Le Pas au–delà (the step/not beyond) – a Palm Sunday meditation
Mark 11:1-11 and parallels) is one which speaks of the common situation in which many of the people who first gather to welcome a great person or movement during it’s early days, at the moment they must commit to it and actually see the project through, simply fade away to nothing.
Palm Sunday is, then, a day which demands we ask again the question about what is actually involved in following Jesus’ steps, a programme that as a church we still claim we attempt. As you know, when you come in to this church, hanging on the wall to the left of the door, is a hand-lettered inscription that includes the sentence “Our religious thinking is related to the teaching of Jesus and its application in the modern world.” Additionally there is also our General Assembly’s object that calls upon us to “uphold the liberal Christian tradition.” (This present address is, by the way, closely related to last week's and I encourage reading them together - No image, no passion - why this liberal continues to stand up for Jesus).
However, when we ask what this means in relation to the first Palm Sunday we are easily tempted to do it in solely the light of the actual complex historical outplaying of the Christian tradition and to read this ancient story as if what has transpired for us in the present was somehow accessible (even obvious) to Jesus’ first hearers. This way of looking at the matter also, therefore, tends to make us think that the complex path our own community followed (for us the one that has been named “liberal”) is the clearly right one, the one most consistent with Jesus’ original message. Consequently, we can easily go on to cast the crowd in Jerusalem in a very negative light as representing those who would disagree with us today on so many matters. Walk into a more conservative church and the roles are, of course, merely reversed and we become the cowards who disappeared and got it wrong.
All this judging (whether done silently or publicly) about who is right and who is wrong, who is a betrayer and who is coward in relation to following Jesus offers the wider world a very unpleasant sight and it’s something which today puts off countless people in our culture from being able consciously and publicly to follow Jesus either as an individual or within a larger Christian community. Whatever else you take from today’s address I really want you to heed Jesus’ teaching:
Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven (Matthew 6:37).
It seems to me that only when we make a concerted effort to follow this teaching that are we in with a chance of giving ourselves some interpretative space to see in the Palm Sunday story something else that seems more important to us in our ongoing attempt better to understand our world and our place in it.
We can begin to see something of this by turning firstly to a contingent fact (which is also to say an act of grace) that shows up in the French language. In French the word “pas” has two meanings. The first meaning is straightforwardly a “step”, as in a taking a step forward. But it also has the meaning of “not” as in “Je n’avance pas.” This ‘literally means “I do not move forward, not even a step.” On this account pas as “not” (ne) is simply shorthand for “(not a) step” (John D. Caputo, What would Jesus Deconstruct, p. 141). John D. Caputo notes about this that:
Thus pas means [therefore] “step/not”; it means to take a step but then again not to, to be following in someone’s steps but then again not to. Steps cannot be insulated in an absolute way from missteps and sidesteps, and paths cannot be protected from dead-ends. To take steps in a certain direction, to be en route, to follow in someone’s steps cannot be protected absolutely from detours, road blocks, misleading road signs, false steps and impasses [. . .] (ibid. p. 43).
The truth of this shows up very clearly when we consider taking steps towards another person because the relationship we can have with them is always a journey we cannot complete. Marriage shows this up well and, lest you are unaware of this, in the case of this church marriage is extend to gays in our religious words and actions and, we hope soon, also in civil law. In marriage when you say “I do” you say it not simply to who the person is, or who you think this person is, but “to whomsoever or whatever this person is to become, which is unknown and unforeseen to the both of you” (ibid. p. 45). It is vitally important to see that this risk is constitutive of the vow and commitment. Without it the vow and commitment mean nothing.
There are other examples we could examine but in Caputo’s felicitous phrase they all show ‘how deeply not is embedded in the path, how deeply the impasse is embedded in the pass, how deeply the impossible is embedded in the possible – almost to the point that, far from being a simple play on words . . . it is beginning to look like a law, and one very close to the religious heart’ (ibid p. 45).
