Texts: Leviticus 25:1-7; John 12:12-33
There’s no way around the violence of Jesus’ death. The piece of street theater we refer to as the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday is the beginning of a week of intense confrontation between Jesus and the religious and political authorities. It’s a tension that had been building throughout Jesus’ public life.
There were times Jesus had proven to be more strict than the most stringent interpreters of Scripture. Like arguing that not only should the people obey the commandment “Do not murder,” but that whoever holds resentment in their heart toward another person is in the same category as a murderer. At other times Jesus made proclamations as radical and liberating as any freedom fighter before or after him. Like when he stood up in the synagogue of his hometown in Nazareth and declared that, like Isaiah, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to grant release for captives, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee: when debts were forgiven, slaves set free, and wealth that had accumulated into the hands of the few was redistributed among the people.
Jesus called into his inner circle tax collectors who had made their fortunes collaborating with the Roman Empire, benefitting off the military occupation of their own kin. And people like Simon the Zealot, who had been a part of a revolutionary band conspiring to violently overthrow Roman control of Judea.
In a highly patriarchal honor/shame culture, Jesus touched and restored to community a bleeding woman. He engaged in face to face conversation with a foreign woman as an intellectual equal around a well in Samaria. Jesus drew much of his financial support from a group of female disciples. He publicly defended a woman who poured out a year’s wages worth of expensive oil on his feet, and wiped it with her hair.
Jesus railed against the Pharisees, but also ate in their homes. He drew crowds of poor peasants, and rich young rulers.
At times he made the bar of being his disciple as low as the simple invitation to “Come, follow me.” At other times he made it agonizingly high, like when he replied to a would be disciple who wished to return home upon the death of his father for the lengthy grieving rituals. Jesus’ reply: “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
Whatever kind of easy going buddy-Jesus type image a certain brand of American Christianity has created in the last while quickly disappears with even a skim of the gospel material. If we manage to read through the gospels without in some way being offended by something Jesus says or does we likely aren’t paying attention.
His mission was not to offend, or scandalize for the sake of scandal. His mission, which he perhaps fully came to terms with during those 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism after which these days of Lent are patterned. His mission was to bring good news. Good news. To proclaim that the reign of God was at hand, pressing in on historical time, making itself known in the present moment through him and those who follow in his way.
But what is good, freeing, liberating news for some, is threatening news for others. Specifically, for those who uphold and benefit from the current moral and political power arrangements. It is unsettling news for those who hold a monopoly on the sacred, the gatekeepers of who is considered blessed and who is is considered cursed. And those who are accustomed to receiving unquestioned allegiance.
It was with these folks and systems Jesus tangled and tangoed during the final week of his life. A week which ends in his crucifixion at the hands of Rome. This was an especially cruel form of public torture reserved for slaves and enemies of the state. Crucifixion was strategic in its horror. It was intended to have the same effect as shock and awe modern warfare. To be so overwhelmingly awful as to deter those who saw it from ever doing anything that might put them in similar danger. The unwritten but clearly communicated sign attached to every one of the 1000s of people Rome crucified was “Don’t let this happen to you.”
There’s no way around the violence of Jesus’ death.
This winter I found myself in a bit of a jam while visiting with the elementary school aged Sunday school classes. Christian Ed Commission asked me to speak with our young people about rituals in the church like Communion and Baptism and Coming of Age, and to talk about the liturgical calendar. That’s where we started. Advent and Christmas went pretty much as anticipated, with a nice mix of incarnational theology and kids wanting to talk about their favorite Christmas presents. When we got around to Lent and Easter, kids of different ages had a similar question. They wanted to know about Jesus’ death. More specifically, they wanted to know how he died, down to the details of where exactly the nails went through the body. They were curious. And while they knew the basic story, I guess they figured since the pastor was in the room this was their chance to get the inside scoop on what really went down.
And I found myself hesitating with what to say. What to say about the crucifixion of Jesus to children? I wondered if this was somewhat equivalent to taking these kids into an R rated movie without parental consent. On the other, they wanted to know more about this Jesus person we talk so much about, and they deserved more than a vague answer.
