Saturday, March 27, 2021

Palm Sunday

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday

Reading: John 12:12-16

In St John’s Gospel, Palm Sunday brings Jesus’ public ministry to a conclusion. Somewhat confusingly, we read last week what happened immediately after Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem. Last week, we saw how ‘some Greeks’ approach Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, wanting to see Jesus. When he is told, Jesus sees this request as signifying that ‘his hour’ and the time for him to be ‘lifted up’ has arrived. We now go back to when he actually rode into the city.

In his account of the event, St John describes how, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, a crowd go to meet him. They greet him as their King, waving palm branches, symbols of Jewish nationalism. There is clearly a feeling of great excitement. The Pharisees, in some despair, say to one another:

‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’ (John 12:19)

It is a triumphant moment. Jesus is at the peak of his popularity. St John tells us that even among the authorities there are those who believe in Jesus (John 12:42). Having described all this, St John’s conclusion to Jesus’ public ministry comes as something of a shock. St John writes quite simply:

‘Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.’ (John 12:37)

This is something of a puzzle. At first sight, it doesn’t seem to fit with what St John has just described and told us. One moment St John is describing how everyone turns out to greet Jesus as the King of Israel and that everyone has gone after him; now, having described Jesus as such a success, St John concludes from it that no-one believes in Jesus. What is going on?

At the risk of repeating what I have been saying in the past few weeks, we need to go back to the beginning. Three years or so earlier, a group of people who were disciples of John the Baptist had, with John’s encouragement, left John to follow Jesus. They believed Jesus to be the One whose coming John had been preparing people for by baptizing them in the River Jordan. It was because these disciples were eager for the Messiah and the Kingdom of God to come that they had first joined John the Baptist and then left him to join Jesus.

These first followers of Jesus were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and Jesus confirmed them in this belief. Jesus, during his time with them, revealed his glory to them by the signs that he performed. The first of these signs was at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the village that one of them, Nathaniel, came from. Over the next three years, they were to witness Jesus performing many more amazing signs and teaching the people about the Kingdom of God. All of which reinforced their conviction that he was the One whose coming they were looking for.

While many other people were also convinced, the chief priests and Pharisees were not. There were many arguments between Jesus and those in authority, and, on more than one occasion, they want to get rid of Jesus. But why did they want him killed?

I don’t think we pay enough attention to this question. The common picture of Jesus makes it hard to understand why anyone would want to get rid of him. We have been told so often that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the story that we have just come to accept it. However, is it likely that they were so bad that they would conspire to kill someone whose only offence, in this picture of him, was to go round blessing children and telling people to love one another?

This image of Jesus or some variant of it is one that many people have of Jesus. It simply isn’t historically credible. The popular view of Jesus can’t be right because it doesn’t explain why anyone, let alone deeply religious people, would want to kill him and why they would seek the support of the Romans, the very people they hated the most, to do so.

The Greeks at the festival say to Philip, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12:21). We need to see Jesus. Jesus, that is, and not the person he is commonly made out to be, even in our Churches. It is only when we see Jesus as someone that good people would be prepared to kill that we have truly seen Jesus. The real Jesus, that is, and not the Jesus of popular imagination.

The first puzzle is why St John says that people did not believe in Jesus when they were all waving palm branches and cheering him. The second puzzle is why people and the leaders of the people, in particular, wanted to kill him.

It is perhaps worth examining why they said they wanted to kill Jesus. Leaving aside for a moment their hidden motives, imagine if there had been the equivalent of the BBC at the time and a reporter had interviewed Caiaphas, the High Priest, or his father-in-law, Annas, who had been High Priest before him. Imagine our reporter asking them why they had ordered Jesus’ arrest and lobbied Pilate for his crucifixion. How would they have answered?

We have a very good idea how Caiaphas would have answered. Immediately before Jesus entered Jerusalem, on what was to become known as Palm Sunday, St John describes how the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem are in a state of some panic:

‘So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”’ (John 11:47-48)

Caiaphas says to them:

‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ (John 11:49-50)

Caiaphas is being a political realist here. Politically, it made more sense for them to have one man killed than to risk what the Romans would do if there was even the suggestion of organized rebellion.

Annas and Caiaphas, in their answer to our imaginary reporter, would have pointed to the real threat Jesus seemed to pose to the nations independence and security. People genuinely thought that Jesus was the Messiah. At a previous Passover, many had wanted Jesus to lead a rebellion against Roman rule. Jesus had refused to go along with it (John 6:15). But there was no knowing whether that was just because he was waiting his moment. After all, Jesus kept talking about when ‘his hour’ would come.

The governing authorities, like Caiaphas, were realists. They knew how the Romans would react to any suggestion of rebellion. It would be ruthlessly and mercilessly crushed. What is more the Jewish authorities were given quite a lot of independence by Rome. They were entrusted by Rome to govern responsibly and to keep order. Any rebellion would be seen as their fault. They stood to lose what freedom they had and their own power and influence as a result.

