A common line in blogs and sermons these days is to call on people to be followers of Jesus and not just admirers of Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with that on one level. I like to think I do that sometimes myself; but I know just how flaky I am when the going gets tough. Following Christ is hard. Sometimes even being an admirer of Christ is hard; often it’s hardest even to like Jesus when one really has tried to follow Jesus to the Cross and ended up being crucified.
Some of those blogs make out that if you don’t follow Jesus, 100% of the time, right to the end, then you aren’t a real Christian. If that’s the case, then there are no real Christians. I wonder what image they have of themselves if they think they’re the real Christ followers, with the authority to lecture the poor benighted masses who just want an easy ride.
In Holy Week, Palm Sunday was when everybody got to admire Jesus; the night of Maundy Thursday was when following Jesus got really hard and everybody, and I do mean everybody, abandoned Him.
We’re all good at liking Jesus on Palm Sunday. We all love Jesus when He rides into Jerusalem in triumph, fulfilling the prophecies, and doing nothing to contradict our understanding of what a Messiah looks like. The Kingdom of God is at hand! Safe as one of a crowd of thousands, we know Jesus will soon show His power. As we’re good Christians, we know that will be good for everyone, and especially for us.
“Come in power Jesus”, we cry, “and build your Kingdom on Earth, in just the way we know You want to.”
Show some signs and wonders and make the atheists and Muslims and pagans believe in You, because we know that would make things better for them. Show the world the Evangelicals, or Catholics, or Liberals, were right about You all along. Make the rich feed the poor! Ban abortion! Make all the gays straight or, alternatively, go up to the Temple and start marrying them!
The problem is we always want Jesus to change others and not us. That’s what Jesus’ friends always do – a quick flick through the Gospel of your choice shows the apostles pulling that stunt all the time, and they had the benefit of eating breakfast with God every morning. We all project our demands and desires on to Christ’s triumph and, often, they aren’t very edifying ones.
Palm Sunday, ultimately, is all about the Jesus fan club blaming the world’s problems on other people. The crowd thinks that Jesus is about to replace the useless local religious leadership and then get rid of the occupying Romans who’ve usurped the proper political order, and that this will make everything alright. Change the names and think metaphorically – do you really think today’s Jesus fans have changed?
Five nights later, Jesus’ friends have vanished. The crowd that filled Jerusalem’s streets is tucked up in bed, unaware that the Galilean preacher who got them so excited is being worked over by the High Priest’s heavy mob. And if they did know, so what? It would only confirm that they’d been wrong to get excited about yet another country boy with an impressive fund of Bible quotes who’d once been the next big thing.
Thomas, who was shortly before so resolved to be martyred with Jesus when Lazarus died, has disappeared from the story and the women, so often willing to stick their necks out when the men won’t, are absent. Even Peter, who was willing to give his life in a quixotic attempt to prevent Jesus’ arrest a few hours earlier, loses his nerve at the last moment, and is turning the air blue in his insistence that not all Galileans in Jerusalem are connected with that guy. They all forsook him and fled.
It is Christ’s sacrifice, and that alone, that saves us from sin and annihilates death. It is the Cross alone that opens the way to eternal life. It did not depend on the actions of Peter, or Thomas, or even those faithful women. If it did it would never have happened.
Following Jesus gets people into all sorts of trouble – physical danger, losing friends, poverty, harassment by the authorities. We like to think we’re cool with that, especially when we live in the sort of country where we think we’re being persecuted if people disagree with us too firmly. Indeed, some people actually live it out some of the time. Some of those people change the world; sometimes the glory of their lives is known only to God. But let’s be honest – most of us aren’t made of stuff that stern, and even martyrs tend to have had moments of abject failure on the way to glory.
Salvation depends no more on us than it did on Peter or Thomas. God saves us from death not because we’ve racked up enough points on the following Jesus test, but because He is love.
Follow Christ, and accept you will fail often. Crucify any delusions that you will succeed before you set out. God is almighty. He does not depend on your success and nor does the salvation of the world. Accept that God loves you just as you are. Try to accept that God loves others just as they are, too; that can be the hardest thing of all to believe.
Accept that the imperfect you is loved by God, utterly, even as He somehow utterly loves those you hate, and try to love in response; in that we gain a glimpse of the eternal life that awaits us, and Resurrection ceases to be pie in the sky and starts right now.