March 25, 2018 – Pastor John McNeill
It turns out that there was more than one parade going into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.
We all know about the one parade. A procession as Jesus enters Jerusalem just prior to the beginning og the Jewish festival of Passover. Jesus enters into Jerusalem on a donkey, colt. Palm branches and children singing. We’ve sung hymns about it ourselves.
We know about how Jesus had sent a disciple or two to get a colt and bring it to him.
But I have mentioned before on Palm Sunday that I’ve read reports that there was indeed another procession going into Jerusalem that day. There was a parade fewer people are familiar with. It was a Roman procession.
You see the Roman governor would go to Jerusalem at this time of year because of the Passover festival.
Roman governor did not reside in Jerusalem. Lived in a newly constructed city called Caesarea Maritima, Caesar on the Sea about 60 miles west of Jerusalem. Nice seaside resort kind of place. Waterfront. Private beach, perhaps. Cooler breezes. Didn’t have to mingle with the locals very much.
Jerusalem, the traditional capitol of the Jewish people was hostile to the Roman occupation.
But because of the Jewish festival of Passover, the Roman governor and companies of Roman soldiers made their way inland and uphill to be in Jerusalem for the holiday.
They went to Jerusalem, however, not in reverence or out of respect for the holy days of the Jewish people. Instead they went to keep order.
Remember, this Passover holiday is a remembrance and celebration of the time when God had delivered the nation of Israel from its bondage to another foreign power, namely Egypt.
This was a holiday that could stir up thoughts of liberation and freedom. Rome needed its governor and its army close by to make sure that any dreams of salvation in the present would be quickly and brutally put down.
This parade of power entered Jerusalem from the west, as a sign that Caesar was in charge and would tolerate no rival.
This imperial procession must certainly have been impressive. Cavalry on horseback, foot soldiers, banners, weapons, the beating of drums. It was designed to convey if not shock, at least awe to those who looked upon it and heard the tromping of warriors’ boots in the street.
I imagine the onlookers silent – and resentful. It was an insult to their celebration of liberation from slavery under Pharaoh. This underlining of their subjection is a humiliation as they prepare to remember their exodus to freedom.
Rome was trying to enforce a notion of hierarchy and submission that is prevalent in this world. We know all about this.
When people want their own way, they attack or threaten out of their power. People and institutions commonly get their way by exercising their power: their authority, their wealth, their capacity for violence. It can even be that their goals are good. But they try to bring about the good they seek by force or by threat.
Our lesson this morning from Paul’s letter to the Philippians looks at this notion of hierarchy from a different perspective, a cosmic perspective.
While our passage this morning is a kind of cosmic declaration, it is in the midst of a letter that is an incredibly personal communication from St. Paul to the church in Philippi. Paul had had founded the church some years earlier. He has learned that there is a particular feud going on between two strong personalities in the church who want their own way.
Paul is in prison in Rome and both he and the Christians in Philippi know that it is very likely that he will be executed.
He cannot visit himself, so he sends this letter. Part of its intention is to plead with them to set aside the divisions that undermine their life together.
In order to do this, he points to Jesus Christ and invites the Philippians to have the same attitude that he did. He reminds them that the Christ, as the Word of God, who existed from all eternity gave up the purely divine existence and emptied himself to become a human being on earth, taking the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Emptied himself to become a slave. And then was obedient – not the exercise of power or control — even to submit to Death.
That is not the life that people aspire to.
Consider the radical nature of what Paul is saying here about Christ when he says “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.”
As people normally think about this, one can be either the dominating, powerful person aspiring to be in control and in charge, or one can be the person who knows it is their lot to be dominated and overpowered, and so do not bother to compete in the hierarchy game and are forced to take whatever comes with no choice or alternative.
Sometimes the same person, of course, finds themselves in the situation of dominating those below them in the hierarchy and being forced to be dominated by those above them. While at the same time perhaps competing with those of about the same rank to have a bit higher status.
In any case, one has one or the other attitude, depending on the situation. Dominate or try to dominate is one attitude. Give up and be dominated is the other.
But in Christ a new, third, attitude is imagined.
It is not a dominating attitude, but it knows that it has power. This attitude sets aside that power and takes the form of the least powerful, the slave, the one who could be dominated by another at will.
This attitude humbles itself in powerlessness, even to the point of death and reveals that the central, more fundamental, power is love. It is a power that is not meant for domination, but for reconciliation.
