A Holey Weakness to Holy Week

A sermon based on Mark 11:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on Palm Sunday March 25, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott

As you know today is Palm Sunday. It is also Passion Sunday. Those two titles seem at odds with each other. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms notes that Palm Sunday commemorates “Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the shouts of ‘Hosanna’ and the waving of the palms.”

A few pages later the dictionary indicates WHAT we commemorate on Passion Sunday is “the Passion of Jesus Christ” – AND that “The Passion of Christ” is “a term for the sufferings of Jesus both spiritually and physically prior to and during the crucifixion.”
So this Sunday on the church calendar is a day that celebrates both Jesus’ glorious entry parade, as well as commemorates the week of Jesus’ sufferings. Most worship experiences on this day tend to focus on the Palm Sunday part. The cheers of “Hosanna!” and people waving palms to honor Jesus is uplifting and cheerful. It is much easier to deal with– and that is understandable.

The trouble with it, though, is that most worship experiences after Palm Sunday are next week’s gloriously uplifting Easter service. It’s trouble because we skip taking the time to grasp the critical “passion” part of Holy Week. We often don’t want to face the suffering part, which frankly results in a hole in our experience. If you will pardon the pun, this creates a “holey” “weak”-ness to our experiences of Holy Week. Unless we attend a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service, Easter pretty much arrives just after the Palm Sunday parade. When really the first Easter only arrived after the week of passion– Jesus’ suffering.
I get the reasoning for glossing over the passion. I really do. Life is hard and it is harder if we spend time looking at hardship, especially what Jesus went through. So I have long been torn by that duality on this day. On one hand the messenger and the message of the Good News of love for all is welcomed and celebrated and literally glorified by the Palm Sunday crowd in our lesson and by churches.

So there is much to like besides ease about having an uplifting and cheerful service. It is truly a remarkable thing that many in the world have long uplifted Jesus’ counter-culture message that the realm of God is as near as our loving love and being love to everyone friends and foe alike. That that radical news and its bearer are venerated and welcomed and celebrated provides much hope. There is so much good news in the good news being good news.

On the other hand that good news story only comes to be because Easter proved that the realm of God cannot be defeated. Even the most powerful empire in history with its merciless and brutal efforts could not stop the realm of God in the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. We would not celebrate Palm Sunday or Easter had Jesus not courageously worked to further bring in the realm of God and suffered for it that first Holy Week.

And Jesus did this not because God required suffering. In retrospect we know it was because an earthly realm, Rome, required it. Without Rome’s failed effort to stop Jesus and his “love God and everyone” movement, it is doubtful we’d remember the original Palm Sunday parade, let alone Easter. The complete Holy Week equation is not Jesus, plus Palm Sunday, plus the Resurrection equals Easter. It’s Jesus, plus Palm Sunday– plus the Passion– plus the Resurrection equals Easter.

Jesus and his message being accepted on Palm Sunday before being plunged into the fire of Rome’s brutality is good news, but it is untempered. There is no hard edge to the plow to furrow our ground-of-being for Jesus’ Way without the Passion. We talked a bit about this last week. The way it worked out, had Rome not lifted Jesus up high on a cross his Way would not have been lifted high for all to see for eternity.

And again, not because God wanted Jesus to die but because Rome did, and God vindicated Jesus by causing him to COSMICALLY live for all time in spite of Rome’s efforts. And here is one of hardest thing to face, the tempering of the Passion included not just suffering and death caused by Rome, but also suffering caused by the abandonment of Jesus by his followers, at least by the male leaders as Mark tells it. They betrayed and abandoned him that first Holy Week. One disciple turned him into the authorities– with a kiss. Other disciples turned their backs on him.

From the start Jesus Followers did not want to face the passion with Jesus. They failed him. Backing Jesus up, cheering him on in his parade Palm Sunday is far easier than standing by his side through difficult times. Facing the passion, has never been easy. Man’s inhumanity to man is as frightening to face as it is appalling.

Of course oppressive and inhumane conduct is a huge part of what Jesus and his Way are about ending. Indeed the “Hosannas!” and palm waving parade upon Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem were actually a form a protest against Rome’s oppressive rule. And it is a protest by Jesus and the crowd.

So we can give the followers of Jesus credit on the first day of the first Holy Week. They had the moxie to help honor Jesus ride into one part of town on a colt, as sign of peace. See Jesus rode in representing the realm of God as its prince of peace, or to use his opponents title as a King of the Jews marching for peace. In the Ancient Near East royalty riding into town on a colt signaled “I come in peace.” Jesus did this the day Pilate was riding in on the opposite side of town signaling the message, “I come with threats of violence” as he and officers were mounted on war horses with Roman legions marching along side. Pilate represents the oppression and inhumane conduct of a realm of man. Jesus represents the love and loving conduct of the realm of God.

Consequently, “[w]hat we often call Jesus’ triumphal entry was actually an anti-imperial, anti-triumphal one, a deliberate lampoon of the conquering emperor . . .” (32).

That was Sunday of Holy Week. Mark is the gospel the Lectionary is focused on this year and its author made sure to line out each day of the Holy Week. On Monday Jesus amps the protest up. As we discussed a few weeks ago he creates a ruckus protesting the Temple elite’s being in cahoots with the realm of man led by Caesar and supported by Pilate and his Roman Legions.

