April 17, 2011

On donkey detail

Passage: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 21:1-11, Matthew 21:1-2

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

From a Wall Street Journal review of Everything Is Obvious, by Duncan Watts: “Mr. Watts asks why the Mona Lisa is the most admired painting in the world today – why most people believe it to possess unique, timeless features that set it apart. Before the 20th century, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa wasn’t even the most popular painting in the Louvre. But in 1911 it was stolen, smuggled to Italy and exhibited widely before being returned to France, whereupon Marcel Duchamp—a French artist—defaced a reproduction of it and labelled his work with an obscene pun. The painting rocketed to fame, its pigments and brushstrokes unchanged. The Mona Lisa is the artistic equivalent, claims Duncan Watts, of the investor who did nothing special until he got lucky a few years (or quarters) in a row and was feted as a genius.”

I am no art critic; to be able to comment on the accuracy of Watts’ thesis with regard to the popularity of the Mona Lisa is outside my area of expertise.  I had the privilege of being at the Louvre and I remember that the room that housed the Mona Lisa was very crowded.  Is the painting’s popularity more due to an accident of history than the skill of the painter?

The historian Josephus tells us that there were lots of them in first century Palestine; that is many who claimed the title “Messiah” in order to lead revolt against Roman occupation.  Josephus asserts that Galilee was particularly prone to revolt.  One day people came to Jesus telling him of a recent incident of “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices”; Pilate wanted to send a clear message that any revolutionary would meet a similar end.  Each of the religious parties of Jesus day confronted the question of how to live as faithful Jews in the face of Roman occupation; the Zealots’ answer was the defeat and ouster of Rome.

Make no mistake about what Jesus is claiming for himself on the Palm Sunday donkey ride; this is Jesus’ public announcement that he is the “messiah” promised by God.  The largely-Galilean pilgrims entering the city for the celebration of Passover that day know it—this is why they shout, “save us son of David!” It was why the religious leaders were very nervous.  So let me pose a question: of all the first century claimants for messianic status why does this particular claimant, Jesus, become everywhere known?  Was he simply lucky and the accidents of history worked in his favour—or is the something special about him?

1.  Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  On first blush, being sent on donkey detail may feel like you drew the short straw (or you played “rock-paper-scissors” and lost)—or some such method of determination to see who gets stuck with the job no one wants.

I would invite you to consider that for these disciples—rather than being dejected at being sent—a sense of excitement courses through their beings. Their hearts skip a beat; the time has finally come.  They know precisely what Jesus is doing when he sends them to get a donkey for him to ride; the walk down the Mount of Olives up to the eastern gate where they will enter the temple area is only about one kilometre—he hardly needs transport for a long journey.

It was a few weeks before that Jesus had taken just the twelve disciples on a retreat from the relentless pressures of public ministry. They came to Caesarea Philippi; it is a beautiful place where a stream rushes from the foot of Mount Hermon—one of the sources for the Jordan river.  In Jesus day the area was replete with temples to the Roman and Greek gods of the era; surrounded by the idols of the world Jesus asked the disciples, who do you say that I am?  Peter answered for them—you are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God.  Jesus assures them they are correct, but for the moment to keep the news to themselves.

But now on the road down the Mount of Olives what had formally been kept quiet was being broadcast.  Jesus was finally, openly declaring what the disciples had previously declared—he is the Messiah.  In their approach to Jerusalem, Jesus was, in essence, asking every pilgrim on the road with him what he asked the disciples at Caesarea Philippi—who do you say that I am? The crowd responded—you are the Messiah.  Donkey detail was anything but the job no one wanted—it was to begin what they were longing for Jesus to do.  It was to announce to the world who they knew Jesus to be—he’s the Messiah.

But could they really have known the full weight of the historic moment in which they were participating?  They knew the survival rate of Messiahs against Rome was not good—what made them think this time it would be different; by Friday it will appear that Rome won again.

A week ago Saturday we served 450 at dinner here at Central; some of you were scraping dishes, others cooking, some serving, etc.  In many ways it is akin to the donkey detail the disciples were on.  In addition to opening our doors to the community, through the dinner we raised funds to be used for the primary mission of the church—the public worship of God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  We gather to lift our voices with the disciples on the Palm Sunday walk—Jesus is the Messiah.

