Palm Sunday: The God Who Forsakes Us. On the Cross, Jesus said, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’
“Troops of the local garrison herded the onlookers to the sides of the broad street. Heralds clad in white blew the trumpets of the day. Then, to cries of delight and scattered applause, hundreds of fresh-faced young women materialized in the center of the avenue, strewing flowers along the baked brick pavement. Behind them, a phalanx of local officials and priests paraded solemnly, blessing the crowds as they passed.
“Noblemen appeared, mounted on prancing horses. Next came the emperor’s household troops, marching in close order, their shields and breastplates gleaming. A pause in the procession…and then a great eruption of cheers as the two conquerors rode into view side by side, each man crowned with laurel and driving a chariot decked in royal purple. Captured Persian officers in chains trudged in their wake, followed by scores of open wagons piled high with captured treasure. At last came the army, standards fluttering in the sun, in endless waves of disciplined humanity.
“The crowd roared its approval. Emperor Diocletian and his second in command, Garelius, rode side by side in a triumphant entry into the city of Antioch. As Ruler of the World, Diocletian was not at all unhappy to see his younger colleague acclaimed. The need for talented commanders was what had led him to create the divide between East and West in the Roman Empire. Each region led by a Caesar Augustus, Diocletian’s title in the East, and a general, known simply as Caesar, Garelius’ title. The Augustus of the East had no need to fear his Caesar’s popularity. The older man was recognized everywhere as Rome’s supreme leader and savior: the ruler who, at long last, had turned back the barbarian invaders, reorganized the empire’s finances and administration, and renewed the Roman world’s faith in its future. He was already Diocletian the Great.” (And as a footnote, Diocletian led the second great persecution of the Christian church.)
This description of a glorious entry was written by historical author Richard Rubenstein. Such grandeur and spectacle was the norm for Roman triumphal entries into a major city…. And it was probably similar to triumphal entries of Roman leaders and generals into the occupied province’s city of Jerusalem.
That kind of parade was the experience of the bustling crowds in Jerusalem that 1st-century morning when they heard that the popular rabbi, Jesus, was about to enter Jerusalem during the high holy week of Passover for the Jews. With the backdrop of my description of a Roman triumphal entry, think how Matthew described this Jesus who entered: on a donkey, not the majesty of a white steed…having common people laying tree branches, coats and cloaks in his path, not scores of women strewing flowers…and not a blast of trumpets, but the cries of common street people. What a surprise it must have been to the uninvolved crowds who looked on. It may have even seemed farsical…that someone being hailed as the Messiah, or deliverer, would be so, well, plain! The second tier of onlookers, and certainly religious and political leaders, may have been laughing in derision.
On this day we call Palm Sunday – or Passion Sunday, since it was the beginning of the Passion Week – the authors of the book of Matthew, written 50 years after Jesus’ death, described this scene with a message in mind. As Jesus scholars tell us, the gospels were written long after Jesus, and reflected the experience and thinking of another generation. The Spirit was still speaking after Jesus life just as God’s spirit spoke through Jesus. Marcus Borg writes that their narratives of Jesus were intended to convey a metaphorical message. We don’t know exactly what happened that day, but something like it may have. And the gospel’s authors fashioned a story that reflected their experience of God’s Spirit since that triumphal entry. They looked back on a Jesus who had been defeated by the Romans. He had been executed. They needed to tell a story that made sense of the awful event of crucifixion in light of the beautiful inspiration they had experienced in the 50 years since.
Their conclusion after wrestling with this irony? That the domination system of the empire and the religious authorities would not be “conquered” by force or political power – the Jesus movement had grown because Jesus described forgiveness outside organized religion and temple rituals, because he demonstrated sacrificial love that transformed people’s lives, and because he modeled public love by reaching across social barriers to help those in need, and he taught his disciples to do the same. They witnessed a new way of living, a transformation that came after Jesus died. Borg describes it this way:
“Jesus’ death was a revelation of ‘the way.’ His death and resurrection are seen as the embodiment of the path of internal psychological and spiritual transformation that lies at the center of the Christian life…. The path, not exclusive to Christianity, is dying to an old way of being and being raised into a new way of being.”