So we talked about crucifixion. I tried to answer the questions they had, without giving details they didn’t ask for. We wondered together about why some people would want to do that to Jesus, and what it would have been like to be Jesus’s friend as this was happening. We talked about how this was one of the most powerful things that could have been done against Jesus, but how the kind of power he had was greater even than this, even than death. We got a little side tracked on the difference between resurrection and zombies, steering towards how we believe that even though we don’t see Jesus’ body anymore, that Jesus is alive through our bodies and somehow we together form one big body that does the kinds of things Jesus did.
Doing theology with kids is much more challenging than adults because they don’t nod their heads in polite agreement if they have no idea what you’re talking about. Which makes one wonder whether one actually knows what one is talking about.
So what are we talking about?
In our cycle through the liturgical calendar we have arrived at Palm Sunday, the first day of a week to which the gospels commit so much text.
And what we’re talking about, at least in part, is why out of all the thousands of people that Rome crucified, why it’s Jesus’ crucifixion we talk about most. Why it ended up becoming a symbol of a whole movement that continues to this day, of which we are a part.
Each gospel has its own way of telling the story, but one thing they hold in common is the repeated reminder that the disciples didn’t know what any of this meant while it was happening. This doesn’t mean they were particularly dense. It means they were very much like us, immersed in the events of the day, uncertain of what they meant, if anything, in the bigger picture. It means they experienced the events surrounding Jesus’ death very much like anyone who would experience the death of someone they loved dearly, the fear and grief compounded by the public violence against this one for whom they had given up so much to follow.
John’s gospel interjects that note about the disciples’ lack of understanding right after that palm processional by which Jesus entered Jerusalem. John writes: “His disciples did not understand these things at first.”
Jesus had entered Jerusalem the way Roman governors entered it during the major Jewish festivals. Mounted on the back of a horse trained for war, Roman governors entered cities with the kind of public fanfare intended to remind people of who was in charge. Hovering thick in the air along the processional route was the threat of violence toward those who disturbed the peace of Rome.
The disciples likely at least understood that Jesus’ method of entry was a counterpoint to this. Perhaps a kind of mock parade in the spirit of street theater. The alternative off broadway processional on the other side of town. The one without the parade permit. Complete with props and chants. A processional with a different message, evoking the Hebrew scriptures which proclaimed that the king of Yahweh’s choosing would come on a young donkey. Hovering thick in the air along that processional route was the spirit of peaceableness.
Maybe the disciples got at least this much. But what follows seems to have been impossible to see while it was happening. For good reason. It’s still hard to see.
The gospels were written decades after the fact, so it’s difficult to sort out the events themselves from the emerging interpretation of those events embedded in the storytelling. In John’s gospel we soon hear from Jesus himself, who sensed the inevitability of his own death. Referring to his crucifixion, Jesus says “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31).
It’s a remarkable thing to consider. What appears in the moment to be a judgement against an individual, resulting in his death, Jesus proposes is actually a judgement against the whole system that conspires to inflict the violence of the cross. When he says “Now the ruler of this world will be driven out” he uses the same phrase as driving out demons. In other words, Jesus proposes, to those with ears to hear, that his crucifixion should be seen as an exorcism of global scale, to drive out the ruler of this world.
The demonic ruler being drive out wasn’t Pilate or Caesar or any particular human being. Anyone could be plugged into their role to keep the whole machine chugging along. The ruler of the world was the overarching power that seemed to hold the whole world together, that threat of violence hovering thick in the air over Jerusalem, and over human history.
The cross of Christ is a public exorcism of violence, which has now been driven out of this world, which frees us to live under a different power entirely, defined by peaceableness, fierce love, and neighborliness which knows no borders. The cross means no more crosses.
At least that’s how the disciples came to understand it in retrospect. That’s the foolishness of the Christian confession of faith. There are so few visible signs that this was a successful exorcism. And yet that’s what we foolishly believe.
We’ve been talking about Sabbath throughout Lent. Sabbath as a day, Sabbath as a year. Sabbath for God and humanity. Sabbath for land and animals. Sabbath as a verb that means to cease.
What we’re saying now is that we have been liberated from the spirit of violence and are invited into a permanent Sabbath from violence. Violence as visible and public as every cross and crucifixion we continue to inflict. And violence as hidden and personal as the wounds we all carry.
Maybe this Sabbath from violence is like a parade. A peaceful processional. The one without the permit, on the other side of town. A processional through time. This mobile sanctuary in time. A processional with Jesus out in front, the living and the dead drawn in to this march toward life.