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No Turning Back

Psalm 118
Luke 19:28-40

 

Today we enter a week of emotional roller coaster that we call Holy; from the lowest, most devastating experience one can imagine to the unexpected celebration of new life on Easter. It begins with this very strange story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Today there are HOSANNAs but by the end of this week, Jesus is victim of a trumped up charge and murdered to protect national security and religious orthodoxy. It’s a very complex week. Add onto that sacrificial theology of “Jesus dying for my sins” ; “God sacrificing his son to save the world.” and you’ve got quite a complex conundrum. How do we understand with integrity, this cross? What’s it all about?

It only started to make sense for me through the lens of the Jesus of history, the flesh and blood man who lived in the face of the Roman Empire some 2000 years ago. I think we need to we peel off the layers and layers of tradition built up around the cross that have distorted the story.

That’s what I want to talk about today. I make no apologies for preaching a very similar sermon each Palm Sunday as I feel it is essential for modern Christians to understand the historical and political dimensions of the crucifixion so that we have it to lay along side our spiritual reflection, our identification with the spiritual power of death and resurrection.

Political execution to silence voices of dissent happens right into this century. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, Ghandi, Steve Biko, to name just a few. Many who work for justice do so at risk of death. People, like Jesus, who believe in something enough to die for it.

On the surface, the story seems like a banal picnic parade. A nice man on a donkey, children waving palms- a festival! This picture ignores the political cauldron that Jerusalem was on that day. It ignores the clash of levels of governing, each with different agendas. It ignores the result; the murder of an innocent human being a few days later

Jesus knew that there were strong forces gathering against him. They had already killed John the Baptist, his mentor. There had been many itinerant rabbis who attracted attention by calling for throwing off the Roman yoke and proclaiming a new age of Jewish rule. John had been particularly dangerous to Rome. Pilate was furious when John had escaped to the north, where he was finally arrested by Herod. Pilate felt cheated out of an opportunity to show Rome his firm grasp on the Jewish territories. So when news of Jesus’, a new John-like preacher came to him, he was not going to let this one get away.

 Jesus was well aware of the political intrigue that dogged his footsteps;…Spies from both Herod and Rome watched his actions. He came to Jerusalem knowing how dangerous it was. In his willingness to die for what he believes in, there is something that transcends tragedy. There is resistant life; which multiplies in those left behind. They are inspirited with the same resilient courage.

 Palestine was under Roman occupation. The Roman army was everywhere. They had learned the empire over that working through a puppet government, was the most effective way to govern, to avoid local unrest. Give the puppet government the illusion that they still had power, and they would use their own to do the dirty work. There were always puppets only too eager for the special privileges that came with the role, and the Romans got the job done. In Galilee Herod did the job on the political front. The Sanhedrin, the religious court handled matters religious.

But even within these levels of authority there were power struggles and rivalries. There was strong rivalry between Herod and Pilate. Rome was itching to find a way to depose Herod and put the whole country directly under Rome rather than governing through the princes.

During this week Jesus falls between these rivalries and layers of government. So you ‘ve got Pilate, the Roman governor looking forward to retirement from this Godforsaken place with its barbaric ways, wanting to avoid bad reports of any unrest to the Emperor; You’ve got Herod, unwilling to clash with Rome and the Sanhedrin to save an innocent life, and the Sanhedrin, portrayed in the gospel as still angry over the turning of the tables in the temple, anxious to keep its orthodoxy and its privileged relationship with Roman authority intact.

All it took for an innocent man to die, was for people with power to be unwilling to stand up to injustice and violence, claiming that it had nothing to do with them. Unfortunately it still happens. Think of Mayer Arar, or other Canadians who have been stranded abroad for months or even years like Abousfian Abdelrazik, or Suaad Hagi Mohamud, fairly recent examples. People caught between the systems during the racism the war on Terror has unleashed. But back to Jesus.

Jerusalem was a tinderbox. It was Passover. Jews from all over the nation swelled the population of Jerusalem 10X to celebrate the liberation of their enslaved nation from Pharaoh. Anti-Roman sentiment ran high. Rome was labeled the new Pharaoh. Anything could happen.

Pilate, the Roman governor felt the tension of the huge rowdy crowds. He had to report back to Rome, and there many only too eager to send back information to Rome to undermine him. Pilate knew he didn’t have enough troops to keep order if the city erupted. He’d have do something to give a clear message to the pilgrims exactly WHO was in charge; maybe round up some Jews to execute on crosses at all the entries to Jerusalem….

 To add to the tension, word was out that some prophet from Galilee was arriving- a man named Jesus who gathered crowds of trouble makers wherever he went. Informers said he spoke of a kingdom. Just like that John who got away! There was only ONE kingdom. ROME.

The census, designed for raising taxes, had resulted in the founding of the Zealots in Galilee under Judas the Galilean. Anti-Roman resistance of the Zealots had spread from Galilee to Judea.Jesus’ death was not the first time there had been conflict between Pilate and Galileans. Josephus, a contemporary historian tells of the crushing of a Galilean uprising in Jesus’ early days, in which over 2000 rebels were crucified. More recently, Pilate had launched a bloodbath in Jerusalem among Galilean pilgrims considered insurgents. To arouse suspicion in those days one had only to come from Galilee. Even Peter’s accent later in the week would suggest that he was an anarchist, one of the Galileans, engaged in subversive agitation. Racial profiling 1st century style.

