Christianity is a realistic religion—at least it should be if it is preached and taught honestly. Yes, since it is a religion, it inherently involves believing in things that cannot be proven, it involves faith. Also, it involves demanding ethics and is therefore idealistic. Yet, I would argue that neither faith nor idealism preclude realism.
By labeling Christianity as realistic, I mean that it is fully aware of the human tendency towards harmful behavior and even violence, especially in opposition to those who dare to speak truthfully to the powers of the world. It does not ignore the suffering of our world, in particular the suffering brought about by human selfishness and indifference towards those without adequate food, shelter or medical care. The object of our devotion as Christians, Jesus Christ, is the ultimate example of suffering due to human cruelty. In our veneration of the cross as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for us, however, we too easily forget that the cross is a method of execution. A realistic awareness of the pain in our world is written into the ANA of our religion.
This Sunday we finish our journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and we do so in style. The pageantry of Palm Sunday announces to us that Holy Week has arrived and with it our time to commemorate Jesus’ suffering, death and thankfully, his resurrection. On that original Palm Sunday, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem fully aware that trouble waited there for him. One of his own would betray him. The rest of his disciples would desert him. Political and religious enemies already made plans to kill him and no doubt would act after he arrived. Jesus was realistic about the opposition he soon would face.
The events of Holy Week remind us that if we wish to follow Jesus, then we can expect to face opposition and even suffering. Following Jesus might mean facing trouble at work, because you refuse to go along with practices that are unethical or even illegal. Following Jesus might mean, facing problems in relationships, because you choose not to laugh at a racist joke around the water cooler or make fun of the class nerd at school. Following Jesus might mean hurt feelings, because you have to say “no” to worthwhile events in order to make time for your own spiritual growth through worship on Sundays or private prayer. Let’s be realistic, following Jesus can be difficult, if we take it seriously.
Although we are promised spiritual rewards in the present for our discipleship, the physical and material rewards are not guaranteed until our earthly lives are over. Jesus was resurrected by God and he did ascend into heaven, but he had to journey through Holy Week first. Like Jesus, our earthly journey sometimes involves moments of doubt, betrayal and suffering. Also, like Jesus, it will eventually involve our own deaths—hopefully they will be less painful than what Jesus had to go through. As Christians, we must be realistic about our own mortality.
The realism of Christianity is a wonderful thing, because if Christians are honest about the suffering and pain that Jesus and his disciples endured, then we cannot help but become aware of the suffering and pain of all God’s children in the world. It is amazing to consider that God chose to become human in order to experience all the joys and pains of life we experience. No matter what else can be said about the Christian religion, at least we confess that God is not removed from us and our pain. Instead God endured on the cross the worst that this world has to offer. Whatever questions and doubts we may have, at least we can say that the God we believe in knows firsthand how we feel when we face troubles in this life.
Thanks be to God that we can also say much more than that. Christianity is realistic, but it is also a religion of optimism, idealism and faith. By the end of Holy Week, we arrive at the empty tomb and the resurrection to claim that there is nothing so bad or so evil that God cannot redeem. There is no human cruelty that God cannot overcome. The cross can be a symbol of pain and death, but it can also be a symbol of compassionate love and eternal life.
Christianity involves holding the different threads of Holy Week together. We recognize the suffering and cruelty of humanity, but we believe in the goodness and grace of God. We are realistic about the problems facing our world, but we hold fast to our faith that God is at work making whole all that is broken. Christianity allows us to be aware of the painful possibilities in our world while being somehow simultaneously hopeful because of God’s tremendous love.
Together with Jesus, let us go to Jerusalem and bravely face the pain and the joy of Holy Week.
Grace and Peace,