The Scary Bridge to Easter

A sermon based on Matthew 21:1-11*
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 5, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Palm Sunday is, as I have pointed out before, also Passion Sunday. It’s a day that traditionally lifts up the beginning of Holy Week with Jesus’ leading a parade into Jerusalem and being greeted by “Hosannas” and . . . or . . . this Sunday is used to lift up the end of Holy Week with the passion, the suffering, of Jesus at the week’s end. What churches don’t often do on this Sunday that starts Holy Week is to connect the beginning and the end with the middle. I thought I’d bridge that gap with a very brief summary of the Gospel account of Jesus’ life each day of the first Holy Week.
At the time this all happened it was not, of course, called Holy Week in the Christian sense. It was Passover Week, a Jewish holy week of pilgrimage, commemoration and celebration relating to the Exodus. In fact the palm parade that gave us the name “Palm Sunday” occurred as crowds of Jewish pilgrims were arriving in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. At the same time government troops were also arriving to police the crowds and festivities. The Roman governor, Pilate, headed such martial parades on horseback with a polished show of force representing both Rome’s government and its religion, both headed by Caesar who not only ruled Rome, but was consider a son of god in Roman imperial theology.
Heavenly power’s representative, Jesus, countered Pilate’s entrance of earthly power. He came in on a donkey representing a reign in conflict with Rome: the Reign of God. See, Palm Sunday set the stage for a week filled with Heavenly power v. Human Power. Christ v. Caesar. God v. evil. Jesus v. governing authorities of both the Temple elite and Rome. Until Easter, it was not clear at all that God would win. For Christians the story plays out in a way that the real Son of God, Jesus, and his Way win. But that’s not at all clear until Easter. The entrance parade the week before Easter, which Jesus fashioned and led raised images that were quite different from the entrance parade that Pilate led that day on the other side of town. As we heard Matthew has Jesus arrive astride a donkey and a colt. Two animals at once. This is a lampoon of the pomp and circumstance of Pilate.
John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg suggest Jesus’ entrance was a staged a political demonstration. Jesus intent was to show that God’s way is the opposite of Pilate and Rome’s way. We know now that God’s way was led by a righteous man gathering the people humbly and with fun and life and care and most importantly with love. (The Last Week, p 2-5). It appears that Jesus borrowed the donkeys to act out Zechariah 9 (9-10) where a king of peace rides in on a donkey. And the other pilgrims ate it up laying coats and palms branches like a red carpet for Jesus as they shouted ‘‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’’ Hosanna means “O save now.”
Jesus, on his humble ride, is understood to be the One who can save because he represents the opposite of oppressive warring Rome. He represents the loving peace seeking God. So the first Holy Week got underway with Jesus making this public demonstration, which was pretty gutsy since Rome responded brutally to protests. Sunday’s story ends with that valiant demonstration.
On Monday Jesus puts on another planned public demonstration, that notched up the challenge to the nth degree. The oldest Gospel, Mark (11:15-17), tells us Jesus
“entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
Jesus is accusing the Temple elite of not taking care of the business of tending to the well being of others, and of doing the opposite helping to oppress and resist God in cahoots with Rome. The tables Jesus upturns were not only keeping Gentiles – those of other nations out– but the Temple had become a place the Temple elite appointed by Rome collaborate with Rome and Rome’s oppression.
Once the elite learned of Jesus’ protest they are furious. Mark tells us “they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” As Monday ended Jesus made sure to get out of Jerusalem proper, camping in nearby Bethany, no doubt with other pilgrims. On Tuesday Jesus walked back to the city and went to the Temple again where he was confronted by the Temple elite who challenged his actions. Perhaps the most famous challenge is when they tried to trap him into an act of sedition against Rome by asking him if it was lawful to pay taxes to Rome.
Jesus turned the trap on them asking the elite to show him one of the Roman coins. When they pulled out such a coin it showed the crowd they possessed prohibited-in-the-Temple graven images of Caesar on the coins. Jesus doesn’t just trap the elite he escapes trouble by cleverly advising Caesar be paid what is Caesar’s and God be paid what is God’s. After defeating the Temple elite in this, and other, debates on Holy Tuesday, Jesus predicts the temple will fall– which is does around the time Mark is written, a generation later. Tuesday ends with this ominous prediction.
