most of us are precisely the opposite of vulnerable and meek, that we want comfort, security and control over our lives and of course we have prudential responsibilities and shy away from the heroic; but there is one sense in which we must always be vulnerable and meek and that is in the way we live our relationship with God through Jesus. Just as we must leave ourselves absolutely open to god's love, so we must take the ultimate risk of leaving ourselves wholly open to the mystery of God: there are no arguments worth deploying, no deals worth striking, no excuses worth making: our encounter with God needs to take the same risk which the motor racer and the athlete take in the sure knowledge that we only have two options: to fail or to be triumphant, for we have the promise of Jesus that our faithfulness cannot end in disaster.

In this week of all weeks, we are to keep the faith, to travel with Jesus and to imitate his openness to The Father in our openness to him.