And so, having proclaimed and lived out this life of justice, mercy, healing, forgiveness, inclusion, and reconciliation to the point of provoking those with a dominating attitude to kill him…
God’s power is revealed in the raising up of Jesus that lifts Christ up above every power on heaven and earth so that ultimately every power in heaven, on earth, and under the earth shall recognize that the fundamental reality of the universe is love – not domination.
The attitude that seeks conquest, humiliating rivals, punishment, and subjugation is not the way God has put the cosmos together. The cosmos runs on love, not dominating power.
Now so far this seems terribly abstract and cosmic.
But Paul writes this to a group of people who are finding a way to live together. He writes:
Let that mind be in YOU (plural). Not just in each of you, but in you as a community as you live together. Jesus Christ is to be the mind of how you act, worship, speak, listen, sing, serve, live together as Christ’s body – the church.
The question that comes to us as the church, community of faith, is whether we will be the earthly expression, earthly existence of God. And if we are going to truly be that, then we need to live this attitude of Christ which showed how to live the divine life, heavenly life, Godly life, Kingdom of heaven life here on earth. 1st century or 21st century.
To adopt the attitude of Christ Jesus is to empty ourselves – not out of fear or submission, but rather to connect with the ultimate force and power of the cosmos. For when we empty ourselves, as Jesus taught, we find ourselves: the selves that are founded on the love and compassion of God. This is the central point in the way of life Jesus proclaims in his life, death, and resurrection. It is a life of emptying oneself.
That is the attitude we are to have in a world whose system does not embrace this attitude. Will we embrace the attitude of Christ Jesus to empty ourselves?
On Palm Sunday we see the contrast.
In contrast to the parade of Roman military, from deeper within the Jewish people, Jesus enters Jerusalem, in a parade which displays no power. No soldiers, no weapons of war, no pounding of military drums. Simply the one who enters as King, messiah, the Christ, the anointed one of God. Paradoxically, at once victorious and humble. He has emptied himself.
But perhaps there is a way to celebrate both parades: one celebrates worldly power and one celebrates divine power. From the west we have Roman political, military, economic power and from the east we have Jesus entering Jerusalem with divine power. They really are not opposed to each other. Perhaps we can simply find a way to combine the two.
This is not possible. You see, the problem is that the Romans do not see themselves as simply an earthly power. Their emperor, their Caesar Tiberius, like Caesar Augustus, and Caesar Julius before him were not mortal political rulers. No, no. They were gods. They were gods who had been destined since Aeneas had escaped ruined Troy to rule from Italy and bring peace to the world. A peace based on the arts of war and politics – political and martial arts that are to bring all the nations of the known world into the subjection of Roman power. A power that would tolerate no rival.
And at the same time, the whole New Testament proclaims that it is not Caesar and Jesus. It is Caesar or Jesus. It is either the Empire of Caesar or the Kingdom of God – or as perhaps you prefer with me:
The party of God.
The dance of God.
The revolution of God.
The dream of God.
The mission of God. To be a part of these, we empty ourselves, adopting the attitude of Christ Jesus.
Jesus says quite clearly: You cannot serve two masters.
So the depth of Palm Sunday is quite clear. The atmosphere of each of the parades is quite distinct. One parade is full of itself. The other parade empties itself.
The military parade of the Romans is met with silence and resentment. It is met with the shame of subjugation.
The parade of God’s power is met with rejoicing Hosanna Hosanna Hosanna. Which is word of praise, but it literally means – Save us, rescue us.
The Pharisees and the local occupation puppet are nervous about the commotion. Let’s not call attention to this parade that could be competing with the Roman display of power across town.
The occupation puppet leaders will try to choose a middle way. They will try to not bow to Caesar, but instead of allying with the rejoicing dance of God’s presence in the here and now, they accommodate themselves with a narrow focus on a staying safe within the Empire. They protect themselves. They will not risk emptying themselves.
Holy week stands before us. We are presented on this Palm Sunday with a parade of power that enters from one side of the city: an army that will rely on its weapons, intimidation, violence, and brute force. Allied with this parade were the fearful and the cowed. Those who thought it was better to follow the orders of those with the power of wealth and the power of the sword instead of adopting the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.
Across the city another parade of power comes through the gate. Yet this power is quite different. It is the power of God which finds its way in love and mercy, healing and compassion, humility and justice: the attitude that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself and humbled himself to the point of death. Even death on a cross. Allied with this parade are the hopeful and the joyful who shout Hosannas to the King of Kings.
These parades did not meet on Palm Sunday. But they certainly clashed on Good Friday. And on Easter, the victor was revealed.