Caiaphas, Annas, and their fellow leaders preferred, then, to keep what they had, rather than risk it all on some unknown figure from an obscure village in Galilee. Caiaphas, as the High Priest, was right to think like this. 40 years later, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were to support rebellion against Rome and lost everything as a consequence including the Temple, which the Romans set fire to and destroyed.

While we may now know that this was not what Jesus planned and that Jesus was not a political threat in the way that Caiaphas and the other Jewish leaders feared, the Jewish leaders themselves could not have possibly known this. Indeed, even Jesus’ closest followers thought that rebellion was precisely what Jesus was planning. We can’t really blame, the Jewish leaders for thinking the same. Furthermore, Jesus himself had done nothing to make them think otherwise. By entering Jerusalem so publicly and choosing to do so in the way the prophet Zechariah said the Messiah would enter it by riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9), it must have seemed to all who witnessed it that a Messianic uprising was exactly what Jesus had in mind.

Politically, the Jewish authorities must have felt they had no choice if they wanted to preserve some Jewish independence and avoid massive bloodshed. Again, the Jewish War 40 years later showed how the Romans would punish rebellion. Jerusalem in AD 70 would be soaked in the blood of its inhabitants. Far better, as Caiaphas said, that one man should die even if it meant collaborating with the Romans to make it happen (John 11:50). From the Jewish leaders’ point of view, Jesus had only himself to blame.

This political reason for wanting Jesus killed was genuine, and would of itself probably have been enough to persuade the Jewish leaders to act. The Gospels, however, all suggest that there was more to it than this. In addition to the political reasons for their fear and hatred of Jesus, there was a real personal dislike of Jesus. Some of this was just sheer arrogance on their part. Jesus was not one of them. He wasn’t from one of the well-connected families. He wasn’t a priest or even from Jerusalem. He was, in their terms, an uneducated teacher from a remote part of the country. Who did he think he was? When Nicodemus, the Pharisee and member of the Governing Council who came to Jesus by night, seeks to get a fair hearing for Jesus, their reply to Nicodemus is completely dismissive:

‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’ (John 7:52)

Secondly, worst still, apart from political reality and their personal dislike of him, Jesus was popular. This was not just because he was believed to offer a way to political and religious freedom, but because he was genuinely a charismatic figure. He was believed to be able to do amazing things and his teaching wowed his audiences. St Matthew tells us that Pilate knew it was out of jealously that they had handed Jesus over (Matthew 27:18). It was not simply personal jealousy; there was much more to it than just personal rivalry and animosity, but personal jealousy was a part of it.

The reality is that people in power don’t just want power, they want to be popular and for people to admire and look up to them. As humans, we crave popularity. That’s Facebook’s not so secret, secret. We like people to like us. Jesus’ popularity was personally upsetting for those who were in power, who were not nearly so popular. In addition, Jesus’ personal popularity made him even more politically dangerous as well. People were willing to follow him. What the authorities saw as Jesus’ political ambitions and his obvious personal popularity were to prove a fatal combination.

Thirdly, apart from the political and personal reasons that led the Jewish leaders to want to get rid of Jesus, we need to see that Jesus could himself be a provocative person. Jesus didn’t go out of his way to make people like him. He seemed to take delight in doing things that he knew would upset people, particularly people in power. Jesus’ attitude to the sabbath is a case in point. He not only healed people on the sabbath, he appeared deliberately to choose the sabbath to do so knowing it would upset people. The synagogue leader has a point. St Luke writes:

‘But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”’ (Luke 13:14)

The people Jesus healed had been ill or disabled for a long time, what difference would one more day make?

To make matters worse, the comments Jesus makes about his opponents are often deeply and personally insulting. Jesus says to the Pharisees, for example:

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.’ (Matthew 23:27-28)

These were certainly not the sort of comments to win friends and influence people!

Jesus’ behaviour itself also was at times shocking even scandalous. He kept strange company and did things that he must have known would be offensive. He gained the reputation, in his own words, of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Luke 7:34). Letting a known prostitute wash and kiss your feet in public, for example, isn’t exactly going out of your way to avoid controversy (Luke 7:36-37). If we heard of a Church leader today allowing it, we would certainly ask questions.

It was, of course, the provocative nature of what Jesus said and did that only served to increase his popularity with and appeal to the masses. This, in turn, only added to the problem he posed as far as those in authority were concerned.

All this helps to explain why the Jewish leaders decided to collaborate with the pagan ruler to have Jesus killed. A combination of political expediency, personal animosity, and direct provocation by Jesus himself led them to act decisively at a time of the year, when because of the Passover, tensions were already high and when it wouldn’t have taken much for a charismatic and popular figure to start an uprising against a foreign power occupying the Holyland. Again, as we have seen, the chief priests and Pharisees were sure that this was where it was all heading and Jesus himself was doing nothing to discourage such thoughts.

