Fear, Choice, & the Way of the Cross (a sermon for Palm Sunday)
A couple weeks ago, I joined some Rockwell and Deaconess Anne House folks at Holy Communion’s Theology on Tap about Harry Potter. It was a great time – as I’m sure you’ve heard, Mike Angell was wearing a cape! At the event, we discussed some of the spiritual themes of JK Rowling’s masterpiece, and the ways in which Harry’s story has spoken to us throughout our lives. To be honest, I was mostly there for the Harry Potter trivia.
And then someone helpfully and casually mentioned that Harry Potter’s walk to his death in the last book shares some associations with Christ’s own journey to the cross. Harry, like Jesus, had to come to terms with the inevitability of his death. Harry, like Jesus, grieved his destiny. But Harry, like Jesus, chose to selflessly surrender himself to it.
These might seem like obvious connections, but they were not ones I had ever thought to make, even in my very recent re-read of the series. I think the reason for that is that I so rarely think of the story of the Passion with an eye for the mind of Christ. When we follow Harry to his death, we hear his every thought – his fears that dying will hurt, his tragic appreciation for his last breaths and heartbeats, his pain at not saying goodbye to his friends. But in the story of the Passion, I often get so caught up in the details and drama of the events, of what’s going on around Christ, that I lose sight of what he, like Harry, might have been feeling. Of Christ’s own fear and despair. Of his humanness in facing death.
The Agony in the Garden gives us a glimpse of this. We see Jesus under severe emotional strain – his sweat like blood, his pleas to the Father to make this cup pass away. We can sense his terror and sadness in preparing to leave his beloved world. He knows what is to come, and though he knows it must, at this moment it becomes unbearable even for him.
In a bit we will hear this story, and we will hear how God sent an angel to console Christ as he suffered in the Garden. Though we do not after this scene get such explicit indications of Christ’s internal world, we can imagine that the angel would not be quite enough in the following hours to shield him from the emotional trauma of torture and impending death. As he progressed from Gethsemane to Calvary, Jesus was forced again and again to undergo excruciating pain and the very worst of human cruelty. He must have been terrified to his bones. He must have wished, some part of him, to escape the onslaught of violence and humiliation. But he did not escape it.
One of the most common commands given by God or angels or other messengers of God in scripture is the command “to not be afraid.” But we cannot turn off fear. Jesus could not, Harry could not, and we can not escape fear, the same way we cannot escape sorrow or pain or even joy. The story of Christ’s walk to death is enough to show us that fear is not the enemy, but a natural human response to the broken world we live in.
We cannot turn off fear. But the story of Christ’s walk to death is also enough to show us this: we can choose to not act from a place of fear. Not, “do not be afraid,” but, “do not let fear decide for you. Do not let fear determine your choices.”
After all, it is not our feelings, but our actions that define who we really are. Or, as Paul puts it of Christ, “Being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name.”
Who Christ is – his very name, his glory – is defined, not by his human fear, but by his human act: his willingness to die on behalf of us, his selfless emptying on the cross, his obedience, his choice.
JK Rowling calls this choice “a different kind of bravery.” And what a beautiful thing, to think of the courage of Christ. Throughout his Passion, Jesus again and again refuses to let fear dictate his decisions, and instead chooses bravery.
He chooses to accept the cup of suffering from his Father in the Garden, surrendering to his coming death.
He chooses to allow his arrest without fighting back, preventing his disciples from committing violence against those who wish him harm.
He chooses to refuse to participate in his questioning or to beg for his life, rejecting the corrupt systems of power and so-called justice at work in his trial.
He chooses to forgo saving himself from pain, shame, and humiliation, both during his torture and while hanging on the cross.
He chooses to empty himself at Calvary, giving all that he has that we might see the meaning of love.
The Passion offers us more than just a story of perfect courage. The Passion also offers us stories from the other side of the coin. It tells of people who, when confronted with an easy choice based on fear and a difficult choice based on bravery, allow their fear of what might come to pass to limit their ability to choose in love.
Peter, terrified and cloaked, denies his Savior thrice for fear of his own arrest. Pilate, thronged by shouts of “crucify him!”, acts out of fear to surrender to the crowd and order Christ’s death. At Calvary, Jesus’ own disciples stand at a distance, watching these things, afraid to intervene or even draw closer to Christ as he breathes his last.
These choices are deeply understandable. Should Peter have admitted his connection to Christ, he might, too, have been killed. Should Pilate have refused to allow Jesus to be crucified, there most certainly would have been insurrection and political turmoil to pay.
That is to say, there is no promise that brave choices will lead to easy lives. As Buffy Summers once told an old friend, “you [always] have a choice. You don’t have a good choice, but you have a choice.” Brave choices are not easy; they sometimes ask us to empty ourselves in love. Often, brave choices and choosing God over fear look like surrender and letting go, like Christ in his trial and crucifixion. Often, they look like speaking up against violence and brokenness no matter the consequences, like Christ turning the temple tables or healing the centurion’s ear. Always, brave choices mean pulling our minds and hearts out of ourselves and looking ahead to true freedom, true love, true life – to looking ahead to the cross.
My guess is that all of us can remember times we have acted from fear, surrendered to fear, allowed fear to cloud who we truly are as children of the living God. In a hundred ways, I choose fear over bravery every day. But the truth of the Passion is not just that we must choose against fear. The truth of the Passion, the truth of the cross, is that someone made a choice once that offers us a choice forever. Christ chose love – Christ chose obedience – Christ chose against fear – Christ chose us – so we might know that when we stumble and make bad choices and surrender to fear, we can always pick ourselves up, repent, and choose again.
Christ’s grace is a choice that fear can never touch. Christ’s grace is our very own angel of consolation, sent down from God, and it is quite enough for us.