A sermon for the Palms and the Passion, Lent 2018, the day after the March For Our Lives
What did that first Palm Sunday procession look like?
It was not a polished affair, a carefully planned liturgy with robes and roles assigned, hymns practiced and printed …
It was a street demonstration. It was a rabble, searching its collective memory for chants that made sense, which everybody knew, a makeshift melee … It was a protest march. In respectable eyes, it looked like an invitation to a riot…
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote in The Last Week: what the gospels really teach us about Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem:
Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30 …
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, & Samaria entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers …
Pilate’s military profession was a demonstration of Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology.
That imperial theology said that Caesar was equal to God, because of his might, because of his reach, because he could stand his ground against anyone, because his word was law and could not be gainsaid, because he was well-armoured, well-armied, because, simply put, he was the emperor.
Jesus, on the other hand; Jesus was the real deal, and if you are God, verily and truly, you do not need nor want weaponry to wipe out the people you have made in your own image. If you are God, verily and truly, how will you exercise your power over the people?
Christ Jesus … was in the form of God … he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2)
God, it seems, would rather suffer death than deal in it; would rather use the infinite love of which creation was born to rescue even the most unworthy and unfaithful image of God from destruction. God has the most sympathetic heart.
It is tempting – it is so very tempting to make comparisons between Pilate’s parade and a modern commander in chief’s show of military might for its own sake; to compare Christ’s slung-together protest to a student demonstration of the value of life over iron, of the image of God over the inventions of a warlike people.
And I do believe that the gospel supports such demonstrations of love. If not, I wouldn’t have been downtown yesterday with a couple of bishops, a handful of deacons, a bunch of priests, hundreds of lay people, including some of our own, following the example of children who tell the truth in love about what kind of life the gospel calls us into.
But as ever, the gospel goes further: further than we almost dare imagine.
Borg and Crossan, describing those competing parades, write:
Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, the glory, the violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God …
This king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land – no more chariots, war-horses, or bows. Commanding peace to the nations, he will be a king of peace.
It is hard to follow the Prince of Peace into battle. It is little wonder that by the end of the week, the crowd was cynical and Peter was depressed, and Judas … Judas had been flipped and radicalized in the worst way.
The way of the cross demands such love, such love as gives its all to God, to a neighbour, even to an enemy. We are capable of such love, because we are made in the image of God, made out of that very self-giving love…
But we are easily distracted, by Pilate’s parade, by Caesar’s certainty, by the ease of lying to a servant girl, “No, I am not one of them … I will not step out of line…”
It is hard to stay with the Prince of Peace, but I learned a valuable lesson years ago from a philosopher named Tony whose day job was selling burglar alarms. Tony was selling my parents an alarm system, but before he sealed the deal, he offered them an out, and a warning: “If you install this system, you will never feel safe without an alarm again. Never.” If you outsource your peace of mind, you will never know a moment’s peace.
I thought of Tony again this morning, sitting at the stoplight between the highway and the neighbourhood, where a lawn sign advertised a “concealed carry course” offered by one BullsEye-Ken.
If we outsource our peace, to politics or Pilate, or to the superstition that a small piece of metal, tucked into a pocket, supplies; if we outsource our peace to any but the Prince of Peace, we will know no peace of mind, no freedom of spirit. We will forget how to fly, remain earthbound.
But if we can hold on to our hosannas, the faith we have in the king of peace who comes on a donkey, playing at parades with the children; if we can only keep that faith, we will be lifted up.
The comfort, and the conviction, is that Jesus has already done the heavy lifting. All we have to do, for one week (one week at a time), one Holy Week, is to follow in the way of the cross, to know the radical transformation that God has offered us.
It flies in the face of the regular, the respectable, and the regal. It undermines the imperialism of the established regime. It is the kingdom not of Caesar, but of God. And if ever it was, that kingdom is now at hand.
Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach Us About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (HarperOne, 2006)