Palm Sunday, April 1, 2012
New Life Lutheran Church, Pearland, Texas
Bishop Michael Rinehart
On this day, nearly 2,000 years ago, our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem on a donkey, to the cheers of the people waving palm branches. Prior to this, his ministry had been up north around the Sea of Galilee. He had become a famous preacher/healer, attracting crowds in the thousands.
In antiquity, when a king visited a city, he would ride on a white horse, if he came at war, and he would ride on a donkey if he came in peace. Jesus’ entry on a donkey is a sign that he is the Prince of Peace. Palm branches too are a sign of peace.
We often hear quoted John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” But we rarely hear the very next verse, John 3:17, “Indeed, God did NOT send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus came in peace, so why is it that on Sunday he is received as a hero, and on Friday he is condemned to death? How can this happen so quickly? Here’s my theory. I believe those shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” on Sunday are not the same people shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” on Friday. Palm Sunday we hear the people. Good Friday we hear the establishment.
Jesus enters Jerusalem as a man of the people. He is loved by the people, but not by the religious power structures, or the political power structures, both of which see him as a threat. This Jesus will overturn the tables in the temple. He will curse the fig tree, a symbol of the temple. The people will love him and call him names like king, lord, master, a threat to the authority of Rome.
In Jesus’ day, the Roman Empire was the most powerful force in the world. They had the most money. They had the best technology. They had the largest military. And they ruled with an iron fist. They demanded high taxes, and absolute obedience.
Their armies were powerful, and those who defied them were tortured, stripped naked, then nailed to a cross to suffer for days in public humiliation before dying. The religious establishment had worked out an arrangement with the authorities.
Rome was all powerful. Whenever Julius Caesar returned to Rome from a battle, the people lined the streets for his Triumphal March. They waved branches and threw their garments before him as he rode into Rome on a strong white horse.
Every Roman Emperor did the same. He would enter Rome wearing regal purple robe embroidered with gold, a gold laurel crown upon his head that had been borrowed from the Temple of Jupiter, he held a branch in his hand. The people would shout, “Hail Caesar!”
Then would come the army, followed by conquered prisoners of war would march ahead of him, Africans, Jews and Arabs, proof the victories he had attained. When the Emperor arrived at the Roman Forum, he would declare the gospel, the good news of victory, the expansion of the Roman empire and its power. Then he would sentence some of the prisoners to death, perhaps executing some himself, right there, to show the power of Rome. The rest were imprisoned or enslaved.
When he arrived at the capital, a bull would be slaughtered. The emperor would be offered a cup of wine, but he would refuse it, pouring it out on the altar. Then the Emperor would then sit on his Throne in glory.
What we have in today’s gospel is a parody of that Roman Triumphal March:
· Jesus enters not on a white horse, a symbol of war, but on a donkey, a symbol of peace.
· But later this week, the entry turns dark.
· He will be given a purple robe and a crown of thorns.
· They will parade him through the city, shouting, “Hail, king of the Jews!”
· His executioner will walk alongside him.
· Jesus will be not led to the capital (the head), but to Golgotha (the skull)
· Like the Emperor, Jesus too will be offered ceremonial wine, but he too will refuse it.
The pomp and pride of Rome are contrasted with the simple humility of Jesus. The indestructible power of Rome is contrasted with the foolish gentleness of the one who played with children, preached about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, ate with sinners, healed lepers, and lived among the poor.
The pomp, power and pride of the world’s rich and powerful are shown for what they are: a sham. Love, compassion and weakness is exalted.
Today is April Fool’s Day. And we preach a foolish message. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul says,
…the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Can you catch the vision? The foolish vision?
I believe the church has lost the vision of Jesus. For us Christianity is about being right. About being better than everyone else. About being rich, superior. What if the church became about approaching things from underneath, rather than from above, from a superior position? What if it became about humility, rather than being right, better, more righteous? What if we saw ourselves as being servants of the world, like the one who washed the disciples’ feet, rather than lords? What if we served not out of our strength, but out of our weakness?
In 2 Corinthians 2:9, Paul prayed to God to take away one of his problems. He says God told him no: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ And here is what Paul concluded:
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
2 Corinthians 2:9b
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s be a servant church. As we proclaim the hope of the world, in Pearland and beyond,
Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2)
My friends, by this shall all people know you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13) Since Christ laid down his life for us, let us lay down our lives for one another, and for the world.
Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being.
Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility.
The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.