“Two names”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Isaiah 50:4-9
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:1-27:66

We have two names for this Sunday in the Church Year. The first is Palm Sunday. It remembers the citizens of Jerusalem placing palm branches and clothing on the road in front of Jesus and His entourage. The name Passion Sunday is less familiar and perhaps confusing to some. “Passion,” as a contemporary term, is usually equated with steamy “adult” activities or that mysterious something afflicting passengers on The Love Boat. In connection with Passion Sunday, the term comes from the Latin and refers to the suffering of Jesus during the final week of His earthly life.

We usually think of Jesus’ time of suffering as the time from His praying in Gethsemane to His death on the cross. Passion Sunday marks the beginning of the week when those events occurred. We associate the day itself with what has been called Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem. Consequently, we associate the day with a parade, fanfare and celebration, rather than suffering. But think about the mixed emotions that were stirring inside Jesus as He rode into town.

Many of the same people providing this “ticker tape” parade, usually reserved for kings and conquering heroes, would turn on Him by the end of the week. Shouts of “Hosanna” would be exchanged for “Crucify Him!” Even on Sunday, Jewish leaders probably glared menacingly at Him. His disciples, dazzled by the glory and proud to be associated with Him, would eventually betray Him, deny knowing Him and forsake Him.

Throughout His earthly life, Jesus was no stranger to suffering. He was born of a peasant woman in a shelter made for livestock. He labored with His hands, a king without servants or palace. He was discouraged by failure, saddened by disappointment, a walker of roads, moved to tears, and suffering such basic pains as hunger and thirst. This final week, however, is marked with physical abuse few of us will ever know.

He walked to Golgotha with His body showing the marks of piercing thorns, tearing lashes, brutal blows, and smelling of human saliva. Once at Golgotha, He died a torturous and humiliating death. His emotional pain surpasses our understanding. He suffered alone — betrayed, denied and abandoned.

Even the presence of His mother and John is less a sign of loyalty than a result of their lack of personal risk. One was no threat and thus not threatened. The other had friends in high places to protect him.

Jesus didn’t suffer because of bad luck, bad choices, wrong behavior, sickness or accident. He did not suffer because of happenstance, like Job in the Old Testament, nor did He deliberately expose Himself like a masochist. He chose to suffer, but not because He had no other choice. He did it to redeem other sufferers, identifying with human suffering as a means of eliminating or at least alleviating it.

We must remember that He didn’t have to go to Jerusalem that week. He had alternatives. He could have played it safe like His disciples wanted Him to. He could have simply avoided the whole mess, but He had a mission. The suffering world needed a suffering Savior. You and I are why He chose to go to Jerusalem and to His death.

Palm Sunday reminds me, most of all, of the flipping coin of loyalty and disloyalty. We might do well to rename the day as Loyalty Sunday. The problem with that title is that it is a name associated with stewardship ventures, tithe and pledge campaigns. Maybe that’s not so bad either, since those Sundays also reveal the flipping coin. Preachers are applauded by their loyal followers when they say we should love Jesus with something as nondescript as our lives, but it is quite another story if they say we should love Him with our wallets. Loving Him literally with their lives was the option and danger to the disciples — they, unlike Jesus, chose to play it safe.

Contemporary disciples are very similar to our First Century counterparts. We will flock to our churches in great numbers to join Christ in His parade, but less than a third of us can stand to even look at Him in His passion on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Even greater numbers will participate in His real triumph the following Sunday.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love super celebrations of the parade and the power packed victory of the resurrection. For me, there is no better time to be in God’s House to praise and thank Him and rejoice with each other. I do not hold with those who fault others for only showing up for major festivals. In fact, it sometimes appears to me that many who cluck their tongues and point their fingers at what they call “C & E” (Christmas and Easter) Christians are somehow jealous because they “had to” go all through the rest of the year. How sad.

I suggest that all of us can take this opportunity to examine and renew our loyalty to Christ. Loyalty is held by almost everyone to be one of, if not, the highest of virtues, just as genuine love is the highest of relationships. Yet both are on precarious perches. The problem is that anything short of total loyalty is perceived as disloyalty. Likewise, anything short of the humanly impossible, yet somehow expected, perfect love causes a reeling about to outright hate.

Over my years of pastoring, nothing was so painful as the “about-face” of people who were once close to me. It happened to a few people because of my own stupid blundering. It happened to others because they had false expectations of me. Some of them confused the Carpenter with His tool. Some, after being exposed to the stark reality and frightening frailty of my human weaknesses, spurned me and turned on me.

It is not a phenomenon limited to me or even to the clergy. It is the common experience of parents and children, newlywed husbands and wives, teachers and students, workers and bosses, doctors and patients, generals and privates. No human beings live up to our romanticized images of them.

Jesus neither failed nor misled His followers, but He did disappoint their false expectations. I understand the crowds turning on Him, but the part that probably hurt the most was being abandoned by those who loved Him. He even faced the tough decision of His Father not to rescue Him and let the cup pass. We read about His temptations elsewhere, but imagine how tempted He must have been to reject His fair-weather-friends. We are also tempted to reproach them for disloyalty.

Some people are shocked to learn that Peter denied even knowing Jesus. I wonder how our Lord feels about His present day disciples who, unlike the first twelve, are not threatened with punishment or death, yet live mostly as if they don’t know Him. Does it grieve Him that those who say they love Him spend more Sundays away from their house of worship than in it, ignore His mission for their own selfish pursuits and fail persistently at their loyalty for no greater reason than their enduring apathy?

I don’t mention these things to make anyone feel guilty. That will not accomplish anything positive. When the rooster crowed, Peter ran away and wept bitterly. It was only after the resurrection, when he personally experienced the incomprehensible love and forgiveness of his Lord and the empowering of the Holy Spirit, that he could indeed be loyal unto death.

We must come regularly and persistently to the means of grace and personally to the Mercy Seat of God, if our fear and apathy are to be replaced by genuine loyalty. We must not only see the Lord’s suffering, but know and experience the for-us-ness of it. I think it’s an interesting twist. First we are His mission. Then His mission is our mission.

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