We Can’t Have Easter Without Holy Week and God in Us

A sermon based on Mark 11:1-19
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 14, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Today is Palm Sunday, named for a day about two thousand years ago when palms were used to wave and pave a path for Jesus’ entering into Jerusalem in a jubilant parade. Today is also known as Passion Sunday, named for the Passion of Christ a term given to the suffering Jesus endured two thousand years ago during Holy Week, the week that unfolded between the uplifting palm parade and Easter. The dissonance between the names and images and history remembered this Sunday is great. The joy-filled palm strewn parade with the crowd crying “Hosannas” and the violence filled conflict that ends in Jesus crying “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” could not be starker.

That disharmony between the Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday nomenclature and the stories always throws me for a loop. They present a choice that I am never quite sure how to reconcile. Easter is God’s reconciling answer, of course, but in the context of the first Holy Week unfolding from Palm Sunday through Holy Saturday, Easter is an unknown. So as the stories unfold we need to be reminded that the bright Son-set on Palm Sunday led to the deep darkness of night Holy Week presented. See Easter’s Son-rise surprise was not yet dawning as far as all the human players were concerned. The palm parade BEFORE Easter served as a celebration of the Godly brightness of Jesus and Jesus’ Way and human following as the Son-sets out and into the Passion’s darkness of terrifying ungodly human conduct as the brutal nightmare Rome’s way made very, very real for Jesus and his followers.

As Holy Week unfolds there is great tension in human conduct. The first day offers a “snap shot” of humanity at its best following and reveling in Jesus and His Way of love– the palm parade is God-soaked. There is wonderful jubilance and an embrace of Jesus as came to town. The followers did not know it but that parade began Jesus’ final steps of his life’s journey.

Tragically those final steps cause Rome’s earthly powers to have an equal and opposite reaction, an ungodly dark human response of rejection and malevolence. We like to reconcile human tension in stories but sometimes in real life there is no reconciliation–at least not without God. Which is where Easter comes in. For the moment, and I know it is hard to do, but, it is important that we remember during Holy Week Easter was an unknown on the other side of the mountains, it was a Son-rise no human could yet expect.

When remember that, we are faced with the truth that humans without God seem a very fickle bunch in the story. For a little while, on one day, Jesus was celebrated as King of the Jews, then for the rest of the week he is denigrated for it. Those who celebrated Jesus, embraced his love-for-all message and opposition to Rome, but then those very same people abandon Jesus–even his ardent disciples. Jesus is abandoned to the powerful men of Rome who use lawful tools of the government to mock him as the King of Jews. They cruelly mistreat him and execute him.

Jesus’ arrest, trial and conviction were all done lawfully in a justice system set up to maintain the status quo of those in power. Jesus and Jesus’ Way had threatened the status quo by end running its brutality and lack love for non-elites. Jesus was very publically asking people to not be afraid to do God’s work by tending to the well being of everyone. He did this in defiance of the status quo. Jesus was teaching people how to act toward others and to mediate God directly without the need for Rome’s appointed elite. Jesus was a rebel for God. He was rebelling against Rome. Rome killed rebels by crucifying them to terrify anyone thinking about rebelling.

So, on this day– which is both Palm and Passion Sunday– there is a great dissonance between the potential for human light and human darkness. The tension between goodness and evil is there resonating in the retelling and remembering. It vibrates off the pages of the final chapter of Jesus’ human life in the Bible– much of which we will literally read in our very powerful Maundy Thursday service this week.

On this Sunday churches often skip the reality of the dissonance and lean toward emphasizing the light and joyful side of Palm Sunday singing “Hosanna” and waving palms, remembering exuberant people lauding the Lord with acclamations and celebrating Jesus in that joyful light. And, of course, churches throughout the world amp up the sense of joy and bright light even more next week at Easter.

But the Passion part in between the framing bookends of the greatness on Palm Sunday, and the even greater-ness of Easter, is connected to deep dark suffering in between caused by the sparks of bright light that Jesus ignites before and on the first Palm Sunday. Jesus’ efforts lead to a remarkable re-ignition by God, Jesus’ continuing Spirit, and his Followers faith all of which become the glow of the endless fire of Easter–which later literally lands on the heads of all in the church on Pentecost.

