Le Pas au–delà (the step/not beyond) — a Palm Sunday meditation

A theme that one can see emerge in almost every reading of the Palm Sunday story (Mark 11:1-11 and parallels) speaks of the common situation in which many of the people who first gather to welcome any 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 might actually be involved by following in Jesus’ steps, a programme that as a church we still claim we attempt. As I’m sure 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” (see below right).

However, when we ask what this means in relation to the first Palm Sunday we are easily tempted to offer up an answer that relies upon a plainly false idea that the whole complex Christian story we know today in the twenty-first century was somehow accessible (and even obvious) to Jesus’ those standing by the roadside in Jerusalem. It wasn’t; they had no way of knowing what was going to transpire and whether it was going to be good, mad or bad.

Another temptation is to think that the complex path the religious community to which any of us belongs is the clearly right one, the one most consistent with Jesus’ original message — of believing that “we” are the only ones who really didn’t betray Jesus teaching. But were you to walk into another church today you would hear sermons which would claim precisely the opposite — that “our” way of following Jesus is there seen most assuredly as a betrayal.

But all this judging (whether done silently or publicly and by us or others) about who is a true follower or betrayer in relation to Jesus, offers the wider world a very unpleasant sight and it’s something which understandably puts off countless people in our culture from being able consciously and publicly to follow Jesus either as an individual or within any kind of Christian community. So, whatever else you take from today’s address I really want you to hear 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’s important to do this because 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 another matter that seems much more important to address in our ongoing attempt better to understand our world and our place in it.

We can begin to see this something through 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 “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).

This shows up very clearly when we consider taking steps towards another person as the relationship we have with them is always a journey we cannot complete. Marriage shows this up well because when you say, “I do”, you say it, not simply to whom the person is, or to whom 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, now, in our imaginations let’s 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. But, for all that, you feel deep in your heart that it could be so and, faced with the less than desirable conditions of the time, why not at least go out and welcome such a man? So you step out onto the streets of Jerusalem, you find your palm branch and hail with Hosannas this possible Messiah, this Son of David.

But with your first step onto 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 Roman officials 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 you just going to go away?

What could make it clear? Nothing could of course – 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 we inherit 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 any of the story’s “I dos” and apparent right-steps. The whole story is clearly characterised by the ambiguity of the “step/not”.

So, were the crowds who so quickly appeared and disappeared on Palm Sunday betrayers and cowards? Was their disappearance a “not-step” or a “misstep”? What, too, about the disciples all of whom also later disappeared? Well, 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 steps we eventually choose to take.

The most important thing to see in all this is that to try to step with Jesus as individuals and as a member of a congregation is, for our liberal tradition anyway, 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 always revising our understanding as we go.

This is to proclaim a Christianity after Christianity, a secular Christianity after all the security of believing that it is ever possible absolutely to know what the right steps are has fallen away and we are left simply with the need to live a life of trust, love, friendship and forgivness – central aspects of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. Since we can never know in any final sense what following Jesus’ steps means, it is to proclaim to the world an understanding of the Christian faith that insists we must always be walking and talking lovingly and respectfully together and, in open 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, in any great friendship or in any true secular democracy. As Caputo notes, this would be to begin faithfully to live in a tradition that “keeps happening (arriver) without ever quite arriving at a final, fixed, and finished destination.” It would mean living in such a way that we can see it was and never is possible merely to derive (dériver) direct instruction from Jesus, the story of Palm Sunday or from the rest of the Bible, and that we can only “allow it a certain drift or free play (dérive)”.

To follow Jesus in this fashion would be to allow the Christian tradition to be creative and to reinvent itself so that there is a chance it can be, as Augustine said of God, “ever ancient yet ever new” (ibid. p. 57). It would allow Christianity to become a religious tradition which could, with ease and grace, meaningfully take into account of the fact humanity’s step/not has continually revealed new worlds of possibility that, for example, has shown us that women should be fully involved at all levels of human life, that a same-sex relationships or marriage is to be celebrated, that disbelief in a supernatural God is fine, that no religious text or person is ever infallibly authoritative and that other religious and non-religious traditions have fine and great insights we should take time to listen to.

But, alas, in the current climate the Christian churches as a whole seem hell bent on maintaining the illusion that there are simple and definitive answers to be found in life and that the open, secular way of following Jesus I present here is a monumental betrayal of those same answers.

Perhaps, but perhaps not, and the only way any one of us can find out is by picking a palm frond and chosing ourselves to step/not in Jesus’ step/not. What that will eventually mean no one has ever known, but as long as it is done with trust and love and in the spirit of friendship and forgiveness then there is a chance our vow and commitment to follow in Jesus' step/not will lead to a better, and not to a worse, world.