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April 14, 2019

“Our Struggle With Spirit and Flesh”

Matthew 23:36-46

Palm Sunday is complicated. It almost has a split personality. We began the service this morning coming down the aisle shouting “Hosanna!” waving palm branches and reenacting Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem singing a hymn in a victorious tone. Yet as the service goes on, we find ourselves preparing for Holy week, heading towards acts of betrayal and of the cross. We move all too quickly from celebration and triumph to deceit and crucifixion.

 

At the beginning of the festival of Passover, Jesus is hailed as the “King of Kings” and the “Lord of Lords.” Yet just one week later, he is cursed at, spit upon, and put to death. Such a sudden turn by the crowds in just 7 days... Why? Why did the shouts of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” turn so rapidly to “Crucify him!”?

 

This turn of events is difficult to comprehend and hard for us to want to focus much time upon. We want to fast forward from the triumphant entry beyond the suffering Christ to an empty grave. Why is this? It is because we glimpse a bit of our own darker nature in the actions of the fickle crowds. We shy away from these parts of the story because we don’t like to admit the truth about ourselves, to spend time in the darkness. If we did admit to our darker tendencies, attendance would be huge at the Maundy Thursday service instead of feel-good Easter Sunday. Yet this passage gives insight to our nature and will prepare us for the journey from the cross to the empty tomb over this coming week.

 

By the time we get to today’s passage, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem has faded into the past. Jesus entered into the city, and then challenged the powers of the day, not winning him popularity among the faithful or the leaders of the synagogue. He threw the money changers out of the temple, challenged the scribes and Pharisees to their faces, and taught the disciples about the end of things, and the importance of serving “The least of these.”

 

By the time we arrive at today’s passage in Verse 36, Judas has set his act of betrayal into motion; the disciples have gathered for an emotional goodbye Passover at the last supper, where Jesus confronted Judas. Then they went together to the Mount of Olives, where he had entered into the city just 6 days before, welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd. Here instead Jesus confronted his friends and told them they would ALL fall away, not just Judas.

 

Jesus then took them to the garden of Gethsemane. He was going to pray, to ask God for clarity about his calling, and to see if there might be some way for it not to happen as things were unfolding. There are some Christians who believe that Jesus could never have been fearful or anxious because he was God. Yet this section of scripture reveals the full humanity of Christ. He was sorrowful to the point of death. He was distraught. This was no easy decision. Jesus wasn’t God’s divine robot who went to the cross without a struggle. The human part of him is fully upon display for us in this passage.

 

Three times he went to pray, asking if possible another way be found. After each time of prayer, he went to be with the disciples, possibly to find support from them as he struggled to understand his calling. Yet he found them sleeping- a foreshadowing of things to come, as all of them would fall away. By this time, the disciples had finally come to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, through whom God would establish the Kindom. Yet they did not comprehend the possibility of the Messiah dying upon an instrument of cruel torture. How could the Divine Messiah allow his enemies to kill him? How could God be worthy of worship if the Messiah was abandoned to disgrace and suffering? This night, and the following day, their faiths would be shattered in disillusionment.

 

The first time of praying to God, Jesus asked to “let this cup pass from me.” The cup in question stood for death, or the cup of wrath mentioned throughout the Hebrew scriptures (See Isaiah 51:17,22). Here Jesus asked if possible, for the Kindom of God to be established in another way, without him having to suffer upon the cross and experience public shame. It is during that first time of praying when Jesus begins to get the sense that there is no other way. When he went back for support from his friends, seeing them sleeping, Jesus said to them, The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” I wonder if Jesus was perhaps looking within to his own duality- of flesh and of God, feeling his own inner struggle, hoping for strength as he faced the possibility of death.

