Follow the Example
The Collect for Palm Sunday in written form dates to the 8th century, but its roots go back to the 5th. Yet it grates on Lutheran ears every bit as much as the slogan "What Would Jesus Do?" does. It grates because twice we pray that we might "follow the example" of our Lord.
Part of the problem is that of all holy days we do more following of the example of Jesus on this than any other. We surround ourselves with palms just as He was. We go in procession into church just as Jesus processed into Jerusalem. We even have a touch of the humility Jesus felt as Zechariah described the scene: "Behold your king is coming to you Jerusalem humble and mounted on a colt." Admit it; as you waved that flimsy palm on the way into church you felt humbled just like Jesus did.
We can follow the example of Jesus this far. We can certainly be welcomed like He, cheered like He, and even humbled like He a bit. But there is a point where we won't go. The Epistle lesson takes us there. Though "being in very nature God" He humbled Himself to the point that He "made Himself nothing." In a society whose theme songs are "I Gotta Be Me," and "I Did it My Way," whose fads are "My Space" and "Face Book" where our face is the most prominent one on display, and whose self focused to the extent we can't go a day without looking in a mirror, do you really think you can follow Jesus' example and make yourself nothing?
With a little work some of you think you can. Some of you think with a little disciplining of the flesh, a little emptying of the mind, a little abasing of the spirit you can follow the example of Jesus and be nothing. Well then keep on going. Follow His example in the Old Testament lesson to where it ends in the Epistle. Go ahead and offer your back to those who would beat you. Go ahead give your head to those who would pull out your hair. Let people mock and spit on you. Become obedient not just to death "but even death on a cross." We who get upset when a grocery clerk doesn't give us the respect we think we're due, think we can follow Jesus' example and allow ourselves to be openly mocked and spit on. We who can't go a day without worrying about dying think we can be obedient like Him even to the point of a painful, shameful death. Get real.
The words of the collect "follow the example" stick in our throats. That's partly because while we do follow the example of the crowd waving palms, processing and praising a humble King, we can't look at events the way they did. We know the rest of the story; they don't. The crowds thought they were doing all that they did for Jesus. They did give Him praise, palms, a procession, and a ride befitting a king even though Jesus throughout His ministry had shied away from acting like a king or using kingly language. A year earlier, after feeding the 5,000 Jesus had dismissed the crowd because they wanted to make Him king. But now He accepts it all. He acts like the King He is by claiming His royal right to the property of others. He lets them wave the leafs of the palm which was like the national flag of Israel. He allows the people to shout that the kingdom of David is coming.
Jesus allows them to do all this to Him, but in reality Jesus was doing all this for them, for you. In 1549 the Anglican Church wanted our Collect to reflect this so at the beginning they inserted the words "of Thy tender love for mankind." It then read, "Almighty and everlasting God the Father who of Thy tender love for mankind sent your Son to take our natureand to suffer death on the cross." As the Christmas song says, "Love came down at Christmas" and today we see where He went: to Jerusalem to be welcomed with open arms, then to be rejected with raised arms, and finally to be crucified with His arms wide apart.
Jesus suffers all this precisely because you haven't, I haven't, no one ever has been able to follow His example purely. Sure He showed us how to keep the Law in thought, word, and deed. He even boiled it down from a whole Bible of rules, to 10 Commandments, to 2: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. In studying the Commandments this Lent we've seen how this all worked out for us. The Commandments that were meant to be life for us have been death to us here in time and hereafter for all eternity.
So "Love Came Down at Christmas." The readings show us where Love went: to pain, suffering, the cross and death. The Gradual for today trumpets what this suffering by Love Incarnate did for us. He "obtained eternal redemption." "He provided redemption for His people." Even if you could know what Jesus would do in every situation you face in life, you still couldn't do it. What's important to you is what Jesus did, and what He did is He obtained and provided eternal redemption for you. You've been bought back, ransomed, redeemed from sin, Death ,and the power of the Devil. These are no longer your masters; you aren't indebted to them, enslaved by them, answerable to them any longer.
