Were You There, Palm Sunday (B) - 2006

April 9, 2006

“At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Some day St. Paul’s beautiful, prophetic words to the Christian community in Philippi will be fulfilled. Some day -- but not yet.

Imagine what it must have been like in Jerusalem in the days surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. Barely a week earlier, on this day known as Palm Sunday, he had been welcomed into the city, ushered in with great fanfare. Jesus may have been riding on a humble donkey, but the crowds greeted him as their king. They walked with him. They threw palm branches in his path. They shouted their approval. At last they would have a leader to occupy the throne of Israel who would be a powerful voice in dealing with other tribes and nations. This man of God with his healing powers and his promise of equality and justice for all people was an answer to prayer.

But that was not why Jesus had come. That was not his mission, and as the crowds began to realize this, the cheering stopped. First came disappointment; then came intense anger. As smoothly as the celebratory Palm Sunday hymn, “All glory, laud and honor” segues into that other Palm Sunday hymn with the ominous words, “Ride on, ride on in majesty, in lowly pomp ride on to die,” that is how seamlessly the atmosphere changed. A palm-carpeted passageway leading to a royal throne, became instead a desolate path to a cross.

The journey that begins today is not a long one in terms of distance. Calvary, the place of crucifixion, stands just outside Jerusalem. But every moment of this week will widen the gap between acceptance and rejection. Each succeeding day will leave Jesus with fewer supporters and make their voices less audible amid the growing clamor of the opposition. By week’s end, the leaders who see Jesus as a threat to their power and who want to be rid of him will have their way, and Jesus’ allies will be frightened into silence.

Imagine what it must have been like in Jerusalem that week for Jesus’ followers. Imagine the fear of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person and being labeled an enemy of Rome -- with ominous consequences. Imagine the growing tension in the city,
as those opposed to Jesus firmed up their plans. Imagine the rampant gossip that simply added fuel to the tinderbox situation.

It probably would be comforting to think that in spite of all this, if modern Christians -- today’s churchgoers, for example -- had been there in Jerusalem, they would have been among the brave souls who continued to support Jesus openly. Surely, they would have spoken up in his defense. Surely, they would have encouraged the others to be brave and stand with him.

From the vantage point of today, that sounds quite reasonable. But it is not realistic, given that they would have been functioning without the benefit of hindsight -- without the Resurrection, without the Apostles’ teaching, without the Gospels. At that point in Jerusalem, confusion and fear were the order of the day.

On the night before he died, just after the supper they had shared, Jesus and the Disciples sang a hymn and went to the Mount of Olives where Jesus told them they would all desert him. Then he cited the prophet Zechariah, who said, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” Sure enough, as the night wore on, especially after Jesus was arrested, his followers did fall away.

Plenty of people witnessed Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and they had a host of reasons for participating, or at least for allowing it to happen. All were in some sense accomplices, because of things they either did, or failed to do: sins of commission or sins of omission. These were real people with homes, families, and jobs. They had personal concerns and ambitions. They had their own political and religious beliefs. Some are known by name, although most are unnamed.

Consider those described in Mark’s Gospel as “the crowd.” Artists painting the crucifixion have traditionally shown a diverse collection of people scattered around the landscape. Many were there simply to watch a happening, the same way curious drivers today cause traffic jams on one side of a highway, as they strain to glimpse an accident being cleared away on the other side. Many of the bystanders probably had no strong feelings one way or the other about what was taking place. They may not even have known who was being crucified. The Gospel says the chief priests stirred up the crowd to call for Jesus’ death, and the release of a murderer named Barabbas.

Those chief priests, along with the scribes and the elders -- the ruling party -- had a vested interest in what was taking place. Seeing Jesus arrested and put to death had long been their goal, so they made sure that once he was in custody, a death sentence would follow -- even if it had to be based on false testimony.

Then there were the soldiers. One could say they were just following orders. They mocked Jesus. They spat on him. They beat him. They nailed him to the cross. It was the soldiers who had brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the governor, for questioning.

Pontius Pilate wielded a lot of authority, but he lacked courage. Even after admitting to the crowd that he did not find Jesus guilty of any crime, he still went along with their demand for Jesus’ death.

And what about the Disciples? Most were in hiding, fearing for their own lives. Peter had assured Jesus that even if everyone else fled, he would remain by his side. But in the face of armed soldiers and jeering crowds, Peter could not maintain his resolve, and he denied three times that he even knew Jesus. .

There were, however, men and women whose courage did not fail them. It took courage for John, known as the Beloved Disciple, to be so visible that Jesus could speak to him from the cross. It took courage for Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the other women who had followed him during his ministry, to be present and openly supportive at the cross. It took courage for Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and respected official, to go to Pontius Pilate at dusk and get permission to take Jesus down from the cross and bury him.

The people gathered that day in Jerusalem looked on with different perspectives and a variety of motivations. One thing they did share was a limited field of vision. For them, Jesus’ crucifixion marked an ending, with no possibility of anything beyond. His life that had held so much promise was over, and their hopes for the future died with him. And yet, not many hours later, some of the women would discover the empty tomb, and the story would be changed forever.

From commonplace to extraordinary; from narrow boundaries to limitless horizons; from utter despair to endless hope -- everything turned upside down, because God was present at the cross. God was on the cross and all around it, and God’s presence transforms the crucifixion from a finite event in time to an event transcending time. All those negative forces and emotions that led to Jesus’ death came together on that cross where they were transformed and reflected back to the people as love, because that is what God does.

The drama of Palm Sunday involves Christians in a journey they have to take, uncomfortable though it may be. Christians have to arrive at the cross in order to get beyond it. Christians have to see themselves among the bystanders in order to understand their participation with them. Christians have to see how God transforms the cross from an instrument of death into a symbol of eternal life.

“At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Not yet, but some day.

Amen.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Contact:
Christopher Sikkema