 

Notice that the second time Jesus prayed, he was beginning to find solid footing for this difficult calling, saying, “if this cannot pass unless I drink it, Your will be done.” After finding the disciples sleeping once more, he went back to the garden, and he repeated the same words a third time. It is in this moment Jesus accepted the difficult calling that lie ahead, and got up from praying, only to find the disciples sleeping once more. He roused them from their sleep and announced, “the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” Judas and some henchmen awaited, and the rest of the events unfolded, which led to Messiah upon the cross.

 

 

This Sunday, there are two things to ponder. Palm Sunday does have a split personality, and so do we. In every Christian’s life, the attitudes of the crowds at Messiah’s triumphant entry and the sleeping disciples within us are in constant struggle. The Spirit in us is willing, but the flesh is weak. We like to see ourselves in a good light- as an enthusiastic crowd welcoming Messiah, or repentant thief asking Jesus to remember him upon his death. Yet more often, if we really admit it, we expect God to do our bidding, and to fulfill all our expectations. When God does not meet our expectations or life is full of difficulty, we too turn away and fall asleep. When life gets hard, we stop coming to church or make worship a third or fourth priority. We find, like the disciples, disillusionment when our understanding of faith doesn’t match reality, so we too fall away. We believe God doesn’t care about how we live our lives or what we say or do to others; that God does not care what corporations do for profit, or about the needy and wretched souls we pass by, or whose lives we may be destroying through our own sinful behavior. So often our spirits, though willing, are weakened by our humanity. We turn away from the calling of the Spirit of God within us. We glimpse our true human nature as we go through Holy Week, apart from God, and that is painful knowledge indeed.

 

So briefly, let us consider that struggle between spirit and flesh, which Jesus himself struggled with- Is God calling you to something in this life, here and now? Is your flesh fighting it, as Jesus’ own flesh fought against his difficult calling? As you go through the prayer stations this morning, I invite you to ponder this question-To what is God calling you to, today in your life? Jesus prayed, 3 times, asking for clarity, for certainty. In following that calling, humanity was restored. What might happen for this world if you find your call and followed it?

 

Second, we must struggle with this idea of divine atonement. If we could be saved from this darkness ourselves through good deeds, Jesus would have given us a list of activities to erase our sin. But knowing the ways of God, and of the persistence of human sin, Jesus went to the cross, followed his calling and saved us from our very worst selves. Through Christ’s sacrifice, we were reunited with God and lavished with grace.

 

There are indeed some who struggle with this idea of divine atonement. How is it that a loving God would sacrifice Messiah the Son in such a violent way? At times, I too struggle with this concept. And yet, I also find myself comforted by the cross and the crucifixion. For in the violence we see around us today, the cross is there. In the mob mentality of the crowds today, the cross is there. In the suffering and loss, we see around us, and at times we too experience, the cross is there. God understands deep loss, and sacrifice, sorrow profoundly. This knowledge helps me when I too go through the valley of the shadow and experience those things.

 

Rev. Nadia Bolz Webber, who came to town last month and spoke about her faith and understanding of God mentioned she too has struggled with the idea that God would sacrifice another human being to forgive and restore humanity. But she said during her presentation last month that she had come to appreciate the atonement, and in effect repurposed this doctrine. In her understanding of Christ’s sacrifice, it was no human being picked by God who suffered and died for us, but it was literally God upon the cross. There was no distinction at this moment between Christ’s humanity and divinity- God and Christ were merged as one. God was sacrificing God’s own self for humanity. That expression of divine love and sacrifice is a powerful reminder of God’s deep love for us.

 

British Theologian and minister David Watson(1933-84) wrote, “The cross is a picture of violence, yet the key to peace; a picture of suffering, yet the key to healing; a picture of death, yet the key to life.”

 

So may God be with us as we continue the journey of Lent, as we walk through this holiest of weeks. May God help us, like Jesus, to find our calling as we struggle between spirit and flesh. May we go forward in humility as we ponder the meaning of the cross, and of Christ’s sacrifice.

May we prepare our hearts and minds for the transition from darkness into light, from hopelessness to hope, from the agony of the cross to an empty tomb. Amen.

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