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St Johns Southgate

15 Apr 2014

The Christian church continues its journey towards Easter. Sunday, April 13 was Palm Sunday, where we recalled Jesus’ journey on a donkey to Jerusalem. In Aesop’s Fables, there is also a story that involves a donkey. It’s a story of a father, a son and a donkey. 

The donkey was tired one day and the father and son were walking along beside it when they heard a passer-by saying: “What a waste of a donkey—why don’t the thoughtless people get on its back?” So they did and a little further on they heard someone else say: “What cruelty to a beast, why don’t they get off and stop torturing it?”

So they got off and slung the donkey on a pole and carried it between them. After a little while they went over a bridge and the donkey fell off the pole into the river and was drowned. The moral presumably is that you should not be conformed so much by public opinion that you forget to think for yourself. 

Which, in our age of conformity, is a big ask. Tody’s media and public opinion shapes our thinking. Our loved ones shape our thinking. The church shapes our thinking. And the lives we live are full of “sacred cows”, expected norms of belief and behaviour. Often we dare not even think for ourselves. History and society show us that free thinkers, boundary-pushers and John the Baptists, end up with their heads on a platter. We’d rather keep ours attached to our neck! 

Perhaps nowhere is this most profoundly experienced than in religion. Organised religion at its worst dictates the norms to think by and expects everyone to follow. If someone is free enough to think out loud and ask questions, they are quickly pulled into line.

One theologian said: “Religion is like the donkey in Aesop’s Fable. It should be your servant and your partner. You must not abuse it, by always riding it to the ground, nor fail to make proper use of it, by always walking along at its side, nor distort its proper character, by carrying it on your back, so that you become its servant. Religion can very easily become abused or neglected or distorted, if you listen only to what other people say.” 

As we journey along the holy week, the Christian church is once again reminded that we are to tell and re-tell this story of God’s extravagant, wasteful love in ways that connect with the society around us. We cannot stop telling and re-telling this story. This applies not just to contemporary opinion, but perhaps even more so, to what people have said in the past. I mean those parts of our tradition and history that are so anchored in the past, so incoherent and unintelligible to today’s people that they become a dead weight, like a donkey strapped to our back. This sort of tradition and history becomes an idol. 

It takes certain amount of courage and experience to separate this idol from the true God. It took men like Martin Luther among others for the church to refocus on the gospel, away from legalism. The passage of time and human nature requires such refocusing to happen again and again, so that the story of the crucified and risen Christ is told and re-told in ways that it becomes a living, dynamic reality for all. Christianity is openness, a refusal to let yourself be controlled or enslaved, whether by public opinion or by those parts of tradition that have become dead weight.   

While a legalistic religion continues to point fingers and hunt for heretics, the gospel continues to set people free. Legalistic religion continues to say, ‘You should not, you cannot’. In contrast, the gospel, which tells that all people are saved by grace through faith as Dr Luther so clearly articulated it, continues to set people free from idols of any description to worship God. 

As we journey with Jesus towards the cross this Holy Week, let us, like Jesus, not be swayed by others, but focus our eyes on the cross. In the history of humanity, this one event shows us most clearly God’s wasteful love for all people. Let us once again be reminded that it has all been done for us, on behalf of us and because of us. 

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