The Downward Mobility of God
by Reverend Teri Daily
Not the God of Empire,
This day begins with cheering crowds, waving and laying down palm branches for the Son of David as he comes into Jerusalem. They expected a Messiah, a real Messiah, who would unite them, deliver them, beat the Romans at their own game. But what they get is a man who rides in on a donkey, overturns the tables in the temple causing a scene, and barely stands up for himself when arrested by the authorities.
Even before Jesus makes his way to the cross, something seems tragic about all this. In a culture like ours, focused on our definition of success, that’s not the direction a life is supposed to go. When someone begins a career that we think will end in prestige and success, and yet something goes wrong and his life ends up not traveling along that trajectory at all, but instead he ends up leaving that job without accomplishing anything we thought he would—it’s a tragedy we say, shaking our heads. When someone lives a comfortable life with plenty but then moves to a small home without the amenities she’s used to, we find ourselves puzzled. We didn’t see that coming, not in our culture. We are a people who idolize upward mobility—that’s just the way things work, or at least that’s what those of us who didn’t live through the depression have come to believe.
So this Sunday has a tragic feel to it even before we get to the actual crucifixion. It’s a Sunday that brings front and center a downward mobility that seems out of place, sad, linked to failure. How strange to connect these things to God? Maybe that’s why we sometimes think that the God we see in the Incarnation and specifically the God we see during Holy Week is an anomaly in the history of who God is--this God who empties Godself out in love for us, even when it leads to death. Here is an exception, we tend to think. God lives up in heaven but just this once God sets aside the gulf between creation and God, goes against all godly power, and allows Godself to experience downward mobility—downward in the sense of becoming human, downward in the sense that much of Jesus’ world would look upon the events of this week in his life and say that he failed. To our thinking, this does not fit a king, much less does it fit God.
But here we are wrong. What we see in the Incarnation and in this week that is the holiest time of our year is that this really is who God is, through and through. This emptying, this self-giving—it isn’t the exception to the way God works; it’s the rule. Within the very life of God there is, and always has been, this same self-emptying love—the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit all pouring out themselves for one another in an eternal act of love. That same love pours itself out for us, not as a rational choice on one specific occasion, but because that’s just how divine love works. I think it’s worth remembering the words of Catholic scholar Dianne Bergant as we head into Holy Week: “It is not suffering, not even the suffering of Jesus, that makes this week holy. Rather, it is holy because of the inexplicable and immeasurable love that prompted the suffering.” That love is what makes the story of a Messiah who rides triumphantly into Jerusalem and the story of the Son of God being crucified on the cross into one coherent and unified great story; it’s what holds together the glory of this day with the tremendous suffering we glimpse in the passion narrative. Salvation won’t come violently or by force; it will instead come to us through the out-pouring of love. The way of the cross will be none other than the way of life.
But here’s the unsettling thing: we can’t read the passage from Philippians or witness the passion narrative without being drawn into the dance of love and giving that defines the life of God. As God pours out God’s love for us, we are invited or maybe even compelled to pour that same love back out in praise to God and in service to the world. Is it downward or upward mobility? Appearances here can sometimes be deceiving…
This week we walk the way of the cross, and we make Jesus’ story our own. We come to understand how our story intersects with this, the greatest story of God’s love for us. We remember Jesus’ words to the disciples: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it.” And “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” And a question might linger even after the celebration of Easter has ended: How can this kind of self-emptying love in my own life be none other than the way of life?