Who is this Jesus person? Great moral teacher? Marginal Jew? Fictitious figure made up to justify Constantine’s imperial power? Great king? Suffering servant? Magician, miracle monger, faith healer? Today’s reading puts us slap bang in the middle of this question. Who is Jesus? And why should we care? And, conveniently, it all centres on a parade.
It’s convenient, because, as I discovered when I moved to Melbourne: we love parades, and have a lot of them. Moomba. Melbourne cup. ANZAC Day. And, of course, the AFL Grand Final Eve parade – so important to the emotional wellbeing of our city that we require a whole day off.
I don’t know why I bother describing it as the “AFL” grand final. There is only one Grand Final as far as Melbournians are concerned. I actually went to a Grand Final parade once. Well, that’s not strictly true. I once found myself in a monumental scrum of people at the intersection of Collins and Swanston, and thought to myself: oh yeah. That’s right – this must be the famous parade.
My only excuse is that I’m not really from Melbourne. It turns out that a mere 17 years here is not enough to completely ingrain the AFL calendar into my psyche.
How many people here have gone to the Grand Final parade? Like any big crowd occasion, it was quite a rush. Even if you stumble into it unknowingly like I did, and don’t really support either of the teams, you know something big is going on. Something that feels historic. All that money and effort and organisation. All those thousands of people who work for the stadia, the teams, the AFL, and so on and so on. All that focused training and effort and physical commitment and team spirit and displays of sportsmanship both good and bad. Hundreds of thousands of marks, goals, behinds, and that odd thing where you have to bounce the ball every few metres which baffles people who follow sports other than basketball. All that effort, culminating in the Grand Final – on the final weekend in September. Just like it has always been.
Imagine yourself for a moment as a tourist from out of town in first century Jerusalem.
Perhaps you’re a well-connected Roman young man, come to make a tour of the Eastern Provinces where your uncle is something in the imperial administration, working his way up the cursus honorum. You have come to Jerusalem to see the great wonder of the world that is the Temple of Jerusalem, and witness the world famous Passover festival.
Leaving your lodgings, you decide to take in the view of the Temple from the Mount of Olives. So, lacing a sturdy pair of sandals on your feet, taking a packed lunch and a flask of wine – you haven’t wasted your military service and you know the importance of a good feed whilst on campaign, you slip out. There was some sort of boring conversation last night about the potential trouble, but you faced down a rebellious tribe of enormous blond furious Gauls single-handedly barely a year ago, so you don’t feel particularly worried. No-one is going to bother you, in spite of the cavilling of boring worrywarts. So out you slip out of Antonia Fortress, bright and early, as unostentatiously as it is possible for someone like you to do.
However, as you head south, towards the road to Bethany, which will take you up the Mount of Olives, you begin to encounter a little local difficulty. There is an astonishing sea of people thronged around the Golden Gate, the eastern, and highest, gate to the Temple. They are all waving palm fronds, and singing. You don’t speak Aramaic, so you don’t really get what they are saying, but something like “Hoshana.” You jostle for a place – not hard because you’re half a foot taller that your neighbours, and obviously a Roman, and quite quickly, hostile muttering notwithstanding, you find yourself at the front of the crowd.
You’re just in time – a man is coming along the centre of the road, seated, oddly on a young donkey. Even more oddly, instead of a saddle, he seem to be sitting on a collection of road-worn cloaks. People are throwing their cloaks on the ground before him. As he passes, you catch his eye, and, to his surprise, he smiles at you.
Behind him walk a motley crew of people – fishermen and peasants mostly, but with a few more well-dressed people, and even some women. They too are singing and waving palm fronds. And then it is over, and the man and his followers have passed through the Golden Gate, into the temple, and the crowd hesitates for a moment, as though hoping something more might happen, and then begins to disperse, some into the temple, and others back into the city.
You are a polite young man, brought up to take an interest in the culture of the natives, and so you spy a respectable looking man, and ask him politely, in Greek, what is going on.
I wonder what the man would have said? Given that you are a Roman overlord – not necessarily as bad as the Herodians, but bad enough for all that – he probably would have been pretty circumspect. Maybe muttered something about a religious teacher, a miracle worker, certainly nothing political, nothing to threaten Caesar.
