Part 5 in the series “This We Believe”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
April 1, 2012—Palm Sunday
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Mark 15:1-20
Isaiah 50:4-9a • The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
Mark 15:1-20 • As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.”
Let’s you and me write a story together. We’ll come up with a compelling protagonist. We’ll have him have a sudden, meteoric rise to fame and renown from humble beginnings. We’ll have him surround himself with close friends and associates who help him in his work. For the second act, we’ll introduce the obstacle that he has to overcome: a hostile and self-interested religious and political leadership, threatened by the implications of his work. The second act will close with a spiraling collapse of his friends and supporters until left alone he faces his enemies alone. And gets killed before the third act.
Well, if we’re going to sell this thing to Hollywood, we’ll probably have to come up with a better ending than that. But you’ve got to admit, the first part is pretty good. It’s standard dramatic narrative. But even the best version we could come up with would pale beside the account that we read in the scriptures.
It’s not just hyperbole that leads us to refer to the gospel narratives as the “greatest story ever told”. When you think about it. It has everything. It has the humble beginnings, the lightning fast rise in success and fame, the increasing opposition, the betrayals, the fall, the abandonment, the conflict and tragedy. It’s a compelling story, among the most compelling stories in all of scripture.
II. THE TEXT
And what a story it is. Especially the portion we read on Palm Sunday.
We start with the crowning success. Everything in Jesus’ ministry is leading up to this moment. All the teaching, all the healings, all the controversies, have led up to this singular moment: Jesus enters Jerusalem evoking the prophecy of Zechariah of the coming king riding on a donkey. He is greeted by cries of “Hosanna” and by calls for the restoration of the kingdom of David. They parade alongside him with leafy branches cut from the fields and throw their cloaks on the road before him. An impressive way to make an entrance.
The following day, he makes a spectacular demonstration outside the Temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves for the sacrifices. And we start to get a glimpse that things may not always go so well for him: the chief priests and the scribes perceive Jesus as a threat and start looking for a way to solve their “Jesus problem”.
A couple of days later, celebrating the Passover with his disciples, Jesus speaks of his impending betrayal. He predicts that not only will one of his disciples betray him but that Peter will deny him three times. That night as they go out to the Mount of Olives, he prays for deliverance from the cup that is before him. Even his closest disciples cannot remain awake while he prays in anguish. Then it is that Judas shows up with the temple guard and identifies Jesus to the waiting mob by kissing him in greeting. The disciples all scatter as Jesus is taken away, but not before one of them cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s slave.
Jesus is dragged before the priests who question him and it is only then that he declares that he is, in fact, the long-awaited messiah. He is condemned and handed over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate questions him and thinking he can avoid this political/religious trap in which he finds himself, leaves the question of Jesus’ release up to the crowds. The crowds call for the release of a different prisoner.
Jesus is flogged, scourged, mocked, and has a crown of thorns placed on him. He is taken to a hill outside of the city where he is crucified, abandoned by his disciples, with only some of the women “looking on from a distance”. He dies with the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on his lips.
It’s a compelling story.
III. BROKENNESS ON DISPLAY
But it’s not an unfamiliar story. And I don’t mean that we’re familiar with this story from having heard this story in church and Sunday school and in the occasional movie for most of our lives. This story is familiar because we live it all the time. In this story, we see the brokenness of the world on display. Brokenness that we know all too well.
There is betrayal. On the night before they share their Passover meal together, Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests and offers to betray Jesus. Mark’s gospel doesn’t even give us a reason why. We can infer that it was on account of money, but that answer is still lacking. This is one of Jesus’ trusted disciples. One of the Twelve. Not a peripheral character. Because of the way the Biblical narrative is written, it’s often difficult to get the depth of the tragedy of this betrayal. In Bible movies, they usually have to spend a fair amount of time coming up with some back story for this. Judas is a frustrated revolutionary. Judas wants Jesus to get an audience with the high priest, but knows Jesus would never go willingly. Judas feels that Jesus has strayed off message. Something to add some kind of rationale for his betrayal. The apocryphal Gospel of Judas even posits that Judas betrayed Jesus because Jesus told him to. But the truth is that Judas’ betrayal cannot be rationalized away—as if it were anything other than what it is: a betrayal. This is painful for us to admit, because doing so would require us to admit that we, too, betray. We, too, for no good reason other than our own brokenness break faith with one another. This part of the story is painfully familiar.
There is the mob. I am usually fond of pointing out in my Palm Sunday sermons that the crowds that welcome Jesus into Jerusalem on Sunday are the same crowds that cry out for his crucifixion on Friday. The same, fickle crowd. Oh, we’d like to believe that perhaps the high priests infiltrated the crowds with agitators or they stacked the deck with crowds they bused in from out of town. These are the same people. People we should be able to recognize, because they’re us. Don’t believe me? Just watch the next time a celebrity stumbles and falls. Crowds that sang their praises a few days before will be calling for their head the next day. Watch how we consume our political leaders, proclaiming them deliverer on the campaign trail and seeking their demise once they’re in office. There was a reason the Founding Fathers didn’t trust ordinary people with the vote—the ordinary people are the mob. And mobs can’t be trusted. As Sting says in one of his songs, “Men go crazy in congregations; they only get better one by one.”
