When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
15Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.19While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”24So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”25Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
Celebrations! Joyous parades! Throngs of people clamoring to follow, willing to give anything for just one look. People lining the street with their cloaks, as if they were making way for a king. People waving branches and shouting, “Hosanna” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” It is the picture of a moment in which we would all like to take part.
Desertion. Fear. Loneliness. Betrayal. Weeping. The most faithful followers being unable to stay awake and keep watch. Disciples willing to give anything just to get away. People crying, “Blasphemy” and “He deserves death!” I would venture to say this is the picture of a moment of which we would all like to stay clear. Had it happened to anyone else we might even say, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”
Contrasts. On this Sunday we celebrate the procession of palms with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we also begin to look toward the passion of Jesus and the cruelty of the cross. What a difference a week can make! This week starts with celebration and will end with Jesus’ death. The stark realities of praise and desolation come crashing together on this day that we refer to as Palm Sunday. How did it happen – how did things go so quickly from celebration to death?
The week started with a joyful parade. Jesus was entering Jerusalem on a lowly donkey yet he was being hailed majestically. The crowds of people were growing. The excitement was building, the people were shouting, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Who were these people? None of the Gospel accounts tell us who they were. Perhaps most of them had heard Jesus teach about the coming of the kingdom of God. Some may have known Jesus since he was a child, knew his parents and brothers and sisters. Some may have been the family members of the disciples. Perhaps some were among the 5000 Jesus had fed with the loaves and fish. Some had been healed by Jesus – others had witnessed the healings. Some had seen him eating with prostitutes and tax collectors; others had opened their homes to give him and the disciples a place to stay. They loved him – they believed in him. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
If someone were to read the passage on the procession with palms, and read nothing else, they might be left with the impression that Jesus went on to Jerusalem and established his kingship there, and reigned with power and might. Instead, we read in Matthew that immediately after Jesus entered Jerusalem he overturned the tables in the temple and drove out the moneychangers and all those who were selling and buying in the temple. Jesus claimed the authority of God, but it was not the kind of authority the people were looking for – it was not the kingship they were expecting. The crowds who cheered “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” would soon turn fickle – their exultation would not even last a week.
As the Passover approached, Jesus and his disciples shared their final meal together, and each one of them pledged their undying support for Jesus. The people closest to Jesus – his dearest friends, his companions, his flock – would not be able to keep their pledge for even one day. Before the night was over they would betray him – they would deny him – they would abandon him.
Contrasts – fellowship and abandonment - praise and derision. An intimate meal shared, where Jesus says – remember me - and a time of anguish and trial when even Peter “The Rock” says, “I do not know the man.”
Contrasts - Crowds who shout “Hosanna -Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”” as Jesus rides by on a donkey, and in less than a week crowds who spit and jeer as Jesus walks by carrying his cross.
We enter Holy week in a whirl of contrasts, wanting to embrace and celebrate the glory of the palms but being unable to forget the agony, the suffering and death that follow. We may be tempted to jump from the palms straight into the joyous resurrection of Easter without wallowing in all the murky stuff in between. But if we do, we follow in the footsteps of Peter, denying Jesus.
Jesus experienced a wide range of what it is to be human in just one week, from – cheers and elation to jeers and abandonment. In the passion Jesus experienced true humanity in its darkest moments of despair – moments when he must have felt emotional pain to the core of his being – fear, rejection, abandonment, loneliness – just as his body felt the very real pain of being flogged, stripped, spit on and nailed to a cross.
We all know Jesus overturned the tables in the temple. What we tend to loose sight of is how he overturned the meaning of words like king – ruler – power – and death. The crowds who hailed his entry into Jerusalem expected a king who would rule on earth – they might have believed Jesus was the Messiah, but they expected a Messiah who would rule with might. Jesus came riding a lowly donkey, a ruler who humbled himself like a servant. After his arrest the crowds tried to get Jesus to exalt himself, to call upon God to prove who he was – If you are the Son of God then save yourself – but Jesus humbled himself by dying in the most shameful way imaginable – death on a cross. Jesus overturned all our ideas about life and death by giving himself willingly to the cross so that he might be raised from the dead as the first fruits of the promise God has for all of Creation. He who was without sin took on our sin so that we might have new life. But for the grace of God, there go I.
As we enter Holy Week we seek to know Jesus, to answer the question the people of Jerusalem asked 2000 years ago – “Who is this man?” We seek Jesus, but now, as then, he is found in unexpected places. When we seek Jesus among the places of power and influence we will not find him. Jesus overturned all the old ideas about power and rule. Now, as then, when we seek Jesus we must look among the outsiders. You know the ones. When you see them you might even find yourself sympathetically saying, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”
Jesus will be found among the outcasts – in the company of prisoners, with the homeless, the sick, with prostitutes and sinners. Jesus can be found among the lonely, the grieving, among the neighbors we recognize and the neighbors who look and speak and act very different from us. We can reject those who are outcast and say, “I do not know what you are talking about – I do not know this man.” We can fail to see Jesus in the homeless man, the welfare mother, or the condemned criminal and say, “I do not know the man.” We can look them in the eyes saying all-the-while, “But for the grace of God, there go I.” Or we can do as Jesus instructed his disciples at their last meal together – we can remember.
Remember the Jesus who came to establish a new covenant and a new and improved way of being human (being humane) together. Remember the Jesus who died for us and for “THEM” so that we might all be brothers and sisters in God’s new kingdom. Remember, so that we might no longer simply say, “But for the grace of God, there go I.” Remember, so that we will say it the way the Jesus did, “There go I.” You see, we speak volumes about people who suffer in this world when we say, “But for the grace of God, there go I.” We speak volumes, not so much about them but, about our perspective of them.
Faced with a man blind form birth the disciples asked, “Whose sin made this man blind?” Jesus responds saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” But in saying, “But for the grace of God, there go I,” what are we saying about the other person? That God has no grace for them? Jesus will be found amongst the outcast. He did not say, “But for the grace of God, there go I.” Out of love for all, he simply said, “There go I.”
As they shout, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” may we be able to say, “There go I.” As they shout, “Crucify him,” may we also be able to say, “There go I.” Like passion week, our lives are full of contrast - celebration and death – fellowship and abandonment. Sometimes they will be shouting at us…sometimes they will be shouting at others. No longer will we say, “But for the grace of God, there go I.” In our remembering Jesus, our cry of love as we stand with them will simply be, “There go I.” “Blessed are they who come in the name of the Lord!”