But still you Lutherans are haunted by "follow the example." I'm haunted by scenes from penmanship in grade school. I sit there condemned to follow the example of the letters above the chalkboard on my Big Chief tablet. A round, a round, a round I go with the teacher coming up behind me pointing out where I am messing up or saying it isn't good enough.
Follow the example? I can't, and that's why you Lutherans will be surprised to know that it was the 16th century Lutherans that added the last "follow the example of our Savior." They did this to avoid this un-Gospel thought that the Catholic Collect originally had and still has today. "Grant that we may be worthy both to grasp the lessons of His patience and to share in His resurrection." The notion of being "worthy," another Catholic translation has "deserve" are poison to the Gospel and deadly to faith. We can only be worthy of judgment. No matter how hard we try we can only deserve suffering, death, and eternal damnation. Any talk of worthiness or deserving can only lead to despair the person who takes the perfection God's Law requires seriously.
So how does Lutherans adding "grant that we may both follow the example of our Savior Jesus Christ in His patience and also have our portion in His resurrection" help? The word grant is preceded by the word "mercifully." It's true the Catholic Collects have either "kindly grant" or even "graciously grant," but see what they attach the kindness and graciousness of God to: "That we might deserve" and "That we may be worthy." We, on the other hand, don't pray to be made worthy or deserving. We pray to follow the example of our Savior and also to have our portion. We pray to be mercifully granted, i.e. "given" both.
I still haven't pushed this all the way through. This can only be done by focusing on the word "patience." We pray "mercifully grant that we mayfollow the example of our Savior Jesus Christ in His patience." Our English word "patience" comes from the Latin word to suffer, pati. The name for the intense suffering Jesus will undergo this week is called the Passion which comes from the same Latin word. You'll note on the insert this Sunday also goes by the name Sunday of the Passion.
So follow the example of your Savior this week in His patience, that is, in His suffering. Go to the upper room see how the disciples won't wash each other's feet but Jesus patiently does. See how they argue about which of them is the greatest while Jesus patiently institutes the Meal of His Body and Blood. Go to dark Gethsemane and see how patient Jesus is with the 3 disciples who fall asleep instead of praying with Him as He asked. Follow to the Judgment Hall and see the Lord of Life arraigned. See how patient He is with those who lie about Him, spit on Him, beat Him, ridicule Him. Go to darker Calvary and taste the wormwood and the gall; see how Jesus is patient with a thief who ridicules Him, so much so that He gives him paradise that day.
This week don't focus on all the things that call for your patience - whining kids, bratty teens, depressing spouses, difficult coworkers, traffic jams, jerks, and afflictions. Don't focus on being patient with them, but on the patience of Jesus. Be Simon of Cyrene; follow right behind Jesus as He's driven to your death so you don't die condemned, and remember that our word patience comes from the Latin "to suffer." Think not how you suffer when you're patient with others; think instead that that Jesus' patience was suffering. While you and I suffer with sinners in our feeble attempts to be patient, Jesus suffers for sinners every step of the way. It's because we aren't patient or long suffering that Jesus suffers long and patiently.
I say this not as Law but Gospel. When you see your impatience and kick yourself or appease your disappointment at failing again by determining you'll do better next time, you are passing right by dark Gethsemane and darker Calvary. There's the answer, the punishment, for your impatience. Don't deny that Jesus suffered to pay for every last one of your sins for all time by thinking there are some left for you to suffer for or make up for by being more patient. Don't let even one drop of Jesus' blood, sweat, or tears be wasted, unused. Each one is for you and your salvation.
Follow the example of Jesus this Passion Week, follow the example of His passivity. Jesus does few miracles this week. Instead He passively suffers for the sins of all. He passively takes the beating, the whipping, the spitting, and the crucifying to actively obtain and provide redemption for all the world. Follow this example of Jesus, be passive not active, receive not give. Receive with open ears, eyes, and mouth this Holy Week what the patience and Passion of Jesus won for all so you might know you have your portion in His Resurrection come Easter Sunday. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Palm Sunday (20080316); Mark 11: 1-10