Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Incarnation

The Passion According to Matthew - A few thoughts...
Philippians 2:5-11/Matthew 27:1-54

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus," prays St. Paul. Phil 2:5"

Palm Sunday has become The Sunday of the Passion. Why? The practical reason appears to be that fewer and fewer Christians these days take part in all dimensions of Holy Week so that fewer and fewer are in Church on Good Friday to hear the story read. Yet, it is long understood that at one time and for decades if not longer, the Passion Narratives were all we had - that and Paul's letters. We often forget that Paul is our earliest witness in the New Testament. More on that in a moment.

But more to the point, once Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the trouble begins. He and his followers do not have the luxury of enjoying those few moments of excitement, hosannas, palms and an expectant and jubilant crowd of all manner of poor, lame, and otherwise destitute outsiders of life in the Empire of Rome and the Temple precincts of Jerusalem. Once inside the gates of the City of Peace Jesus is causing all sorts of trouble - overturning the tables of those who provided the necessary commerce for offering the appointed sacrifices. It is difficult to imagine a secular analog in our world today: Destroying the ticket booths, souvenir stands and food and drink concessions at the Super Bowl? Indeed, in Matthew's account, we have the Temple incident and Jesus immediately leaves town to hideout in Bethany. The next time he enters the city it is one argumentative scene and parable after another until his arrest. So the simple fact appears to be that the moment of Palm Sunday was just that - a brief momentary high that devolved into chaos and danger almost immediately. Many scholars agree, the Temple Incident was cause enough for his arrest. And reason enough for Pilate to make an example to the Passover crowds of just what lies in store for those who dare to challenge the Pax Romana.

All that aside, much has been written and said in an attempt to understand why Jesus died? Just what does it all mean? Curiously, Paul, our earliest witness, does not seem to be concerned with such questions at all. Paul is not at all concerned about why wicked men would do such an evil thing - after all it is the very machinery of those who desire to wield power in every age - but rather, to focus our attention on a good and loving God who has done a gracious, generous and charitable thing - forgive us our sins.

Time does not allow for any serious examination of how this is accomplished. There is in fact no such thing as a doctrine of atonement, but rather many varied and competing theories. Again, it is Paul in his letter to the Romans who states that "God shows his own love for us in that Christ died for us while we were still sinners." Romans 8:5 More to the point, in our snippet from Philippians we learn that although "he was in the form of God, [he]did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness." Phil 2:5ff

That is, as Luther observed, Good Friday/Passion Sunday and Christmas celebrate the same truth - that of the Incarnation, that God becomes man for our sake because God loves us that much. Any understanding of atonement needs to begin with Incarnation. No less than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, observes that this story is not about appeasing a God offended by our sin - the cross is not part of a mechanism of injured right, but rather quite the reverse. "... it is the expression of the radical nature of the love that gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others." God is Love. Jesus is God. Jesus shows us how to live a life that is "being for others."

That is, all this is not meant for us to focus on suffering and punishment. Punishment is suffering the just consequences for one's sins. That does not pertain to Christ. And astonishingly enough, the text barely gives six words to the crucifixion in Matthew! Rather, we are to consider Christ's work as charity, as a voluntary satisfaction and recompense for our wrong doing.

It is this satisfaction and act of loving charity that is "completely being for others" that we memorialize in the Eucharist - the one sacrifice once offered on our behalf is still being offered on our behalf today.

As Saint Anselm has put it: "Just as there is one Christ who has sacrificed himself for us, so there is one offering and one sacrifice that we offer in the bread and wine...[it is Christ the Redeemer himself who] every day without interruption...sacrifices the burnt offering of his body and blood for us."

As we remember one more time the events of that Friday so many many years ago, may we remember Paul’s prayer for us. May we remember that there are those whose lives are lived on the cross with Christ day in and day out. May we remember that Political and Religious leaders continue to be blinded by the myopia of experience and impatience with complexity, misusing and misdirecting the power and possibility of their respective positions of public trust.

As we listen to this story, and each time we come to this altar for refreshment, may we remember we come to receive the body and blood of Christ, not take the elements, so that in receiving them we might know ourselves even now to be living members of his Body, the Church. That it is to this we say Amen before we receive what we have become by baptism..

To let the mind of Christ become the same mind that is in us means to become cooperators in him with respect to everyone and everything else – to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to strive for justice and peace for all persons; to respect the dignity of every human being. With God’s help and an attitude of receiving and self-giving, with no eye on reward nor claim to return, we may yet hear the good news in this ancient story so that we may indeed let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus.

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, According to Saint Matthew….