In the early days Christians took hold of secular often pagan (associated with matters rural) festivals and transformed them into expression of Christian verity. Most notably Christmas and Easter owe their origins to this incarnating the faith within the rhythms of contemporary life. When Gregory sent Augustine to England he gave him strict instructions to follow this strategy. In our time the reverse has become true. Commercialisation has taken over Christian festivals for its own purpose. Palm Sunday is a bit of an oddity, the secular world has connected the submissive journey of Jesus into Jerusalem with causes to do with refugees and injustice in general. Has this trend done a service or disservice to the Palm Sunday festival?
If you found yourself in Church on Palm Sunday you were very much part of a quirky minority. The clear majority find what we do and believe odd at best and at worst we are looked upon less than benignly. This I think we must accept as fact. Does it matter, and if so why does it matter? Well it does matter, not simply in terms of eternal destiny, but more pragmatically it matters in terms of how we live and make sense of the world in which we live. Holy Week and Easter have much to say about both, that is to say they speak of eternal destiny and they speak to the way the cogs of life should move every day. Indeed, so strongly do we believe this we take for granted the reality that the events of this week are the swivel point of human history, the modern era begins at this point.
Making sense of the world is the role of religion and science alike. I will come to Holy Week’s view of the world in a moment, but what about science? The world has just lost one of its most intriguing brains since Einstein, Stephen Hawking. Hawking’s life was spent in a relentless search for understanding, understanding how the world ticks, how it began, how it might end. Many of you will have read his treatise “The beginning of time”. In the treatise he argues that real time, that is time as we understand it commenced with the Big Bang 13 – 15 billion years ago. But he also argues that does not mean ‘nothing’ is a good description of what we might consider preceded the Big Bang. To theologise his theory, time is associated with transience, with partiality, indeed with pain. Dying is not simply to depart material existence, its transience and pain, it is to depart time, to enter what always was in God – eternity. Hawking also taught that most of the universe, as vast as it is, is unseen, consisting of black holes or dark matter. If science teaches there is more that is unseen than seen, then we have every reason to speak boldly of faith! Interestingly Hawking was also fascinated by the idea of love.
I have started the sermon this morning with Stephen Hawking not only because every sermon should engage with contemporary context, but also because of the reality that faith and science at one level exist together in the exciting journey of discovery.
Here on Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week until Easter we are being led down the ‘path less trodden’, into deeper engagement with our own lives, with the lives of others and ultimately with what always was, is now and ever shall be - love, the energy which is God: existing before Hawking’s commencement of time, and unrestrained by time bursts beyond it in resurrection. What Holy Week proclaims is utterly explosive, not contradicting science but challenging a world view that is restricted by its own boundaries of discovery. This is what makes the decline of Christianity so serious, the population at large is restricted to a world view and set of values in which material wellbeing and the values associated with it, together with the laws of physics are the only guide on a life-time path with many hurdles that do not fit this restrictive exploration.
Palm Sunday starts with extraordinary insight into authority, leadership, yes even power. Because we humans are communal beings, none of us can survive alone, it is necessary that authority, leadership and power are exercised. But how?
The world of today presents a picture that is the diametrically opposite of Palm Sunday. The strong men of the world, Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Jin Ping, congratulate each other on their strength. The largest ministerial portfolio in Australia is shamelessly led in similar manner.
Palm Sunday presents a picture of authentic leadership, authority and power that is embedded in vulnerability. It is a picture of reluctance, of power being wielded through the empowerment of others. It is the picture of a conscious choice to eschew expectation, to ride on a colt, the foal of a donkey, the lowliest of all beasts. Jesus knew that the crowd would herald him, he wanted to ensure that they knew what they were heralding. No, he has not the Messiah who would throw off the Romans. No, he was not the Messiah who would set up his own earthly kingdom. No, he would not even be challenging the authority of Herod, Pilate, or Caiaphas. If they were going to herald him, they must know the path he would take, for in association with him they (we) must take the same path. This is not simply a religious picture worthy of pious observation, it is much more than that. It is a perspective on how under God, human life and governance must operate if it is to be life giving, because relational principles are as immutable as physical laws. Those who seek authority must seek to serve. No one should exercise power for themselves, it always ends in tears; it must always be exercised for the common good.
As we move further into Holy Week insight into truth becomes more dramatic and from a human point of view more counter intuitive. We are looking at Holy Week with the benefit of hindsight, an advantage not available to the disciples. We know the central figure, Jesus, is the human face of the eternal God. In him the fullness of God completely dwells. Therefore, what we see in him is reflective of the activity of God always and everywhere. Love reigns. On the cross love intervenes to break the destructive cycle of human wilfulness and it does so, not out of power, but out of weakness, vulnerability. We human beings find such a path quite alien. Paying back is seen as a strength. We spend infinitely more on armaments and destruction than we do on aid and restitution. The cross really is quite offensive, even to Christians. Because it is so offensive the temptation is great to clothe it in language of strength, of God magisterially wiping out a penalty demanded of humans in the divine court. We do well to be reminded that over 2000 years, Christianity has refused to define the atonement, it defies any human definition.
Moving into Easter we are confronted by the most extraordinary truth of all, while love is manifest in the material world, it is not confined by it. Love has the capacity to reach beyond such boundaries, it is thus utterly transformative. Resurrection should not surprise us, it is love’s refusal to allow time and death to have the final word.
So journey well through Holy Week, hold on tight for the ride of your life, this is not simply some nostalgic celebration of a moment long past in history, but a celebration of life itself, of how things work: through the week we do not simply find comfort for heavenly destiny, but hope for a world desperate to break away from the human caused disasters that constantly surround us.
Light is dawning, the earth is being renewed, and we are being made whole once more.