While, however, we may be able to offer a plausible explanation of why the religious leaders wanted to get rid of Jesus, it doesn’t explain our first puzzle of why at the moment Jesus is at his most popular and people are hailing him as the Messiah, St John concludes that ‘they did not believe in him’.

St John tells us that he wrote his Gospel so that we ‘may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing’ we ‘may have life in his name’ (John 20:31). If anyone believed Jesus was the Messiah, it was the crowds who hailed as their King on Palm Sunday, so how can St John write that they didn’t believe in Jesus?

Interestingly, everyone at the time seems to be agreed on who Jesus thinks he is. The disciples, the crowd, and the Jewish leaders. They are not completely wrong. Jesus is the Christ. He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel. The problem is that they assume that this must mean him behaving as they think the Messiah would behave. They cannot see beyond their own prejudice and understanding. The disciples and the crowds want him as the Messiah to be their kind of Messiah and the Jewish leaders assume that this is the sort of Messiah Jesus must want to be.

And this leads us to the most important message in all this for us today. Unless we believe in Jesus on his own terms, we do not believe in Jesus. Turning out to cheer Jesus does not make someone a believer. Very often the person we are cheering is not Jesus, but our own image of him. Putting this in today’s terms, going to Church and joining in the worship is not enough. We need to make sure that the person we are worshipping in our church services and in our lives is Jesus himself not Jesus as we want him to be.

Palm Sunday challenges us to ask whether we are following our own Messiah or Jesus. And, of course, that immediately raises the question of how we can know? Last week, we saw what Jesus said to the crowds immediately after entering Jerusalem. It is what he said then that helps us to get our ideas about Jesus sorted out. Jesus said:

‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.’ (John 12:25-26)

A good question to ask if we want to know whether we are believing in Jesus or in our own image of Jesus is this: what do we want of Jesus? What do we expect from following him? Someone to make our life easier? Someone we can turn to when we come across problems and difficulties in life? Someone who can lead us in the fight against injustice in this world? Where many of our pictures of Jesus go wrong is that they focus on what Jesus can do for us in this world. Jesus himself specifically and repeatedly told those wanting to be his disciples that was not what being his follower was all about. Following Jesus, as we are going to see in the next few days, is about following someone who became ‘obedient unto death even death on a Cross’ and who now asks us to carry our Cross too, if we want to be his follower. The more we are focused on what Jesus can do for us to make our life easier in this world, the less likely it is we are focusing on Jesus.

It was because they were following their own image of Jesus that the disciples were shattered when it turned out that he was not who they thought he was. We have allowed ourselves to believe that the disciples were weak people, who abandoned Jesus at the end because they were cowards. This won’t do. The disciples had known for some time that the authorities were out to get Jesus, and there had already been several attempts on his life. Peter drew his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane when they came to arrest Jesus. He had told Jesus that night that he was prepared to die for him and now he would.

Peter denied Jesus, not because Peter was a coward, but because Jesus was not the Messiah Peter thought he was. So too us when following Jesus is not what we expected it to be, when all does not go as we thought it would, when being a believer is tough and hard and makes us unpopular, when Jesus doesn’t come to our aid and give us everything we want. Palm Sunday challenges us to look at who it is we are cheering in our worship: is it Jesus himself or, like the crowds, the Jesus we want?

A question I ask myself is this: if I had met Jesus during his earthly ministry would I have liked him? The answer is not quite so obvious as it might seem. I hope I would have. I hope I would have joined with the tax collectors and prostitutes in seeing Jesus for who he was.

My fear is that I might instead have sided with the Jewish leaders. Jesus was challenging and at times offensive – ask the Pharisees what that felt like (Matthew 23:1-39). He didn’t give easy answers – ask the rich young man who went away sorrowful what that felt like (Matthew 19:22). He demanded an unquestioning obedience – ask the man who wanted to bury his father before following Jesus what that felt like (Matthew 8:21). Jesus said that only the few find the way to life (Matthew 7:14), listening to Jesus you can see why.

On Maundy Thursday, it is traditional for priests to gather to renew their ordination vows. The priests in Jerusalem rejected Jesus. If Jesus was here now, would we let him join us on Maundy Thursday? Or even more worrying, would he even want to?

Jesus was demanding and disturbing. He still is. So, we might ask: why believe in him? This was the question many of his disciples asked themselves when Jesus told them that believing in him meant completely identifying with him and depending on him (John 6:53-59). They answered by abandoning him. Jesus asked those who remained:

‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (John 6:67)

Peter answered for them:

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

Jesus is the One who has the words of eternal life, but the Jesus who has the words of eternal life is the Jesus that the Gospel writers show us. ‘We wish to see Jesus’, the Greeks said to Philip. If we wish to see Jesus, we will see someone nailed to a Cross, dying because of our sin and for our sin: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).

Jesus said:

‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.’ (John 12:26)

So now, knowing who he is and where following him will lead us, will we still believe in him?


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