It was often difficult to keep up with Jesus. I don’t mean physically… as far as we can tell from Scripture, Jesus’ disciples were all pretty fit, and able to match him step-for-step as he trekked across Galilee and Samaria and to-and-fro on the roads around Jerusalem. What was hard for the disciples to keep up with was Jesus’ intellect… his thought patterns… what was on his mind at any given time. And I’m not putting them down… it’s hard… no, it’s impossible for any of us to know the mind of God. Sometimes you just have to step out in faith and roll with the punches. And they did… right up ‘til the end… which was actually the beginning, but we’ll save that story for another day.
So, in today’s Gospel story, Jesus has just arrived in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophesy shortly after the people of Judah had returned from their Babylonian captivity: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (Zech 9:9) Words of hope… and of God’s never-failing Providence. It hadn’t been that long ago that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead—in front of a crowd—which had made the Pharisees hopping mad. They had decided, then and there, that Jesus needed killin’, but his popularity made any plot against his life kind of tricky. So, the Pharisees were forced to bide their time, like spiders waiting for their prey to stray into the trap they had set. But Jesus was on God’s time, and it didn’t look like today was going to be their day, or tomorrow either at the rate things were going. When he got to the city gates, Jesus had been greeted by a great crowd, many of whom had been present for Lazarus’ resurrection, waving palm branches and shouting loud hosannas to “the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!” Sheesh! the Pharisees must of have thought. “We can do nothing. Look, the whole world has gone after him!” (John 12:12-19).
And the whole world included, apparently, “some Greeks.” Do you remember in our readings from Scripture a couple of weeks ago: Paul was kvetching to the Corinthians about the Jews demanding signs/miracles and the Greeks demanding wisdom/proof before they would believe? (1 Cor 1:22) Well, apparently these Greeks had seen enough of what Jesus was doing from a distance that they wanted to meet him up close and personal. And you’d have thought Jesus would have been pleased about that… like any pastor would be when someone new was thinking about joining his/her church. But Jesus’ reaction must have been a little baffling to Philip and Andrew. “Hey, Jesus! There are some folks here who want to meet you and… get this… they’re Greeks! How about that? They’re with the in-crowd… well-respected… just the sort of folks we need to be part of the movement!” And Jesus’ response? “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” “Wait… what? Oh, no. There he goes again…” the apostles must have thought. And then Jesus seemed to go off on a tangent about wheat and dying… and loving life but losing it… and serving and following…. I can just see Philip and Andrew standing there, scratching their heads and thinking to themselves, “But… what about the Greeks?” Because, you see, Philip and Andrew and the rest of the apostles… and you and I… we have selective hearing. We cry out to the LORD. We say and ask whatever is on our mind… and in our heart. And we have our own preconceived notions about the way the world should work, and how our cries should be answered. And when Jesus redirects us with words of admonishment but also comfort, it sometimes takes us a while to catch up… mentally and intellectually. Philip and Andrew wanted to talk to Jesus about “growing his organization.” And Jesus responded by telling them how they could grow their faith. That’s the way to bear fruit in this world, and ensure your place in the next: by serving and following Jesus and doing what he does.
During our Lenten Adult Formation seminar that meets before worship on Sundays, we’ve spoken a little bit about various “atonement theories,” or precisely how Jesus’ death on the cross serves to relieve us of the burden of our sins, and make us more atoned (at-one’d) with God. Truth to tell, it’s really all just a big mystery… I don’t believe we’ll ever really understand it. Like I said, it’s impossible for us to know the mind of God. But I also believe it’s important for us to “grapple” with this mystery from time to time, in order to better understand what we, as Christians, have signed up for when we commit ourselves to being Christ followers… and to continue his mission and ministry in the world. You may already be aware of a couple of these atonement theories, though you may not have thought of them as such.