It’s hard to figure out what really happened that first Sunday of the Palms when Jesus came into the streets of Jerusalem. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg begin their book, The Last Week with a reminder that in the year ADD30, in the days leading up to the Passover, there would have been not 1 but 2 processions entering Jerusalem. And that they were on a collision course.

From the east, amid whispers of revolt, Jesus rides in on a donkey, proclaiming the empire of God, which he called the kingdom of God. Hopeful peasants, followers, people uphappy with Rome cheer him on. From the west, amidst dust and the thunder of cavalry hoofs, soldiers march in, visible and audible even from a distance. The batallion led by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, asserting Rome’s power and might. He will crush any revolt with an iron fist. Pilate was greeted by the uppercrust of the land, Not so Jesus.

Jesus entry into the city is a planned and orchestrated politcal statement. It is dangerous street theatre. Code words are exchanged between the disciples and clandestine follwers and a donkey appears. Jesus rides into town on a donkey, a brazen nod to the prophet Zechariah and his prediction that a king would come, humble and riding on a donkey, to liberate Jerusalem.

But there is already a governor Pilate, and a King of the Jews, Herod. And then there is Caesar, known far and wide as the Son of God. Does this not start to sound like a non-violent mockery of the military parade taking place on the other side of the city? Palm Sunday awakens us to the chasm between the empires of God and of Caesar’s. It challenges us to think which parade we will choose to march in…to which empire we will offer our hearts and our lives?

To see the events of this holy week as Jesus going through preordained motions, like a puppet, to pay a blood price for the sins of the world, for me, trivializes and misses the point of the cross. The early church spoke of Jesus going to Jerusalem to be crucified, and a theology steeped in sacrificial imagery tried to make sense of what happened through that imagery and language. While I understand historically why this sacrificial understanding of Good Friday happened, to take it literally in these days, to me makes no sense. What does it say about God to suggest that God would send God’s beloved to pay a blood price for sinful humanity? Does this sound like the God Jesus knew in his ministry? or the God you know from your own experience? The early church, critical of the aristocratic priesthood of the temple, were more likely saying that Jesus put an end to sacrifice..You don’t need the temple…Follow Jesus.

A long familiarity with historical Christianity has numbed our imagination; we hardly perceive anymore the full horror and scandal that lie at the very heart of this week, and of the execution to which it leads. The cross was the worst form of execution for the lowest in Roman society. It was a social faux pas to mention crosses or crucifixion in the presence of women and children of high social standing. It took many centuries for the early church to depict Jesus on a cross.

Ched Myers in his commentary called Binding the Strong Man, states that the cross is not just one among many ways of dying. The cross is uniquely related to political domination. “The threat to punish by death is the bottom line of the power of the state; fear of this threat keeps the dominant order intact. When one was condemned by the Roman state, the condemned literally had to “take up his cross” and carry it to the public place where he was to be crucified. It was part of the humiliation process, the mechanism of social control for which crucifixion was invented.

The early Christians in proclaiming a crucified Christ, were boldly standing up against oppression, refusing to be controlled by fear and even the instruments of torture used to create that fear. Seen this way to take up the cross is resistant refusal to allow the fear of the power of death to control your actions.

Modern theologians wonder about the way the gospel writers have presented the crucifixion story. Modern scholars suggesting that the blaming of the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus was actually an attempt by the early church to shift the burden of responsibility away from the Romans. The gospels are written against the backdrop of the Jewish war and the destruction of the temple, in 70 AD.when the Jewish resistance movement was squashed. Until then followers of Jesus had coexisted peacefully in a tolerant Judaism, as just one more radical sect. But tensions began to arise…Judaism under threat became less tolerant of fringe groups…more needing to consolidate…At the same time Christians, trying to spread Christianity through the Roman Empire found it dangerous to proclaim a Messiah who had been executed by the Roman authorities as a Jewish anti-Roman political offender. From both sides the split between Judaism and Christianity happened and the gospels were written in this time of angry tension. The blame for Jesus’ death was shifted to “the Jews”-a political decision that has resulted in some of the most heinous crimes of our millenium-and to the lie of the Jews as Christ-killers- a lie that would last all the way to Auschwitz.

Many scholars believe that there could never have been the trial before the Sanhedrin that the gospel writers speak of since it would have been impossible during the Passover Holy Days. The Trial before Pilate certainly did take place however, and Pilate was well known as a blood thirsty executioner of Galilean insurgents-using his favorite instrument of torture-crucifixion. Yet the gospel writers go to great lengths to suggest that the blame falls on Judas, the namesake for the Jewish nation, and that Pilate, the good Roman governor saw Jesus’ innocence, and begged the Jewish crowd to release him, not once but three times. Who could believe that a bloodthirsty Roman governor would pay one bit of attention to what the crowds thought?

We who are Christians, need to reflect more about this key event in the history of our tradition. We need to understand the political dimensions of it, and the radical act it was for his early followers to spread the message of a crucified Christ. We need to atone for the devastation that our interpretations of this story have wrought in history- We need to reclaim Jesus as the Jewish teacher he was-steeped in that tradition-desiring to reform and renew Judaism-particularly the prophetic part of that tradition. We need to reclaim our Christian roots as the radical movement of the Spirit of God that it originally was, before it became coopted by the Roman system and turned into a state religion. In doing this we could just free ourselves to work for a world where other innocent people will not continue to be crucified, caught between the layers of government-each level washing their hands, abdicating responsibility, passing it on down the line, thinking if they get rid of the costly problem it will go away.

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