The Temple has the trappings of the faith, but not the actions of faith. It’s elite are not seeking justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God as they should. This Temple protest on Monday coupled with the protest parade on Sunday appears to have caused the Temple authorities to begin their plot against Jesus.

Tuesday in Mark has Jesus sparing verbally with the Roman backed Temple elite and besting them in each discussion – with the crowds at this point still backing Jesus. This makes it hard for the Temple elite to arrest Jesus in public for fear of an uprising by the crowd.

By Wednesday the Roman backed Temple elite plot has become to KILL Jesus. Mark also goes out of the way to contrast Jesus’ Followers attitude at this half way through the week point. On Wednesday a lowly unnamed woman behaves as the perfect disciple going to Jesus, tenderly preparing him for burial by anointing his head with expensive oil. The same day Judas, an esteemed male disciple, does the opposite by offering to betray Jesus to the Temple elite, and then looking for the opportunity to do so.

Holy Thursday begins like Palm Sunday with Jesus sending two male disciples to prepare an event, only on Thursday it is not a public parade, it is a secret Passover-gathering with his disciples. That evening, when they gather, Jesus starts the meal off by predicting he will be betrayed by one of them. Then he famously breaks the bread and raises the cup predicting it will be his Last Supper and that his body will be broken and his blood spilt. After the Last Supper Jesus makes another prediction that another disciple, Peter, will that very night betray him, not once, like Judas, but three times.

After the meal Jesus took the disciples to the dark of the garden to pray where he discussed his anxiety over his looming arrest and ordeal. He instructed his male disciples to stay present with him. Three times he comes to them to find they’ve betrayed his request, all of them asleep at their posts. Jesus even has to get them up when Judas arrives with the Temple authorities to arrest him away from the crowds. All of the disciples further betray Jesus by fleeing.

Before Friday morning Jesus is prosecuted and convicted. And Peter denies three times that he knows Jesus. Jesus male disciples fail him! The crowd that welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday also turned on him– when asked if they want to let Jesus or a murderer named Barabbas go free, they choose Barabbas. Jesus, is sentenced to death and then abused.

On Friday no male disciple is around and a male passerby is forced to carry a cross as he and Jesus walk to the execution. While being crucified Jesus is mocked before he dies. He dies at noon crying out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” While God was and is ever present, Jesus was abandoned by God in humanity, and not just by the patriarchy in Rome but, as Mark portrays it, by the patriarchy in his own movement. Abandoned, even Jesus could not sense God in that awfulness. In that awfulness Jesus died. After his death it is a male enemy solider beneath the cross who is the first human in Mark to declare Jesus is God’s Son. It is not his male disciples, nor is an Easter resurrection needed.

Notably we are not told that Jesus’ female disciples betrayed him before he died. Women followers are role model disciples up to this point standing by and being as present as they could. The men are not present, the women are. Women followers are even present with the body and follow it so they can see it buried in tomb by a thoughtful religious leader.

Mark records no events for Saturday, the story rests on that Sabbath a Holy Day unto itself.

The next day, a new Sunday, rolls around. Only this time it is Easter . . . .and Sunday has never been the same since. We will discuss Mark’s Easter story in detail next week. Spoiler alert: it is full of good news. Jesus, failed by patriarchies at every level of his culture, is “raised up” by God. God does not fail love incarnate. “Christ is risen!” is the exclamation of our Easter tradition. We love to lift up the part of the Holy Week story with the Easter Sunday beginning of “He is risen!” and the never ending life Jesus and his message receive after his death. And we also like to lift up the Palm Sunday beginning as Jesus traveled in time toward Easter. What we tend to not lift up is the part of the Holy Week story that in order for Jesus to get from Palm Sunday to Easter Jesus a messenger and embodiment of God’s love had to suffer for that love– and it was suffering inflicted by the patriarchy at all levels. That week Jesus’ own male leaders failed him, his message and God’s love.

In Mark the good news IN that bad news is that Easter proves it is never too late to grapple with failures and choose to get on Jesus’ Way. It is no mistake that the first person in Mark to grapple with Jesus as the Son of God epitomizes the patriarchy, a Gentile Roman soldier who helped crucify and shepherd in the death of Jesus. We know too that all his disciples grapple with failures and get back on Jesus Way and help spread God’s love. We also know that Rome eventually becomes the center for the Church.
The Holy Week story in Mark, and history as we know it, means that the anyone, no matter how we have failed or think we have failed God or Jesus or Love can in the moments, days, weeks or years that follow any failure overcome it and experience the present of the Christ and get back on the Way.

We can even ignore the passion of the week that follows Palm Sunday and still get to Easter to celebrate Jesus well lived life and love’s victory over evil and death. We can step onto the Way Jesus left for us without looking at the suffering. But we could not do that, any of that, had Jesus not lived a loving life, suffered for that love, died for that love, and been resurrected by God because of it. The complete Holy Week equation is not Jesus, plus Palm Sunday, plus the Resurrection equals Easter. It’s Jesus, plus Palm Sunday – plus the Passion– plus the Resurrection equals Easter.

Well, that is the equation for that first Easter. Because ever since the resurrection we must be in whom Christ continues on. Christ remains risen IN US–and it is important to understand what Jesus went through to make that a reality. Because as nice as it feels to bask in the light and good news of Palm Sunday and Easter and the idea and feeling of love, to fully get good news is to understand there is great cost to love in action. And it is always worth the price.