Hmm, you think. It certainly looked like a political thing. All those cloaks, all that singing. It doesn’t look much like the usual religious doings of the Jews – which are either fairly standard sacrifices of the sort that all religions in the known world, both in the empire and beyond, quite rightly offer, or the eccentric disputations of roving religious teachers – which are much more strange, and more like the way the Greeks carry on. You decide that, the empire being what it is, you had better go and report what you’ve observed to the authorities. The last thing you want is some sort of riot amongst these fractious people.
So what was going on at Palm Sunday? Was it a triumphal procession – just as impressive, and, in the context of history, just as transient? A figure of some local importance, but not revealing anything that we couldn’t have figured out for ourselves given time?
As I have frequently observed, spiritual discernment is the difference between noticing what’s happening, and seeing what is really going on. What does Palm Sunday mean?
Of course the respectable man will have played up the religious aspect of Jesus. Given that was on his way to chase the money changers and merchants out of the temple you could certainly see that there was a religious aspect to what he was doing – after all, what could be a purer religious motive than concern for the purity of temple worship?
Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, ‘It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.’ (Luke 19:45-46)
But by what right is he doing these things? This is precisely the question that occurred to people at the time:
One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and telling the good news, the chief priests and the scribes came with the elders and said to him, ‘Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?’ Luke 20:1-2
It is, in fact, quite likely this attitude to the temple, and to the religious authorities, that got Jesus killed. The temple was God’s house, and taking care of it was the responsibility of the religious authorities. It was they who said what would happen there, and what would not. Jesus was explicitly behaving as though he had an authority of his own – as though he, and he alone, was in a position to speak directly for God.
But, obviously, it wasn’t just religion that Jesus was about. It’s a bit of an anachronistic concept anyway, to divide up religion and politics. If you google the history of Israel in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, you will see pretty clearly how kingship and high-priesthood were often intertwined.
So what was this procession? The people were acclaiming him as king, and they were right to do so. Jesus had “authority to do these things” that came directly from God.
To cleanse the temple was a political act. The people were right to acclaim him as king. He really was the Messiah.
But what sort of king was Jesus? This is where it gets deeply ironic. The king that the people were hoping for was a great leader who would drive out the Romans, in the same way that Judas Maccabee had driven out the Seleucids. Which is why our, admittedly fictional, sensible citizen downplayed the political aspect – he wanted a sensible, quiet existence without drama.
So, the answer to the question we asked at the beginning – who is Jesus – is beginning to present itself. Jesus is a king. But Jesus was not the sort of king that the people were expecting. As he said to Pilate: my kingdom is not of this world, otherwise my disciples would have fought to stop me from being handed over. (John 18:36)
Whatever kingship is in the world, with its motorcades and rich jewels and twenty-one gun salutes, it is not like the kingship of Jesus.
The sort of king Jesus is, is illustrated in a key event in John’s rendering of the Gospel, which we are going to mark on Maundy Thursday. On his last evening with his disciples, he washes his disciples’ feet. As I’m sure you’ve heard a hundred million times before, this was generally a role for a slave. It’s a way of summing up a way of being in the world that was all about the service of others, bringing the love of God to bear in the most real and personally focused ways imaginable.
This draws us deeper into the question of who Jesus is: what it means for Jesus to be king is that he perfectly expresses God. More than a human king, Jesus is the image of the invisible God.
And we are Jesus’ followers.
What binds us together is not where we live, not fear of a rapidly changing world, nor the various tasks involved in being the church here in Glen Iris. We are, rather, those who gather around Jesus. His friends, to whom he tells all that he hears from the Father.
We are the heirs of those who followed along, delightedly, with the palm branches and the singing, excited to see our friend vindicated, hoping that he will be about to inaugurate the kingdom. We are the descendants of the ones at table with him on Thursday, eating the bread and drinking the wine. And we are also the descendants of the ones who fled when Jesus was betrayed.
But in spite of our failure, our betrayal, Jesus pursues us with unceasing ardour. He has taken full responsibility, paid the price for all of our sin on the cross, and was powerfully vindicated by God who raised him up on the third day.
And that is why Jesus matters: Jesus is the one who reconciles us to God, and to one another.
Today is Palm Sunday – the first day of Holy Week, where we are invited to join with Jesus in the culmination of his ministry on earth and journey with him through his final meal with his disciples, his betrayal and death. And, of course, to rejoice in his resurrection. Because in spite of what the world thinks: Jesus, the risen and ascended one, really is Lord.
A sermon preached for Palm Sunday 2019 at Glen Iris Road UCA on the text