We may feel sometimes that our witness is having very little impact; that the blessings our messiah would bring to our hurting world are being rejected and thwarted by the powers of the this world.  As Palm Sunday shows us, popularity is not always an indicator that things are going well; further, the rejection that follows immediately on the heels of this popularity in not an indication that the salvation history God is weaving has been thwarted.

3. Dr. MacCullouch is the Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University. I am currently working my way through his recent book Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years; his use of ‘three thousand years’ is intended to invite readers to consider if Christianity has a future.

Of Christianity he writes: “Its central message is the story of a person, Jesus, whom Christians believe is also the Christ; an aspect of God who was, is and shall ever be, yet who is at the same time a human being, set in historic time.  Christians believe that they can still meet this human being in a fashion comparable to the experience of the disciples who walked with him in Galilee and saw him die on the Cross.  They are convinced that this meeting transforms lives ...”

In speaking of his craft as an historian he notes: “I make no pronouncement as to whether Christianity, or indeed any religious belief, is ‘true’.  This is a necessary self-denying ordinance.  ... historians do not possess a prerogative to pronounce on the truth of the existence of God itself, any more than do (for example) biologists.  There is, however, an important aspect of Christianity on which it is the occupation of historians to speak; the story of Christianity is undeniably true, in that it is part of human history.”  (p. 11)

Dr. MacCullouch has accurately described the limits of the historian’s craft; as I read he is, in my view, a highly skilled historian.  The difference in reading his story of the church and that of Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, for example, is that of a missing or added dimension; Dr. MacCullouch makes no mention of what he believes God may or may not be up to; Luke’s book may more accurately be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit.

The historian reads the Palm Sunday walk as the adventures of a first century Galilean rabbi whose donkey ride into Jerusalem conspired with a number of accidents of history to make him famous.  For the historian the donkey detail is simply a necessity; if he was going to ride a donkey someone had to go get the donkey.

Then as now Jesus continues to call us to see that there is something else going on—who do you say that I am?  This is God weaving the tapestry of his salvation history through the events of the lives of ordinary people.  The existence of the church is a result of that same weaving work of God; just as it was for those disciples gathered around Jesus that first Palm Sunday assisting him in his declaration as Messiah so it is with us gathered around him today lending our lives to declare Jesus the Messiah.  God continues today, by the mystery of his mighty working, to weave his tapestry of salvation in our history.

4.  Move with me for a moment to the generation for whom Matthew wrote his gospel. The apostles are spokespersons for our Lord who point to him.  They are witnesses.  And yet by the mysterious but real work of God their witness to him becomes the means whereby he imparts himself afresh.  Those who have been listening the Apostle Matthew’s description of Jesus’ Triumphal entry, considering what he had to say, are startled as they realize that the one about whom Matthew has been speaking; this one is now in their midst, is speaking to them himself.  Suddenly they know themselves invited, summoned even, to the same intimacy and obedience, comfort and contentment that the disciples have known for years.  In other words, the distinction between hearing about Jesus Christ and meeting him; this distinction has fallen away.  For this reason Jesus announces, “Whoever hears the apostles hears me; and whoever rejects them rejects me.” (Luke 10:16)

But of course apostles don’t live forever.  As it becomes obvious that history will continue to unfold after the apostles have died, their testimony is written down.  Written now, it is treasured.  Their testimony written will henceforth function in exactly the same way as it used to function spoken.  In other words, as the apostolic testimony written is owned and invigorated by God, people today who read it for themselves or hear it expounded in church find themselves acquainted with the selfsame Jesus Christ.  Apostolic testimony written is scripture.  It remains the God-appointed occasion wherein we encounter the living Lord Jesus Christ.

For the church of Jesus Christ to perform its function—for Central United Church to have its God ordained function—there is lots of “donkey detail”, so to speak, to be attended to.  Historically speaking it may not look like much—people in committee meetings, greeters welcoming people, computers being operated, ushers assisting in our offering, communion elements being offered, dishes being cleaned, outreach projects chosen and supported, etc—in as much as it is Christ who sends us on such detail there is something greater going on.  Our living Lord is acquainting himself with people right here, right now.