So let’s now return to the roadside in first-century Jerusalem. You’ve heard about this man whose been doing and saying extraordinary things about a completely new way of being in the world. A way of being that promises a certain kind of freedom and justice for all, a kingdom of God that turns the whole world upside down such that it doesn’t resemble anything that has ever before been called a kingdom. All other kingdoms have been ruled by powerful rulers who rigidly impose upon the people a law that feels, and indeed is, a heavy and painful yoke. But Jesus says that the yoke of his kingdom is a light one and that the power in his kingdom is one based, not upon brute will and might, but upon love and compassion. These are strange but attractive words that speak of a condition which seems almost impossible ever to imagine as really coming to pass. For all that you feel deeply in your heart that it could come to pass and, faced with the less than desirable conditions of the time, why not at least go out and welcome such a man? So you take a step forward, you go to Jerusalem, you find your palm branch and you hail with Hosannas this possible Messiah, this Son of David.
But with your first step to that roadside you immediately run into the structural reality I’ve already mentioned and you see that it simultaneously brings with it the possibility of a “not” or a “misstep”. As you look around, yes, there’s lots of acclamatory noise but, over there behind the crowds, the Romans don’t look at all pleased and neither do the Temple authorities. Hmm. Is their displeasure a sign that Jesus is who he says, that the kingdom of which he speaks can actually come to pass? Or is it perhaps an indication that he is not who he says he is and that his kingdom is a foolish, even dangerous, piece of nonsense? Suddenly, you are face to face with the realisation that you don’t know and that the next step is not clear. So do you now take the risk of following him or are just going to get away?
What could make it clear? Nothing could – just like you know nothing can make it clear what is exactly to be involved when you say “I do” to your espoused. And by that road-side you also suddenly see that to follow in Jesus’ footsteps would be to engage in something like marriage. It could never be merely to follow who Jesus is, or who you think Jesus is, but to follow whomsoever or whatever he is (and who you are) to become and that is always-already unknown and unforeseen to all of us right up to today and infinitely beyond.
And let’s not forget that key to the Gospel story is the fact that the nots and missteps (the fact that there was betrayal, that Jesus was executed, that Jesus’ kingdom didn’t come about in any way that would be recognised by the powers that be) play as great a role as do any of the story’s “I dos” and apparent right-steps. The whole story is clearly characterised by the “step/not”.
So, were the crowds who so quickly disappeared after Palm Sunday traitors and cowards? Was their disappearance a “not-step” or a “misstep”? What, too, about the disciples all of whom also disappeared? We simply cannot say one way or the other and we must not judge lest we be judged for we are all tied together by the “step/not” nature of reality no matter which step we eventually choose to take.
The most important thing to see in all this is that true loyalty to Jesus (to try to step with him as individuals and as a member of a congregation) is for our liberal tradition not to be loyal to some simple predetermined scheme or belief about in what consist the right steps (steps that some church authority has decided it knows and which are fixed forever in certain rules or creeds) but to be loyal to a certain open-ended, trusting, loving way of walking through the world that helps us discern together how we might best take the next step, and the next, and the next and, therefore, how we might best deal with the those which show up to us as “not-steps” or “missteps”.
This is to proclaim a Christianity after Christianity, a Christianity after all the security of believing that it is ever possible to know you are absolutely right has fallen away and you are left simply with love and friendship – the central aspects of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. It is to proclaim to the world an understanding of the Christian faith that says, since we can never know in any final sense what following Jesus’ steps means, we must always be walking and talking lovingly and respectfully together and, in conversation and shared work, to see what shows up for us as a possible, reasonable shared next step – just like we do in a marriage, any great friendship or any true secular democracy. As Caputo notes, this is faithfully to live in a tradition that “keeps “happening” (arriver) without ever quite “arriving” at a final, fixed, and finished destination” and to live in such a way that reveals we can never simply “derive” (dériver) direct instruction from Jesus, the story of Palm Sunday or from the rest of the Bible, but can only “allow it a certain drift or free play (dérive) which, in turn, allows our tradition to be creative and to reinvent itself ‘so that it can be, as Augustine said of God, ever ancient yet ever new’ (ibid. p. 57).