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Erik Erikson suggested that trust verses mistrust is an indicator for very young children as to whether or not we will flourish as people. Some forces have eroded trust in our time. In the face of the onslaught of critical historical and scientific analyses in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Christianity turned inward. The test of truth became not so much Did this happen? or Can it be proven? but Has it changed my life? and Does it make me feel close to God?
Pietism is not bad, but it can become the only way people experience God. John Wesley spoke of a warm heart in relation to grace, but he also preached a Gospel of sanctification of meeting God out in the marketplace of business and politics.
The problem with pietism is that it located God only in terms of my experience. There are many bigoted, prejudiced people who claim to know all about God because they have blinders on in terms of how social policy effects the poor. God is god of the cosmos and not just of my heart.
Another erosion of public trust lies with a suspicious of authority, be it police, teachers, clergy or politicians, not simply because of personal failures, but because our culture has largely repudiated the whole idea of hierarchical roles and relationships. Once we may not have liked authority figures, but we still trusted them; today we may like them, but we don’t trust them.
A similar change with trust has taken place in community. Almost everyone uses community as a good word – a place of stability, trust, shared values, joint efforts, and abiding respect. But I wonder how many people in church today are still living in the neighborhood in which they grew up. Very few, I’m guessing.
Why? Because community may offer trust, but that trust in some places comes at a price of great prejudice, small-mindedness, perhaps having long memories for things you’d prefer to be forgotten, resistance to change, and the death of ambition. We say we want community, and the trust that comes with never locking our doors; but we make social choices that suggest the opposite.
So that means we place a colossal weight of expectation on romantic relationships to bear the whole burden of trust that once used to be shared across authority structures and local communities. In short we’ve domesticated trust, instrumentalized most of the relationships of the workplace, and evacuated public life of mutual responsibility. All of which makes the passion narrative horrifying reading.
When Palm Sunday comes everyone wants to be Jesus’ friend. The tidal wave of popularity that has on occasion looked like carrying Jesus to national prominence, lifts him high on a crest of the palm branches and hallelujahs. But a few days later the same crowd has turned sour and their eyes have turned to hatred as they screech ‘Crucify!’ You can’t trust a crowd. You can’t place your faith in popularity. It blows with the wind.
But what about Jesus’ nearest and dearest? One of the twelve, Judas can’t bear the way things are going. What’s his problem? Is it that he believes Jesus has everything, but is tossing it away. Is it that he wakes up and realizes he’s backed the wrong horse, and violent confrontation is the only way to displace the Romans? Is it that he envies Jesus and aches to get the limelight himself? Or does he think he knows better than Jesus and wants to force Jesus to defeat the Romans by triggering a dramatic showdown?
We’ll never know. But at the most intimate moment of friendship, the Last Supper, Judas and Jesus dip their bread together – before Judas runs out to give the game away. It’s a fundamental betrayal: deliberate, planned, devastating.
And what of the other disciples? Jesus asks three of them to watch while he prays, and they all fall asleep. Then the soldiers arrive and the disciples run. So much for all their promises to be by Jesus’ side till kingdom come.
When the going gets tough the tough get lost, till there’s one left. Peter, in the courtyard, cock-a-doodle-doo. Not once not twice, but three times. This isn’t flaky Judas or soon-to-be-doubting Thomas. This is Peter, the rock, the one with the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the church’s one foundation. What a scene of devastation. Don’t let the fact that you know the story so well allow you to ignore how catastrophic this is.
We have a script half-written in our heads; Jesus is misunderstood by the masses, double-crossed by the authorities, disposed of by the Romans, but his tight-knit band of beloved disciples abandoned him.
That’s a story, straight out of Henry V. We so want to believe that arbitrary duty and outdated responsibility are vanquished, but true commitment, profound trust, and eyeball-to-eyeball loyalty conquer everything.
But it turns out that story’s in tatters. Our trust in human goodness, in the power of love and best friends forever and manly handshakes and undying commitment is practically spent. It’s hanging by a thread. The passion story tells how a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens totally disintegrated into betrayal, snoring, flight and denial.
It’s as if Jesus anticipated our contemporary faith in personal relationships and said, ‘Don’t be so sentimental. You’re loading on to personal trust a burden it can’t bear: look at what the disciples are really like. What makes you think you’re any different?’
As the prayer of confession puts it, ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.’ Our trust in ourselves is hanging by a thread. But it’s not as simple as that. Humanity is also capable of grace and kindness beyond our imagination. And that goodness is visible in the Holy Week story too. A woman anoints Jesus’ feet and prepares him for burial. Simon of Cyrene carries Christ’s burden. The women gather at the cross. Joseph of Arimathaea steps forward to provide a tomb.
There’s excitement, noble service, sacrificial love, humble devotion. Humanity doesn’t just touch the depths of depravity; it reaches the heights of glory. That’s what makes the story so painful. There’s still that tiny thread of grace. It would be so much simpler if we could simply say we were all good or all bad. As John Cleese said, ‘It’s not the despair I can’t stand. It’s the hope.’ Hanging by a thread.
On the night of March 6, 1987, a cross-channel sea ferry carrying 500 people sank in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, 90 seconds after leaving harbor. The assistant boatman had fallen asleep and failed to close the bow doors. The first officer didn’t check to see that they were closed, and the boatman had seen they were open, but chose not to close them because it wasn’t his job.
So water gushed into the open doors and the ship capsized, with the loss of nearly 200 lives. Later inquiries revealed culpability and complacency at every level of management. Almost every dimension of human folly, fragility and depravity contributed to the disaster. It was like the passion narrative all over again.
And yet assistant bank manager Andrew Parker, a passenger on the ferry that night did a quite extraordinary thing. He saw two metal barriers, and below in the gap between them, he saw onrushing water. So he held on to one barrier with his fists and the other with his ankles, and made his own body into a human bridge by stretching between the two barriers. Some 20 terrified people, including his own wife and daughter, climbed over him to safety. Where did he discover the courage and strength? He was rescued after laying down his life for so many.
In that disaster the world could see both the depths of human failure and the heights of human aspiration. We approach the passion story assuming God is just like us – liable to terrible and merciless wrath, but also capable of amazing grace. But that’s not what the passion tells us. We’re a mixture of good and bad, but God is good all the way down, all the time, all the way beyond forever and back.
Holy Week is the story of what happens when our mixed-up lives come in touching distance of a goodness that goes beyond forever, and what happens to that goodness, and what happens to us.
The passion of Christ shows us that Jesus is stretched out between heaven and earth, hanging by a thread between the limitless possibilities of human goodness and the fathomless horror of human depravity. Jesus’ body is stretched out like Andrew Parker’s body, between the metal barrier of human folly and the metal barrier of God’s goodness and grace. Jesus’ body is stretched out like a violin string between the two. And the name we give that agonizing stretching-out is the cross.
If we were all good, it wouldn’t be so poignant. If we were all bad, it wouldn’t be so painful.
We’re still God’s creation, we’re still God’s beloved, so we’re worth saving; but we’re still cowardly, cruel and crooked, so the saving costs God everything.
Jesus is the hanging thread, the violin string stretched out between heaven and earth.
And the music played on that string is what we call the gospel. What Good News will you bring to school to the shop, to the office, to neighbors, to the collection plate.
Sunday, March 12, 2017