April 2, 2023

Palm Sunday represents a paradoxical turn of events in the story of Jesus. —Here we are at this big parade — Jesus is the Grand Marshall — everyone is excited, but we know what is coming -And it isn’t pretty!  — All of the gospels build up to this dramatic and brutal last week in Jesus’ life.

–The parade of Palms –The welcoming of Jesus to Jerusalem. And then everything soon turns ugly. The Parade of celebration turns to a Parade of Pain as Jesus is hit with Rome’s ultimate punishment, Crucifixion. The crowds, egged on by the temple leaders, turn on him.  Shouts of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” echo through the centuries, not with disdain for first century simplemindedness, but with some recognition of universal human folly.

–I can only conclude that that which holds our emotions, our violence,  our scapegoating, in check is often   only a thin veneer of civilization that is little more than  skin deep.  Leaders so inclined can easily whip a crowd into a violent mood.

What we see in the brutal scenes of the Passion of Christ is not sadistic first century Jews or Romans; — it is rather a look at the sad, sick side of humanity  reflected in every century.  

-Mankind projecting Evil, out there, in some other, someone who becomes the recipient of our alienation and anger. We may wonder why the crowds, so excited about Jesus on Sunday, were shouting “Crucify Him” on Friday. What happened to make things turn so negative? Matthew indicates that the leaders of the Temple, who were appointed by the Romans remember, convinced the crowds that that Jesus was some kind of threat. – Either because they were afraid that any popular movement might ultimately threaten their position or because they believed Jesus might incite a disturbance which would bring repercussions from the Romans.–Either or both might have negative consequences for the leaders. –Like most folks in power, they wanted to keep their positions of power and authority.

Then as now,   real or imagined threats have been used by leaders to whip-up folk’s patriotism or religious fervor for their own ends. We’re still seeing it today— all you have to do is watch the news.  It’s not all that uncommon.

The crucifixion gets so much space in the gospels not because the Jews or the Romans were so much worse than the rest of us, but rather, they were so much like us. The Crucifixion lays it all bear, control, power, manipulation and violence all on display.

One of the first attempts to revise the faith and make it less offensive came from those steeped in Greek mythology who wanted to say, that surely Jesus didn’t really suffer. –As God, he must have been above human pain. –This was not real flesh pierced by nails. -This was not a real man beaten and whipped. –They expected a God who was above the pain of human life; One removed from suffering, or doubt, or loss.  It negated some of the human responsibility in the pain and cruelty and put Jesus beyond our common place.

–But the early church insisted, Jesus was a real person with real flesh & blood.  Those who walked with him, those who witnessed his crucifixion, said this was a real man — a person burdened with all the human emotions and feelings, a man who truly suffered physical pain.

His followers proclaimed that in Him God experienced the worst of human brutality and pain. He bore human life as it is, and still said, “Father forgive them.”

Words of forgiveness with no real experience of struggle or pain behind them would be empty.

Words of hope from afar with no sense of real life, real struggle would be shallow imitations. A suffering world needs a suffering savior to express the truth of God.

This, then, was not a god of trite phrases removed from life, but a God who had come to Redeem from the inside.  –To share the worst of our common lot– and still say “I forgive” and   to live out the truth that God’s unfaltering love and presence is an unequivocal part of our lives too. This one betrayed, beaten and brutally killed mirrored our violence back to us with God’s compassion and forgiveness to stir in us the gift of forgiveness and hope.

So, Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus being pursued by Herod after his birth, –you remember with the Slaughter of the Innocents, and Mary and Joseph escaping to Egypt. –Then the gospel ends with Jesus finally put to death by the authorities –who enlist the cooperation, or at least the acquiesce, of pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover which commemorates the ancient escape from Egypt.

It is an ironic twist of fate.  –And we might note that whereas the Wise Men from afar, resisted the cajoling of Herod to betray where Jesus was, one of the disciples turns him over with a kiss!   And then, all the disciples fade into the background. They surely didn’t want to be cowards, and yet here they were, riding the wave of popular sentiment, elated and soaking in the cheers on Palm Sunday, and then hiding themselves away on Friday.  –They knew, after all that Rome tolerated NO dissent… And the crowds that turned on Jesus might just as easily turn on them.  –IT’s never easy to stand alone, or almost alone,   as a voice for change and right.

What makes this story a little less grim is that we know how it all plays out –Easter’s coming –And guess what! –God’s Redeeming Grace makes all things new! – God’s Forgiveness, God’s hope,  is acted out in this tragic week  and God’s grace becomes transformative  for those who let it touch their lives.

But that is getting a little ahead of the story. Today we simply face the reality of how people may “go along” when their hearts should be saying something different. And how evil lurks so tenuously in the human psyche.

Today we commemorate Jesus last meal with his disciples. He promised his presence with us in the bread and the juice. His words from the cross: “Father, forgive them” also echo in our hearts.

We invite you to let his grace touch your life.

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