One that is very prevalent throughout Christian thinking, both Catholic and Protestant, is known as the “substitutionary” theory. Humankind has sinned—egregiously—and God demands justice. The penalty is death, but God doesn’t want his beloved children to perish, so he sent his Son, Jesus, to pay the penalty to God instead. The slate was thus wiped clean and we humans get a “redo.”
But me, personally? I find this theory kind of baffling. Surely, justice was due, and surely God loves us enough give himself for us without reservation. But it seems to me like there must have been a less-convoluted way of getting the job done. God interceding for us with… himself? That’s a tough one for me.
Another theory of atonement, known by some as “Christus Victor,” holds that that Jesus came to Earth to demonstrate God’s superiority over Satan, which he did by defeating death and, thus, the Devil himself! If sin is anything that separates us from God and, hence, from eternal life in heaven, then sin is tantamount to death. Or, as the Apostle Paul so aptly put it, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). So, when Jesus put away death, he put away our sin, thus breaking Satan’s strangle-hold over the world… and over us… making it possible for us to be at-one’d with God. I found it hard to get my brain wrapped around this theory in seminary, and I still do, and I’m not going to spend any more time on it today because there is a third theory of atonement I’d like to share with you that seems to be supported by the second half of today’s Gospel message. It’s often referred to as the “exemplar” theory of atonement, and it seems to me that it’s what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Whoever serves me must follow me . . . [and] Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (John 12:26).
Humankind “fell from grace” when the first man and the first woman sinned against God in the Garden. Notice I didn’t say that God removed his grace from Adam and Eve. No. They intentionally stepped away—separated themselves from that grace—by failing to trust in God’s Providence, thinking that they could do a better job looking after themselves than God could. That gave Satan a foot in the door, and he rules this world… our world… to this very day. And, just like he did with the first two humans in God’s garden, Satan is forever trying to get us to believe that we don’t need God. We can be happy, healthy and wise on this earth… all by ourselves. Which is a lie. And that’s why Satan is also known as the great “Deceiver.” So, Jesus came to show us how to do better… how we can live our lives in accordance with God’s will… and be “at-one” with God, as we were meant to be from the beginning. Jesus came to earth as a human so that he could show us, by word and example, how we can be fully-human. Jesus came to earth as a human because, in the words of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, “that which he has not assumed, he has not healed.” Jesus saves us—helps us to become more at-one’d with God—by demonstrating what a life lived for God looks like. And it looks like light. The light of Christ.
Our Lenten pilgrimage is nearly over for another year, isn’t it? But I wonder if I’m ready for it to be over. I wonder if I’ll ever really be ready for Lent to be over. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about putting away the purple for a few months… and having flowers on the altar again and being able to say, “Alle…”
…y’all know the word I’m talking about.
I guess what I’m saying is that, the older I get—or maybe the more mature in my faith I become—the greater sense I have of time passing. I’m not talking about the years, necessarily. The years we spend on this earth are of this earth, and they are finite. None of us gets out of this life alive… unless we are able to bring ourselves to trust in God and God’s Providence alone… and give ourselves over to living life for the One who formed us from dust. I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite there yet. I mean, I’m there to some extent, on some days. But I’m not as “there” as I need to be. And that’s why I need Lent. I need to be reminded that I often stray from the path God has set before me. I need to be reminded that only by walking in the Light… the Light of Christ… can I be saved from the darkness and perils of this world and be reunited—at-one’d—with my Creator. So, I’ll keep plugging away, trying to walk in the light, and serve Christ as his hands and feet in our troubled, troubled world. And I hope you will too, because not only will it help bring light and hope to the hopeless in the here-and-now, but it will also be pleasing to our Maker, and the reward will be worth it—worth everything—in the end. So c’mon, c’mon! As difficult as it may be some days, let’s you and I—lets all of us—try and do a better job of keepin’ up with Jesus.
 Gregory of Nazianzus “Critique of Apollinarius and Apollinarianism” http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/gregoryofnaz_critique_of_apolliniarianism.htm