So, it sounds nice…but what does that “new way of being” look like? We might see it in a 2011 book by Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickle and Dimed, about the poor in America. She writes about going to a tent revival meeting in PortlandMaine. The preacher’s theme was ‘Jesus on the cross’ and the importance of believing in him in order to go to heaven. As Ehrenreich listened and looked around at the mostly impoverished audience, she thought:
It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious social critic, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of a lot of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.
With that in mind, I want to move now to another recent and provocative take on the meaning of the crucifixion, by a relatively young new theologian, Peter Rollins, in his book Insurrection. I probably can’t do justice to his theme in such a short time, but I think it’s worth daring to try. Rollins says that we don’t take the Cross, the crucifixion, seriously enough, or radically enough. I’ll try to condense his views in a series of steps.
1. The religious God, as he calls it, of Christianity is a supreme Being who created all things, loves his creation, and has communicated a way of divine connection that we can know. God is personal and available to us by faith, with whom we can have an intimate and transformative relationship. Because God is an object worthy of love, we are called to love what God loves and desires for humanity.
2. This God of religion (any religion) desires our praise and adoration, and because God loves us, we can then be fulfilled and at peace, without fear about the future in this life or the next. We can have our inner peace and our community of faith to help us through hard times. In God, we have a spiritual refuge, a place of security. We will also reach out to those in need, who are out there, and by so doing show our love for this God.
3. Rollins suggests that this view does not fully comprehend the Cross and what it means to be “crucified with Christ.” The Cross came after Jesus was condemned by Rome, excoriated by Jews, and forsaken by his friends. The Cross was where Jesus, the human being, cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and then he died. If we do not believe in the traditional, literal resurrection of Jesus, then this was the end of Jesus’ life. The God he believed in, had forsaken him. He knew of nothing that followed his death.
Rollins suggests that for us, embracing the Cross means letting go of the God of religion, the being out there who loves us and helps us be better. The Cross means giving up God as a loving parent who guides and protects us as his children. “Putting away childish things” means for Rollins forsaking this view of God as our security blanket. Being an adult means seeing parents as friends and equals, not as the all-powerful saviors we once thought. Being a spiritual adult, Rollins writes, means giving up the belief that such a God exists. It means experiencing that God forsaking us…in other words, giving up the false view of a comforting, parental, protecting God out there. He writes:
“We find a fundamental transformation in the way we are to approach God, a shift that takes us away from the religious understanding, which treats God as an object worthy of love, to a religion-less understanding, in which God is only found in the very act of love itself…. Is this not the properly theological understanding of God? Not a being we directly love, but rather the depth present in the very act of love itself.”
“When God is found in love itself, then the very act of loving brings us into immediate relationship with the deepest truth of all. In love, the fragile, broken, temporal individual or cause that draws forth our desire becomes the very site where we find pleasure and peace. God no longer pulls on us as something ‘out there’; rather, God is a presence that is made manifest in our very midst.”
Then, Rollins describes what it means to claim that a man dying on a cross is God. “God is the name we give to the way of living in which we experience the world as worthy of living for, fighting for, and dying for.”
Finally, Rollins quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who wrote extensively, even from prison, and who was later executed for his participation in the resistance. Bonhoeffer understood forsakenness and describes this spiritual coming of age.
We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world [even if there were no God]. And this is just what we do recognize…. [the Spirit] compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation…. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us…. Before God and with God, we live without God, who lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.
“In other words, the claim ‘I believe in God’ is nothing but a lie if it is not manifest in our lives, because one only believes in God insofar as one loves…. In Christianity, to believe in God means nothing other than to be the site where love is born.”
I have personally felt a resistance to giving up a God who is a loving lap to rest in, who cares about my every move, who broods over me like a hen. I feel like I am straddling two views of the divine, afraid to be pushed out of the nest…wanting to be a child and an adult at the same time. Afraid to be pushed out… but flap as I will in the nest, I’m not flying. Can I give up my life — my broken theology, my security, my certainty — for Love?
In the act of self-giving love itself, God is. “No greater love has anyone than this: that he gives up his life for a friend. I have called you friends.” — Jesus