…the Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small. — Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix
Jesus’ whole life is a life that moves from action—from being in control, preaching, teaching, performing miracles—to Passion, in which everything is done to him. He is arrested, whipped, crowned with thorns and nailed to the cross. All this is done to him. The fulfilment of Jesus’ life on earth is not what he did but rather what was done to him. Passion. — Henri Nouwen, From Fear To Love: Lenten Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son
I once spent a week in Timor Leste, East Timor. A week is not a very long time; I don’t claim any expertise in the culture or politics of Timor Leste. But I was there at a very interesting time.
It was February 1998, just over a year before the East Timorese people won their independence from Indonesia. While I was there for this short time, Timor Leste was occupied by Indonesian armed forces.
I was there to talk with people of the Protestant Church there about my then congregation’s support for young people in tertiary education there. I was with a man who had made the trip several times before and who spoke Indonesian fluently.
Because I was with him, and also because I am a minister, I found myself in a trusted position.
I learnt a few things about living under occupation forces that week. Things that Jesus and his contemporaries may have experienced too.
I learned that while the Timorese people appeared to be relaxed and happy, this was very much a veneer. Their smiles didn’t always meet their eyes. Under the surface, there was a pervasive anxiety that infected everyone.
I stayed at a hotel in the capital, Dili. There, the staff all belonged to the Indonesian occupying forces. They weren’t in uniform—it was supposed to be a secret—but everyone knew. One day, we were due to speak with some of the locals at the hotel; I started to head for a table in the dining room. My friend suggested we go out into the garden to talk. Why did we go out into the open air? There were bugging devices in the dining room. We didn’t want our conversations recorded by the occupying forces.
One day, we went to a congregation in a village called Dare [pron. Dah-ray]. Dare is high in the hills behind Dili, the capital of Timor Leste. We gathered in the little Protestant church in Dare; the secretary of the elders council gave a speech to welcome us.
I was sitting next to the Secretary of Synod of the Timorese church. He leaned my way and gestured toward the secretary of the elders council as he was welcoming us. He whispered to me, ‘See that man? Informer.’ In other words, Watch what you say around him. The occupying forces will hear of it.
The people of Dare used to put food out in the bush for the guerrillas. They put it out every Wednesday. The informer had no idea it was happening. The whole village kept the secret from him.
I was standing in a group a little later that day. They were talking with my friend (in Indonesian) about how the struggle was going.
The informer wandered over, and effortlessly the conversation morphed into how the well the translation of the Bible was going into the local language, Tetum. I only found this out later; I didn’t understand a word at the time.
I mention all this because the Palm Sunday story has something of this kind of clandestine feeling about it. There was a secret, prearranged password in order to borrow a donkey: ‘The Master needs it.’
Later, there would be an informer: Judas Iscariot would betray Jesus and hand him over to death.
There were those who engaged in armed struggle against the invader. In the Judea of two thousand years ago, the Zealots would try to expel the Romans by force. In Timor under the Indonesian occupation, it was the Falintil who engaged in guerrilla warfare.
In Judea as well as Timor Leste, most tried to have as normal a life as possible. They were the artisans, the labourers, farmers and other ‘ordinary’ folk. Others chose to become collaborators or informers; a few became guerrillas, either as first-century Zealots or twentieth-century Falintil.
So, we could say that Jesus is in a first-century version of Timor Leste under the Indonesian occupation. But Jesus doesn’t embrace any of the usual options of living as normal a life as possible, of collaborating or of violently resisting. Jesus made his choice in those forty days in the wilderness, that we read about on the First Sunday in Lent. Jesus lives out of his deepest identity: he is the Son of God.
Around twenty five years later, Paul would write to the Church in Philippi. Perhaps he was quoting an early Christian hymn here; what he wrote was
He [Christ] was in the form of God;
yet he laid no claim to equality with God,
but made himself nothing,
assuming the form of a slave.
Bearing the human likeness,
sharing the human lot,
he humbled himself,
and was obedient,
even to the point of death,
death on a cross!
This early Christian hymn (possibly quoted by Paul, or written by him) shows something very important indeed: the earliest Christians found they were unable to think of God without thinking of Christ.
They were unable to relate to God without relating to Christ.
They were realising that in encountering Jesus, they had encountered God, the eternal God.
But Christ came in humility and love. They were on the way to discovering that God is like Christ.
It’s easy to say Christ is like God; but it is more helpful to say God is like Christ. There is a merciful humility, a love deep in the heart of God that inspired John to proclaim ‘God is Love’. And Jesus has come in the perfect love that has cast out all fear.
Jesus didn’t choose any of the normal ways of responding to being in an invaded land.
He didn’t try to ignore it, and live as normal a life as he could.
He didn’t try to take advantage of the situation by collaborating or informing.
He didn’t go the way of violent overthrow.
Jesus came in the love of God. Better: the God of love came in Jesus. And between the first Palm Sunday and the first Good Friday, the powers that be determined to use others to get him crucified.
People who wanted an ordinary life ignored him.
Judas the collaborator informed.
Barabbas, who had chosen the way of violence, was set free in the world. Barabbas is still free today.
Now, Paul, you may say, what about the second half of Paul’s little hymn? It goes like this:
Therefore God raised him to the heights
and bestowed on him the name above all names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow–
in heaven, on earth, and in the depths–
and every tongue acclaim,
‘Jesus Christ is Lord’,
to the glory of God the Father.
In the light of his loving response, Jesus is given the name above every name. Like so much of the New Testament, this is a quote from the Old, from Isaiah 45.23:
By myself I have sworn,
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear’.
In Isaiah, God alone is the one to whom every knee shall bow. Do you see what has happened? Now, God shares this place with Jesus Christ, the risen crucified One. Because of his humility, he is now exalted—yet still revealing God’s astounding humility.
God’s exaltation is nothing like the exaltation of human rulers and dictators. God’s exaltation is selfless Love.
What can we say of today? What if Jesus were to be born today?
Perhaps he’d be born into an occupied land, or be marginalised in some other way. Maybe he’d be a Palestinian or maybe he’d have been born in occupied Timor Leste. Maybe he’d be an Aboriginal Australian. Or an LGBTIQ person. Or a woman.
Perhaps people like me, male, educated, white, would listen this time. (Do you reckon?)
Whatever the particulars, if Jesus were born today, he or she would confront the powers that be with such determined humility that they wouldn’t know what to do with him.
Other than to get rid of him. Yet that would not end his story.
God would give him the name above every name. At the name of Jesus who ‘humbled himself, and was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross’, we bow.