On Holy Wednesday the temple elite ramp up their efforts to get Jesus, and find a disciple, Judas to betray Jesus for 30 silver coins. Jesus attends a dinner party on Holy Wednesday where he is anointed with expensive oil for burial. The woman who anoints Jesus is unnamed but she alone (besides Jesus) seems to get that his demonstrations and challenges and besting of the Temple elite will lead to his death.
By the time Thursday rolls around we find out just how serious things have become. We call it Maundy Thursday because Maundy is Latin for “commandment.” It is named after the commandment Jesus gave on his last full day of human life, the commandment to love one another as he loves us. It’s wonderful commandment, but the day does not end wonderfully. It ends darkly and horribly which is why church services on Maundy Thursday are often called Tenebre services, Tenebre means “darkness.” On the first Maundy Thursday Jesus had his last supper. He took break, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his followers as representing his body, and he passed a cup of wine to them as well telling them it was the new covenant in his blood. Jesus asked his followers to do that, to break bread and have wine in remembrance of him.
His followers have done that to this day, in what we now call communion. A sacrament we will experience at the end of this service, in our homes.
Judas was at the first last supper, but he dashed out after Jesus revealed he knew there was a plot to kill him. After the last supper Jesus and some of his disciples went to the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus wanted their company as he awaited, prayed and prepared for his expected betrayal, arrest and the grave injustices and terrible violence to follow. The disciples had trouble staying awake with the troubled Jesus. Judas eventually showed up in the garden with Temple guards and he identified Jesus with a kiss. Jesus was arrested after stopping violent resistance by his followers. He was hauled away alone.
The Temple elite collaborating with Roman authorities brought Jesus before the high priest and then to Pilate, where they had a short – what we might call hearings. They were hardly trials as we know them. Jesus was accused, some evidence was presented, and he was found guilty of sedition, then sentenced. Jesus’ teachings of love and opposition to injustices and his demonstrations at the start of the week caught up to him and he was condemned to execution in a cruel manner reserved for those who rebelled, crucifixion.
Before Jesus was hung on the cross the next day, he was whipped and scorned and shorn of clothes and crowned with thorns. Jesus was abandoned by his followers, to frightened to be associated with him and suffer similar brutality. Thursday was a very dark, dark nightmare.
The next day we now know as Good Friday only got worse for Jesus. It is the day Jesus suffered terribly on the cross and died . . . so it seems wrong to call it good. You might hear that it is good because the cross led to the resurrection and salvation, but that is not why it’s called good. It is called good because good used to also mean holy. Good Friday means Holy Friday. It is Holy because Jesus who had courageously made a stand for the well being of all, for justice, kindness, love and peace was martyred. So it seemed . . .
The day after Friday back then was the Sabbath. See Saturday was already a holy day and on it even Jesus and God rested in the tumult of Holy Week. And what came of that rest? A re-creation of Jesus, a resurrection of his being at the beginning of the new week there is a new life for Jesus. That day we call Easter, which we will talk more about next week.
The good news in the week before Easter is that Holy Week begins with crowds affirming Jesus’ loving actions. The good news is Jesus does not stop those actions in the face of growing threats and violence. Jesus keeps on loving, even to the point of forgiving the people who killed him. The good news is Holy week is not the end of the story. The story ends with a new week beginning with God affirming Jesus loving actions, with an Easter surprise that reanimates Jesus’ Following in unimaginable ways, even as it resurrects Jesus as the Christ, the incarnation of God, as the celebrated true Son of God.
I often point out this time of year that we do not have Easter without Holy Week and the passion of Christ. That is true. But –THANK GOD– it is also true that we do not have Holy Week without Easter. And we have none of it without Jesus who lived and incarnated God on the first side of cross in history– and who lives on and incarnates God ever since on the second side of the cross where we still live today.
To get us to this side, Jesus went through so much, may we ever be grateful for his courage and love and all he did and still does. And all that God did and still does though him and his story, that includes his teachings and practices and brave acts that first Holy Week. At the end of the story Jesus becomes the decisive revelation of God for Christians.
That revelation includes being in the midst of the deepest darkest times. We are in a deep dark time with this pandemic. Jesus and God are with us in this time, they are. And there is a promise of new life and resurrection in all such dark times. While we are in the darkness of this time, know that the bright light of the Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit are with us all. AMEN.

* Throughout this sermon I relied on The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, as well as Conversations with Scripture, The Gospel of Mark by Marcus Borg.