The Real Deal

John 12:12-16
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

One of the best parts about the Matrix series are the Christological themes we can discover within these movies. Many films have used Christ figures to enrich their stories. In The Matrix trilogy, however, the Christ figure motif goes beyond superficial plot enhancements and forms the fundamental core of a three-part story. Neo's messianic growth (in self-awareness and power) and his eventual bringing of peace and salvation to humanity form the essential plot of the trilogy. Neo gradually transforms from mild-manneredsoftware programmer and hacker into a messianic figure who discovers the power within himself to defeat the machine enemy. But it’s his journey to self-realization that prepares him for becoming the One.

I think it is fitting that our scripture text for this morning is also about journeys—specifically Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Today is the beginning of our liturgical journey to Holy Week. What an exciting adventure! In just one week we will celebrate Easter Sunday—the ultimate celebration of the risen Christ. But this celebration seldom has as much meaning unless we remember the last days of Jesus throughout Holy Week. If we just focused on the Palm Sunday narrative this morning, some might feel the mood of victory and joy is premature, stealing its message from Easter yet to come. Others suggest that we Christians should focus our attention today on the passion of Christ leading up to his death.

It appears that others have also been confused by the events in between these two Sundays. On a previous Palm Sunday a 3 year old boy had to stay home from church because of strep throat. When the rest of the family returned home carrying palm branches, the little boy asked what they were for. His mother explained, "People held them over Jesus' head as he walked by." "Wouldn't you know it," the boy fumed. "The one Sunday I don't go, and Jesus shows up".

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So, what are we celebrating today? Is it an occasion to celebrate when Jesus shows up in our midst? Or is it a time to reflect on the passion of Christ leading up to Easter? I’d like to take a different approach this morning. Instead of talking about the mood of our journey toward Easter, I’d like to talk about Jesus’ own journey to Jerusalem—Jesus’ own journey toward recognizing who he was as God’s beloved and how he came to know exactly what that meant.

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Did Jesus, like Neo, ever doubt that he was the One? As he began his journey to Jerusalem to confront the Powers-That-Be, did he ever doubt that he was still God’s beloved? Did he ever wonder if he could go through with it? Did he know what was awaiting him when he arrived? We may never know that for sure, but what we do know is that throughout his life, Jesus took the time to heal the sick, minister to the outcast and the marginalized, and broke bread with all kinds of folks whom others disdained and oppressed. But he doesn’t simply touch and heal and minister and break bread with those who are marginalized. He also called into question the systems that allowed some “in” and keep some “out.”  Time and time again, in each of the gospels, Jesus is portrayed challenging the Roman occupation and the religious authorities who oppressed those not considered clean. It was to offer this challenge that he went to Jerusalem, the seat of power—at the beginning of what we call, “Holy Week.”  “Can we make this journey with Jesus?” “Can we move toward the Jerusalems in our lives and confront the Powers-That-Be?” “Do we have the courage and the strength, to risk crucifixion?” 

There are no easy answers.  For like the journey that Jesus took toward his Jerusalem, our choices involve risking ourselves. For some it means coming out. For others it means sacrificing time and energy.  For still others, it means speaking truth to those who might respond with condemnation. As we struggle with these realities, we remember the crucified one. But we also remember that crucifixion was not the end of the journey. Resurrection was! And that is the ground of our journey toward Easter. Although we must engage the Powers-That-Be; although such confrontation is risky and, indeed, death-dealing at times; although we are scared and can lose hope—the final word is always God’s desire for making love and life abundant.

It is this “social gospel” that continues to challenge my conception of the passion of Christ. As I wrestled with my own failure, I remembered that I was in good company. Jesus the man was a failure too. In the eyes of the world, Jesus’ life and ministry were most certainly failures. He did not change the hearts of all who heard him, nor did he usher in a visible reign of God on earth. To those who expected a socio-political savior, he failed to liberate Palestine from Roman rule. He even failed to gain the loyalty of his own disciples, who abandoned him and denied any association with him. He died a humiliating, lonely, and painful death, taunted and ridiculed for being who he truly was.

