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A Path Toward Transformation

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Discipleship is about more than following a leader, even if that leader is Jesus as he enters the wilderness or sets his face toward Jerusalem. Walking through Lent is about more than a ritual stroll in springtime, even if that stroll has Easter celebration as its destination.

Discipleship and walking through Lent should set our feet on a path toward transformation. Unless the path carries us beyond Easter our journey falls short its goal.

For many of recent years Christian culture was awash in the “What Would Jesus Do?” craze. Fortunately the fad is waning. Perhaps now we can ask the better, more challenging questions: How has following Jesus transformed me? What will I do in my world? How can I live with others who have Easter behind them? These better and more challenging questions are not seasonal. To ask them is see Easter as a place of beginnings rather than endings. To ask them is to live on a path toward transformation day-by-day and season-by-season.

The sixth Sunday of Lent also is observed as Palm Sunday. It is a turning point on the journey. It is the last place in the journey where shouts of joy are heard.

The sixth Sunday of Lent also is observed as Passion Sunday. It is the place where the contemporary disciples of Jesus–those who follow him in our day–first glimpse the implications of what it means truly to follow Jesus.

Today we hear from Isaiah of the Exile, that prophet who endured the agony and disgrace of Babylonian captivity but did not lose heart.

Isaiah 50.4-9a is the third of four Servant Songs (the others are 42.1-4, 49.1-6, and 52.13–53.12). Taken together the Servant Songs provided a key to unlock the mystery of the passion of Jesus. In these poems those followers of Jesus who had Easter behind them found insight into the suffering of Jesus–and their own sufferings at the hands of Rome. They read the poems first as illuminations of the Jesus story, and then as succor to endure the cost of discipleship.

The poet writes: “I gave my back to those who struck me/and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;/I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (Is 50.6); the record of the trials of Jesus employ similar images (see Luke 22.63-64). Then the poet continues: “Let us stand together” (Is 50:8b). There is a transformation in the shift from “I” to “us.” The poet acknowledges that what the servant does the followers should also do.

On the sixth Sunday of Lent–observed as Passion Sunday–the psalm exposes a broader context for understanding the way Luke portrays the death of Jesus. Psalm 31 refuses to be squeezed into a category. It is exclusively neither “lament” nor “praise”; it is both. The psalmist is candid about his suffering: “For my life is spent with sorrow/and my years with sighing/my strength fails because of my misery/and my bones waste away” (v. 10). At the same time the psalmist establishes trust in God: “But I trust in you, O Lord/I say, ‘You are my God'” (v. 14).

The psalm helps us understand Luke’s use of Psalm 31 as the punctuation of his Passion narrative. From the cross Jesus quotes from the psalm: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23.46; compare Psalm 31.5). Luke would have us understand that Jesus is transformed by the tradition of a lament transformed into praise. Even on the cross Luke’s Jesus refuses to see his agony as the final reality. Following the insight of the psalm Jesus seeks to embody trust in God as a way to transform suffering into praise.

On the sixth Sunday of Lent the epistle dramatically focuses the idea of transformation. The opening line of our reading is a sharp focus: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2.5). In a sentence the epistle challenges the shallowness of the “What Would Jesus Do?” fad with the bold confession that authentic followers of Jesus are being transformed. The point of discipleship, the epistle suggests, is having our minds transformed so that we might think and act in Christ-like ways. “How has following Jesus transformed me?” is a deep and mature question; it is the question Paul poses to the Philippians.

What are Christ-like ways? What evidence might there be that transformation has occurred? For Paul there is a one word answer: “servant.” The example of Christ Jesus and the mark of authentic discipleship that leads to transformation is servanthood.

We may draw a line through the prophet, the psalm, and epistle. Isaiah’s servant songs beckon us to a model of transformation. “Let us stand together” (Is 50.8), the prophet prays. “I trust in you, O Lord” (Ps 31.14) the psalmist writes. And the epistle holds out the good hope that disciples of Christ Jesus will form the mind of Christ: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2.5).

On Palm Sunday–which also is Passion Sunday–we come to the Gospel. Mel Gibson’s controversial film, “The Passion of the Christ,” reminded us of the horror of the cross and all of the events that led up to it. Luke’s version of the Passion lacks the graphic horror of Gibson’s film, but it does a better job than Hollywood in giving us a glimpse of how Jesus was transformed by his own hope in the power of the prophet and the psalm. Luke describes a Jesus who embraces the role of a servant. Luke describes a Jesus transformed by the power of the psalmist’s prayer.

Authentic discipleship does not need Hollywood. All that is needed is a passion for transformation, a passion for being open to the promises of the prophet, the psalm, the epistle and the Gospel.

Richard F. Wilson is Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and Chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.