There is fear. One of the themes of Mark’s gospel is the uncomprehending nature of the disciples. And one of the ways the disciples constantly display their lack of comprehension as to who Jesus is and what he is about is that they react out of fear rather than faith. Jesus heals a demoniac, and the people are afraid. Jesus walks on the water, and the disciples are afraid. He tells them a parable and they don’t understand it and are afraid to ask him what it meant. He describes the coming devastations and they are afraid. When Jesus is arrested, they flee. They’re nowhere to be seen during the trial and the crucifixion. And then even at the empty tomb, they flee “for they were afraid.” We, too, live our lives overwhelmed by fear. Our religion, our politics, our economics, our advertising, our pharmaceutical commercials, and certainly our network news are all dominated by fear. All dominated by a desire for safety and security, which prevents us from living lives of openness and love. It was Tacitus who said, “The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.” And fear dominates our lives. We recognize the disciples because in them we recognize ourselves. Fearful and unwilling to take risks to love.
There is denial. Peter, Jesus’ closest disciple insists that he will always stay faithful to Jesus and yet when confronted by various bystanders denies even knowing Jesus three times. Three. That’s one of those numbers that means you really mean it. Perhaps some of you are familiar with cultural traditions wherein one person offers a gift and you politely refuse. It is offered a second time and you refuse again. And then it is offered a third time and the offeror insists. Well, okay, since you offered three times, you must mean it. Here, Peter denies Jesus three whole times. Again, something that we do every day. Writer Peter Rollins was once asked if he denied the Resurrection. He answered that of course he did, every time he didn’t give to the poor, every time he was silent on a matter of justice, every time he should have stood up for what was right, he denied the Resurrection. We deny Christ in the same way. It’s fun to be Christian when it means supporting the status quo, but try being a Christian in a debate about immigration and welcoming the stranger. Try being a Christian in drawing a distinction between the cross and the flag. How long does it take us to deny Jesus? Not much longer than it took Peter.
There is violence and death. Truly something with which we are well familiar. Do we not on a daily basis see miscarriages of justice where the innocent suffer? Do we not see systems of oppression that wield violence against the defenseless? Do we not see those who die at the hands of the violent wielding weapons of hate? Jesus’ death upon the cross is not simply the death of a messianic pretender who was quashed by the state, his death is the death of all who have come face to face with the powers of the world and seen their interests yield and their dreams crushed in favor of the powerful. Jesus’ death is the death of all the oppressed and marginalized. Of all those who are the victims of a system that is inherently violent. Something we know quite well.
Indeed, our brokenness is very much on display in the gospel story. It is the backdrop to the entire tale. It frames and defines the entire story. Our betrayals, our mob mentality, our fear, our denials, our violence. There it is. Right there on the pages of the scriptures.
IV. THE ONE IN THE MIDST
And in the midst of it all stands Jesus. In the middle of this symphony of brokenness, evil, and depravity, stands one who for our sakes places himself at the center of the action.
Jesus does not remove himself from it, condemning it from lofty mountain peak. He stands in the middle of it and suffers it. He is not simply the object of all this brokenness, he is a fellow sufferer with us in it.
In Jesus we encounter one not removed from our brokenness, but one who bears it, endures it, and ultimately transforms it. One who saw it coming, but was still willing to face it. But most of all, one who stands in the midst of it with us. For just as we are the perpetrators of brokenness, we are also among those who suffer it. When we are betrayed and when we betray, we suffer. When we are victims of the mob and when we incite the mob, we suffer. When we act out of fear, we suffer. When we deny others and are ourselves denied, we suffer. When we perpetuate violence and are the victims of violence, we suffer.
And in the midst of that suffering stands the Christ who takes that suffering onto himself for our sake, and who stands beside us in the midst of it.
This we believe: the world is a very broken place. In can be overwhelming. There is so much fear, so much injustice, so much suffering and pain.
It is easy to look at the passion narrative and see nothing but brokenness. It is easy to see Palm Sunday as a holiday of false expectations and Holy Thursday and Good Friday as commemorating our sinfulness and brokenness. We often keep hope reserved to the Easter that follows. But in the midst of the brokenness stands one who maintains relationship with us not only despite the brokenness, but because of it. And in that, too, is hope. For if Christ be present with us in the midst of our brokenness, then we know that that brokenness is not what defines us. What defines us is the love of God in which we are created, by which we are formed, through which we are sustained, and which we see incarnate in Jesus, who stands not apart from our brokenness, but in the middle of it with us.