Saturday, 16 April 2011

Palm Sunday: It's all about conflict


Phil. 2:5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Matt. 21:1-11
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately. This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

One of the greatest shocks for those of us who went to Israel was the sense of division. The city is in four quarters, Christian, Armenian, Muslim and Jewish, but if that wasn’t bad enough even the Christians are divided amongst themselves. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to contain both the sites of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus, should surely be one of the holiest places in existence.

Yet the reality is very different. A number of denominations hold different responsibilities and different shrines within the huge building. What can only be described as a struggle for power has erupted into public brawls on several occasions. It is perhaps significant, as well as shameful, that the keys to the church are held by Muslim families to avoid arguments.

Jerusalem is a symbol of everything possible that can go wrong with worship when it becomes a struggle for power rather than weakness, leading to an endless cycle of conflict, and this comes into focus for us when we look at the events surrounding what we call Palm Sunday because to my mind Palm Sunday is not about peace it’s about conflict.

The question on the lips of the people of Jerusalem was, “Who is this?” but perhaps the deeper question is, “How is his true identity going to affect your life?” Unless we can answer that question ourselves there is little hope that we can follow in his footsteps. So to answer that question we need to look at the clues that Jesus gives us and that Matthew highlights, because that’s where the conflicts start.

Firstly there is the donkey and its colt. If Jesus had been a triumphant leader, a king in the human sense of the word, then he would have entered Jerusalem on a stallion. But to do that would have been tantamount to a declaration of war against Rome in middle eastern symbolism. At the opposite extreme was the belief that if a king came riding on a donkey, well that was a sign that he came in peace.

Jesus doubly underlined that he was coming in peace because not only was he coming on a donkey, but also on a donkey’s foal. Yet that symbolism of peace seems to be in conflict with the behaviour of the Jews greeting him. The palm branches echo the triumphant entry of Simon Maccabeus into Jerusalem during the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian Seleucid empire almost two hundred years earlier.

And the cries of the crowd follow the same theme. Son of David is a title for a king and the word Hosanna literally means ‘Save us now’. Jesus was declaring that he was coming in peace but the crowd were not reading his sign and were instead calling for a king to set them free from the Romans, much as the Maccabees had set them free from the Seleucids.

So right throughout this story there is conflict between the imagery and desire, and indeed passion of the Son of God, and the wishes of the people. But for us what is so challenging is that although Jesus was well aware that he was being misunderstood it seems highly unlikely that the people themselves would have realised how far wide of the mark they were, and that gets me wondering about us and the conflict between where we think we are spiritually and where we actually are.

What are we to make of this challenge, of this conflict? Thirty nine days ago some of you came to receive ashes on your foreheads. Rachel and I administered these with the words, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’. But where did those ashes come from? They were the burned remains of Palm Sunday crosses. Once they had been waved in the air. ‘Save us now, Son of David’. Then they had been burned. Ashes in our hands, on our lips and on our heads.

Those ashes remind us that all those words of praise that flow from our lips have to mean something in how we live our lives. If they don’t, we’re just like the people waving the palm branches on the Sunday and crying out praises to the Son of God at the beginning of the week, and yet who are shouting ‘Crucify him!’ by Friday.

So what significance is there for us in this burning of the palm crosses? I believe it to be highly symbolic of our value system. We ascribe value to something, we bless it, yet we still end up burning it; that is the life cycle of our palm crosses. The question that begs of us is, to what do you ascribe value, and is that real value or is it just transient? And more importantly, can you tell the difference?

The crowds ascribed high value to their Messiah for all of six days. A transient Messiah. He didn’t do what they wanted so he had to go. But not all of them felt that way, and following Pentecost many of them returned and became believers when they realised what they had done.

And that is the nub of the matter. I would imagine that following Jesus’s death there would have been a great deal of internal conflict going on in those who had been there on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Have I done the right thing? What if he was what he said he was? What if I got it wrong?

Amidst all of the types conflict, this is the kind of conflict that we actually need. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul and Timothy challenge us about what Christians should be like, that we should be of the same mind as Christ who emptied himself, humbled himself and became obedient to the Father. Palm Sunday should put us into an internal state of conflict: Are we doing that or are we like the worshippers on the road, only assigning transient value to something for as long as it suits us or appears to do what we want?

What’s it going to be, the way of Christ which is the way of humility and putting off ourselves, or getting the transient things we think we want even though they will turn to ashes in our hands?

You see in the final analysis Palm Sunday is all about conflict, but for believers it shouldn’t be the conflict between God and humanity about what kind of Messiah Jesus is. By now we really ought to have figured out that he doesn’t bring power and glory in this life, and if that’s what we want we should go elsewhere and let the rest of us get on with learning how to serve.

No, instead the conflict should be within us, every single day of our lives, about what kind of followers we’re going to be, and whether we’re going to try again today, and tomorrow and the day after that, to lay ourselves down, put our desires to one side and try again to have the mind of Christ. May that conflict rage within you every single day of your life until you are either perfect or in the everlasting hands of God. Amen

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