I couldn’t help but notice parallels between the events of Palm Sunday and our return to our church building this morning. Just like those Jews entering Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, eager to celebrate their most important festival, the Passover, here we are at the start of Holy Week anticipating the celebration of our most important festival. The crowd would have been looking forward to worshipping in the temple in Jerusalem, just as we have been looking forward to being in our church again. Perhaps, too, we may note resonances between recent events in this country around crowds meeting for public demonstrations in London and Bristol, with the arrival of a noisy and possibly disruptive crowd in the capital city of Israel. Would the authorities have viewed this crowd as causing an ‘annoyance’ to use the language of the new Police and Crime Bill? The ‘authorities’ in Jesus’ day would have been the Sadducees who were in charge of the temple and religious business generally in the city, and the Roman governor and his soldiers. Then there were the Pharisees, the legal experts.
All these groups, and the crowd following Jesus, and his disciples would have been viewing the events of Palm Sunday from their own particular standpoint. I want to suggest, however, that they all had one thing in common, and that was how they understood power and authority. I went into Boots recently to buy a face mask, and couldn’t see any. So I asked one of the staff to show me. Leading me right to the back of the store she pointed to a stand labelled ‘Face Masks’. I was puzzled by the variety – some were strawberry flavoured, others melon or rose and yet another ‘Easy peel’. Then I realized I was looking at a different kind of face mask – a beauty product! -We’d used the same words but with different meanings.
There’s something of that going on in Mark’s account of Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week. Jesus had spoken a great deal about the kingdom of God – ‘the kingdom of God is near’ are the first words of his ministry according to Mark and the kingdom of God runs like a thread through his teaching. Jesus tries to explain through parables and other ways that this kingdom is different from how they might usually understand the term; kingdom of God is a kind of shorthand for naming God’s way of doing things, a way that’s different from ours. However, rather as with face masks, the word kingdom triggered a different response in the disciples and the crowd. Just before entering Jerusalem James and John had asked Jesus if they could have the top jobs in his kingdom when it finally arrived. They were obviously anticipating some kind of political coup. All the disciples had failed to understand when Jesus had warned them that he would suffer and die in Jerusalem. Even arriving on a donkey and so indicating that his entry was not that of a conquering hero didn’t shift this misconception.
The Sadducees and Pharisees who appear later in the week in Mark’s narrative may also have been anticipating some show of power as Jesus appears with a whole crowd of followers. The Sadducees would have been alarmed at his presence in the temple; the heart of Jewish religious practice, this was their domain. A symbol of God’s presence and power. The only place where Passover could be properly celebrated. A fanatical mob (as they might have seen it) appearing there might result in a clampdown by the Roman authorities as well as a challenge to their own position as guardians of Israel’s most sacred place.
The Pharisees were probably nervous about Jesus’ authoritative interpretation of the whole body of Jewish teaching contained in the Torah. With his popular following he could easily undermine the control they had over what constituted orthodox belief and practice.
So, the disciples, the crowd, the Sadducees, the Pharisees – they all had a similar understanding of power, of authority and of how it was most likely to be exercised. They had failed to grasp Jesus’ own understanding. Nevertheless, ironically, they were right in anticipating, in the case of the crowd and the disciples, some kind of imminent victory and in the case of the Sadducees and Pharisees an overturning of traditions they were jealously guarding.
Mark conveys this irony in his tightly woven account of the Passion and events leading up to it.
He couldn’t make any clearer Jesus’ own understanding of kingdom, authority and power than in the choice of encounters he includes in the section before his account of Palm Sunday (Mark 10.13-end) – Jesus blessing children and saying ‘The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these, the words to the rich and very godly young ruler, ‘One thing you lack, go sell everything you have and come, follow me, the prediction to the twelve of his betrayal, arrest, being handed over, his death and resurrection, his quiet reproof to James and John and the others that he is a leader who has come to serve and give his life rather than lord it over others, and then finally the encounter with Bartimaeus, a beggar who knows he is blind and seeks healing; the implication being that it would be good if the disciples could do the same and see well enough, like Bartimaeus, to follow Jesus in the Way – a way that exercises power and authority through sacrifice and service, rather than by lording it over others. A way that is ultimately vindicated by the events of Easter morning.
When Jesus gets into the city of Jerusalem he goes straight to the temple, straight for the jugular, we might say; and of course the next day he drives out those buying and selling there. It’s perhaps worth noting that Jesus’ harshest words are directed towards those exercising religious power, rather than political power like the Romans.
Let’s imagine for a moment Jesus entering our temple, our church here, and looking round. What would he see? A group of people who, as Hamish pointed out last week, have entered more fully into the truth that church is much more than a holy building. We’ve continued to be a body of believers in spite of physical separation from our sacred space and from one another. Unlike the Sadducees, we’ve subverted any idea that the temple, the sacred building, is the only holy place where true worship can be offered. We’ve done it through Zoom, papers through letter boxes, doorstep conversations, Facebook, phone calls, WhatsApp…. Jesus had referred to the temple being destroyed and later being raised up – meaning his own body rather than the building. So as he looks round at us this morning I wonder what he anticipates might be raised up in us, the church as his Body in this place, as we continue through this pandemic?
I hope he might anticipate fruitfulness because we’ve had to die to whole lot of ways of doing things. Our gospel last week was about a seed needing to fall into the ground and die before it can bear fruit. Unless it dies, Jesus says, it remains alone, and Jesus’ own death and resurrection bears witness to that truth. As he had been explaining earlier, he was offering his life as a ransom for many. So, for us too, whatever new life is emerging for our church is a gift not only to those within our current membership but to the many well outside it. How might we look out for more ways of sharing that gift with others?
When Jesus cleanses the temple he says that the temple is to be a house of prayer for all nations; it’s as though Jesus breaks open those jealously guarded traditions or boundaries or habits we religious people maintain that can make joining in hard for those not in the loop. We may be invited to sit more lightly to some of these things in order to make space for others. Sacrifices may be required. Being a house of prayer for all nations doesn’t come easily.
Our palm crosses remind us of sacrifice. We know, though, that sacrifice is not the last word. After the cross comes resurrection. Jesus’ way of exercising power, his death on the cross, releases a huge source of energy leading to life in all its fulness, a life intended for the many, not just for the special few. I invite you, as we enter Holy Week to enter more deeply into the wisdom of the cross. Stick close to Jesus each day. Perhaps hold your palm cross to remind you to do this. It may help to read straight through Mark chapters 11 to 15 and then work through a short section of the same narrative each day this week, saving chapter 16 for Easter Day. Reading aloud can help and for some people picturing whatever is happening can also deepen our understanding.
Let us pray
Lord Jesus, may we follow your way, the way of the cross, and bear fruit that will be a source of life for many. Amen
Christine Bainbridge 28 March 2021