Matthew 21:1-11; 27:32-37; 49-61
April 13, 2014—Belmont UMC
Ken Edwards, preaching
The young man came up to me on the street and as he greeted me he began to pull a small black leather New Testament out of his shirt pocket. He looked earnest and he said to me, “Sir, may I ask you a question?” I responded reluctantly, “I guess.”
He proceeded to take me through the four spiritual laws, popularized by the Campus Crusade people and then he asked me, “Are you saved?” I said, “Yes, I am a United Methodist pastor.” Then he repeated the question, “But are you sure you are saved?”
I wanted to tell him about the three movements of grace as outlined by John Wesley and suggest the possibility of an ongoing work of salvation but it occurred to me that a simpler answer was what the fellow wanted and so I answered, “I am certain.”
He still wasn’t convinced and he followed up with, “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven.” Again I thought of lots of theological ideas such as the sovereignty of God went through my mind but I thought better of it and answered, “Yes.” He smiled, called me “Brother,” and moved on to his next opportunity.
Are we saved? Is God’s work of salvation being realized in our lives? “Saved” is one of those church words that we used to hear more often. But on Palm Sunday we cry out “Hosanna!” a word that has come to have the tone of adoration, much like “Hallelujah!” but the word really has a tone of desperation and literally means, “Save us!” or “Save us, now!”
Jesus looks like a savior, even though scholars say that Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey was a deliberate political statement to the prevailing authorities. He has raised a dead man in Bethany, 2 miles away and his reputation as a teacher and healer has led many people to hail him as one who has the power to save Jerusalem. People gathered along the parade route, throwing their coats and branches in his path, like greeting a victor returning from battle. Victory is in the air! “Save us!” “Hosanna!” “Save us, now!”
It makes for a beautiful story. On that day the crowds praised and sang to Jesus in the streets, but by the end of the week another crowd would mock him and call for his death. On that day the crowds cried out to him, “Save us!” but by the end of the week another crowd would yell at him while he his hanging on a cross, “Save your self!” At the beginning of the week, Jesus looks like the victor but by Friday he looks every bit the part of a loser. How can a man who is hanging on the cross save the world?
God has chosen to save us by surprising means. It’s a paradox of sorts. But we are being saved, not from political powers, outside forces, as was the hope of many along the parade route when Jesus came into Jerusalem. But God saves us from the forces of evil and from those tendencies within us that would threaten to defeat us and keep us separated from God. God offers the salvation that we need, not necessarily the one we want.
God saves us through God’s willingness to be vulnerable and this vulnerability is revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ. He was born of human parentage, an infant in a cruel world, a world that wanted him dead. The word became flesh (vulnerable) and lived among us.
This vulnerability is revealed in the ministry of Jesus, in his willingness to associate with the lowly, the outcast, and the poor. Jesus’ love for children, his willingness to include women among his followers, and his attention to those who had been cast to the margins of society were acts of vulnerability that resulted in the criticisms and threats.
God’s vulnerability is expressed in Jesus’ willingness to do what was right and what was good, to do God’s work, even when it brought criticism from the religious and political establishment. Those who are prophetic in this world, who are courageous to tell God’s truth, will always be vulnerable to the threats of the status quo.
God’s vulnerability is expressed in Jesus’ willingness to choose ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Even at the risk that some of those ordinary people will betray him.
God’s vulnerability is expressed in two scenes of Holy Week. The first happens in an upper room where Jesus goes to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. He shared wine and bread with them and said a very human thing, “Don’t forget me.” Later on the cross he would out of a sense of abandonment, “Why have you forgotten me?”
In John’s Gospel he not only takes his place with the 12, he gets up from the table wraps a towel around his waste and begins to wash the disciples’ dirty feet. The vulnerable one came into the world to serve, not to be served.
Dr. Doug Meeks has pointed out that servants are the powerless and most vulnerable people in our world, but the towel of a slave becomes the authority symbol of the church, for only those who serve have authority in the kingdom of God. It is the towel of servanthood—it is the towel that wipes the eyes of Saul of Tarsus, it is the towel that cradles an orphaned baby in Malawi, Africa, it is the towel that wraps the casserole carried to a grieving family, it is the towel that wipes the brow of a migrant worker. We are saved by the vulnerability of servanthood! (From lecture notes.)
It is only Jesus, the servant who has the authority to save us. Hosanna! Save us, now!
We are saved by God’s vulnerability, ultimately revealed in God’s sacrificial love. The second scene of Holy Week is the scene of the crucifixion. Crucifixion was no unusual in Jesus’ day. Yet it is our belief that not only was Jesus crucified, but he was crucified for us.
Paul wrote, “Why you might be willing to die for a good person, but God shows God’s love for us in that, at the right time, Jesus died for the ungodly (that’s us).” (Romans 5:6)
In Jesus we are reminded that God was willing to become vulnerable to our suffering. This God suffers with us and understands our suffering. This symbol of suffering as a symbol of salvation is difficult to understand, but a God who doesn’t suffer with us isn’t much help to us, frankly. It is this God who loves the world and has the power to save us!
When my wife and I were quite young, we took our camping gear and made a tour of Virginia. We pitched our tent at Virginia Beach. On a Sunday when we were packing up our little car to go home, we decided to attend worship at the campground. We met an older couple there. They were smartly dressed in white slacks and matching polo shirts. We started a conversation and the woman said, “I feel like I know you from somewhere.”
After the service they invited us to stop by their RV for coffee. We found their “campsite” and their massive Recreation Vehicle. They had poodle with toenails painted pink and a matching bow in her fur. They gave us coffee and toast and we shared our faith stories. The woman said, “I’m pretty sure I’ve met you before but I can’t imagine where.” Kathryn and I had nothing in common with this couple. We were young and poor. Our clothes smelled of last night’s campfire and I felt a little embarrassed, but the older couple was gracious.
As we were leaving the woman came out of the RV to bring us a jar of honey as a gift. She said, “Oh I know where I met you before. We met at the foot of the cross.”
To find salvation we must bring our own vulnerabilities to this one who came from God. We were there at the cross and we do find ourselves in the stories of Holy Week. We were there when Jesus said, “One of you will betray me.” And we turned to the others and asked, “Is it I?” knowing full well the possibility of our betrayal. We were there with Caiaphas defending the status quo at all costs. We washed our hands with Pilate to rid ourselves of guilt and responsibility. We warmed our selves by the fire with Peter and refused to honor our faith. We were there at the cross when the Savior said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”