As we have heard this morning, there was a moment towards the end of Jesus' ministry when it seemed like he'd really made it. He's riding into Jerusalem, the crowds are throwing their cloaks on the ground for him to walk over, waving palm branches around, and shouting 'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!'
It's kind of the equivalent of the kind of ticker-tape parade that happens on Queen St when a victorious sports team comes home.
Jesus could have been excused for thinking, in that moment, that everything he'd been working for had come to fruition - the people were on his side, they recognised him as their messiah, the awaited king... they would have done anything he asked them to. His mission was a great success. I'm sure that his disciples were feeling pretty chuffed to have chosen the winning side.
Except, that none of it lasted, and a few days later, the same crowd were baying for Jesus to be executed, while the disciples slid dejectedly into the background.
And, except, that if you pay attention to how Jesus teaches and behaves throughout the rest of his ministry, you can see that this kind of adulation from the crowd was not the goal for him, and had very little to do with the path that he had chosen to follow. It wasn't a sign of success. It was just something that happened along the way. And it shows how little the crowds really understood what he had been trying to teach.
If you look at this story with the kind of judgements we tend to make in our culture today, Jesus went from success to failure within the space of a week. But if you look from another angle, you can see that this sequence of events is one more illustration of the way Jesus' life overturns all our definitions, including our definition of what constitutes success, and what constitutes failure.
I suspect that Jesus knew that his entry into Jerusalem would put him on a collision course with the powers that intended his destruction. And the real test of his success is not how many people turned out to welcome him into Jerusalem, but his willingness to step onto the downward path that would lead to his death, and to choose moment by moment and day by day to stay with that downward path rather than running away, or exercising his power and popularity to force an uprising.
Each choice that Jesus makes toward what looks like his total failure, is a victory of self-knowledge and self-control. Because, as we read in the hymn in Philippians, the meaning of Jesus' path is this:
'Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross.'
The word for 'emptied' here is 'kenosis'. And 'kenosis' is one of the key teachings and one of the key patterns that Jesus demonstrated in his own life to the very end. It means not grasping...not holding on to things we might consider vital, if having them means that we assume a defensive stance toward the world. When we cling to stuff, or to our perceived rights or entitlements, or to a particular idea about our own specialness, all situations and other people act as potential threats to our security, esteem, and power. So a part of us will always be closed, self-protective. When we are able to do 'emptying', or 'kenosis', we are more able to relate to the world with an open heart and an open hand.
Think for a moment about someone you encounter in your work or daily life who is really defended or defensive. How does that manifest itself? How does it feel to interact with? What do you think that defensiveness is trying to cling to and protect? Now think about someone you know who is really unthreatened - by other people or by criticism or difficult circumstances. What is the energy they bring to the world? Feel the difference.
Jesus is our model of non-defensiveness, because he was supremely able to give up and let go. He let go firstly of his divine status, then of the goodwill of the crowds, of the opportunity to lead a new religious and political movement, of the precious friendship of his followers, of his dignity, and finally, of his life. But because he believed that truly authentic human living does not consist of grasping and exploiting and taking, but of loving self-emptying, and radical openness, he was willing to move through all these stages of letting go.
And in doing so, he fulfilled a deeper calling than any of his followers could see at the time. He forged an uncharted path from death back to life again. And this is his legacy to us - not only the downward path, but also the upward one.
In the news recently we have seen several big-shot success-men, who have turned out to be abject failures. People whose financial successes have come as the result of fraud and swindling, or as a result of paying themselves bonuses even as their companies are on the brink of going under. They have lived the high life for years, and are now being exposed as morally bankrupt - people without character.
Our culture has some funny ideas about what constitutes success. Usually it's linked to fame or wealth or both. And our own behaviour can be strongly shaped by these ideas - even in our reactions against them. It is hard not to see a ticker tape parade as evidence of success, and being rejected and killed as evidence of failure. Or, conversely, it's easy to oversimplify the issue: to judge all high-profile or wealthy people as morally compromised, and to seek to undermine or damage them out of self-righteousness or envy.
Let's take some more time to consider...I'm going to ask some questions with pauses and I invite you to contemplate them in silence.
Who, in history, or of the people we know, do we consider genuinely successful? On what basis do we make that judgement?
At what points in our own lives have we felt the strongest sense of satisfaction, or fulfilment? Is this the same as success?
How do you work out what you will say 'yes' to, and what you will say 'no' to? What grid are you using to judge what to take up and what to let go?
As people who follow Jesus Christ, we are challenged to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus...a mind that chooses to let go of status in the pursuit of a whole and holy life, and in the service of others. One way of allowing that mind to be shaped in us is to enter imaginatively and deeply into the Easter journey year by year - identifying with the ultimate story contained in Jesus' descent into death and darkness, followed by resurrection.
In your newsletter are a couple of flyers for 'DOWN': our sequence of services and vigils for Holy Week. I invite you to consider attending at least one of these in the week if you can, as a way of deepening your identification with the full Easter narrative. And I also encourage you to give one of these flyers to someone else. With the exception of Easter Sunday, these services are ambient, reflective, dark, and are just about creating space for quiet dwelling with the events of Holy Week, and solidarity with Christ and his first confused and bewildered followers at this disruptive and painful time.
I am currently having to let go of the fact that I spelt Gethsemane wrong on the flyer.
In this time of recession and difficulty, there will be many people confronting the way work and wealth are tied into their identity and well-being, and sense of success in the world. As we enter this week, let's allow the shape of the week's events to shape not only how we judge the success of our own lives, but how we communicate to our families and friends and wider culture about what is important, and what real success consists of.