As I struggle with my own understanding of Christ’s passion, I often find myself contemplating more fully what joy I have found in the life of Jesus—and not just his death. Like Jesus, so many witnesses to the history of Christian faith lived much of their lives in anticipation of God’s redemptive work. They had been waiting for God’s kingdom to replace a world oppressed by politics and religion. Our gospel story reiterates the incredible powerlessness that the Messiah embodied. It reveals the plan and purpose of God in the ordinary. The embodiment of our faith is contained in a king who had—not a throne, not wealth, not power—but passion. That’s the story of Jesus.

The Journal of Religion and Film published an article about the Matrix Trilogy after it concluded in 2005, suggesting that Christian culture has seem to forget the power of the resurrected Jesus. And so, films like the Matrix have taken the place of the church in contemporary culture. These films raise many questions about our society, showing us nightmarish possible futures. "The Matrix is doing something absolutely unique in the history of cinema. It is preaching a sermon to you from the only pulpit left. It is calling you to action, to change, to reform and modify your ways.”

So here’s our challenge. How do we reenter our world with the same passion with which Jesus entered Jerusalem? With the same creativity that movies like the Matrix promote Christological themes? Authentic Christian ministry has often required we disobey the laws structured by the governing religious majority. Civil disobedience has its roots in a very controversial Christian movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. King was the real deal.

Another great man known for his theology of non-violence was Kahatma Gandhi. He believed that the religion of nonviolence was meant for the common people. It was his humility, love for humankind and his passion for nonviolence that made him an uncommon hero. He was the real deal.

Another such uncommon hero was Mother Teresa who was always her own person, startlingly independent, obedient, yet challenged preconceived notions and expectations. Even up until her death in 1997, Mother Teresa continued her work among the poorest of the poor, depending on God for all of her needs. She was another of God’s passionate Christs. She was the real deal.

And that brings us back to our original question this morning. What are we celebrating this morning? Jesus showing up—or Jesus leaving? Perhaps Jesus own words this morning give us a clue. He simply states to his disciples in a vivid image of praise and passion; “If these crowds were silent, then the stones would shout out!” It is a statement that conveys our good news today: some things simply must be said; truth cannot be silenced. God will provide a witness though every mouth might be stopped.

As I dream about our ministry together, I want to feel the passion of Martin Luther King, who answered the call against social injustice in our country, even when that meant civil disobedience. I want a passion to give voice to those who have been prejudiced by homophobic definitions of family values. Like Mother Teresa, I want a passion to follow Christ into the slums to serve him among the poorest of the poor. Like Gandhi, I want a passion to disarm violence in our government, and in our neighborhoods.

I want the passion of Christ. I want to be the real deal. And so I challenge you. What’s your passion? Like Jesus, are you willing to be the real deal?  As you review your bulletin reflection at the beginning of Holy Week, remember that the passion of Jesus is your passion too. And Jesus summed it up in a simple commandment, “Love one another As I have loved you.” But it will take more than just good intentions; it demands your attention and your commitment to living the way of Jesus. It starts by practicing the way of Jesus. Let’s pray.

Oh God of compassion. We welcome your Spirit into this place. We quiet our hearts and listen for you to speak to us. In the midst of the many messages and competing authorities in our culture we ask for discernment. We desire to know what is real and what is fake or artificial in our lives. We seek to experience an authentic sign of the Spirit of Christ in our hearts. Are there doubts within us that keep us from knowing you more fully? We recognize these doubts, and let them pass through us. Are we confused by the competing messages in our culture for the correct solutions to our problems? We acknowledge our uncertainty, and let it flow from us. Do we yearn for an authentic experience of your God presence in us? We affirm our need, and let it take root within us. Holy Spirit, move through us like the wind of a spring breeze, filling us with your love and your grace. Strengthen us with your courage to confront our own Jerusalems, those journeys in our lives that help recognize we are God’s beloved. Speak to our hearts and tell us what that means. In the name of the One who showed us the way. Amen.