But, see, we cannot appreciate the glow of either Palm Sunday or Easter, or Pentecost for that matter, without the darkness of Holy Week. The light means little without the darkness, it is in fact best seen in the contrast. The prophetic torch of love and justice, the flame of God that Jesus bears into Jerusalem in the early part of the week marks his human life’s sunset because Rome through Pilate and its appointed religious elite spent the rest of the week through Friday trying to extinguish that torch by as brutal a means as ever known to humankind.

Before Easter, on a cross, Rome douses out the flame of Love that Jesus and his following blazed into town with. It’s just smoldering coal by week’s end. The meaning and power of both Easter and Palm Sunday would not still burn in the hearts of humankind were it not for the terrible suffering that put ou the flame in the middle of those two now holidays. Pastors have a saying: “You can’t get from Palm Sunday to Easter without Holy Week.”

And before I go any farther let me make this crystal clear, God did not demand or want or plan or need the suffering Jesus endured Holy Week. Jesus’ suffering made God weep, it violated God’s commands, it was in a word, ungodly! Theologies that claim God was in on causing the suffering are not in the Gospels and are not to be found in the Church’s first thousand years. So we can be –and should be– very skeptical of them. They contradict the God of Jesus found in the Bible. God is love. Love does not want suffering. God did not plan or desire, let along demand Jesus be sacrificed.

There is only one power in the universe that we are aware of with a record of planning, demanding, imposing and inflicting suffering like Jesus endured: Earthly power gone awry. Rome planned, desired and demanded it and needed it to put out the flame and Light of Jesus and Jesus’ movement. The suffering in the Passion was all manmade, all due to the sin and failings and meanness and cruelness of men wielding power unjustly, unkindly and decidedly not on a humble walk with God.

There are three requirements God gives to humans. They are the words on the quilts on our church wall. Not one of those requirements was followed by anyone during Jesus’ final days after Palm Sunday, except by Jesus. Rome’s realm of ungodly terror worked that week to squelch humans doing God’s work, fulfilling the call to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Rome shut down Jesus and Jesus’ Way Good Friday by doing the opposite of those three requirements. By Friday afternoon the fuel of love that Jesus and his following brought to town was turned to that lump of smoldering coal. Jesus’ followers were so frightened they hid, leaving Jesus and his Way of love behind– briefly but certainly.

No one knew it, or could imagine it, but the source of the fire, the source of the light that Jesus brought to town on Palm Sunday that fuel of Love, became like so much coal in the darkness of Rome having putting it out, BUT it was coal that could be, and was, reignited with an inextinguishable flame by the sparks of God left behind by Jesus and his Jesus’ Way in his followers. The sparks we saw on Palm Sunday in the parade crowds’ own bright God light and that of Jesus’ served –THANK GOD!– to relight the flame.

We see in the contrasting stories that humans were right and good to welcome Jesus with an exuberant parade and songs of “Hosanna” which is an expression of praise and adoration but also literally meant “O Save Now!” Jesus was being exalted and supported for his work BEFORE Holy week, his work to save the people– save us all from our lesser ways of being.

Before he came to Jerusalem Jesus was working to provide that salvation by rebelling against a cruel, oppressive and unjust government and culture, where the vast majority of people were nobody expendables to earthly power elites. The realm of Caesar had very little care for the well being of anyone other than those in power. The realm of God had, and has, very great care for the well being of everyone. Jesus’ movement, his teachings, and his glorified Way on that first Palm Sunday were about the realm of God being near and how we might bring it into reality now. The promise to save humanity was celebrated with that welcoming parade . . . and rightly so.

But the spiritual backbone of those members of humanity who celebrated and supported Jesus’ Way of bringing in the Realm of God seemed to be broken by the realm of Caesar in the days that unfolded. Except for Jesus. He did not let it stop him or his ministry or most importantly his incarnation of God’s love and God’s realm in the now. Even when Jesus’ physical body was broken by Rome he did not let up. His spirit was love, it was unbroken love and therefore God-soaked all the way to death.

In the telling two thousand years later, we can see that in the first Holy Week Jesus relentless love was the spirit of God, it was the realm of God incarnate in one man. And even when his human body was being destroyed that spirit was not. Jesus did not let it die. God did not let it die. Perhaps most remarkably . . . humans did not let it die. God incarnate in the Jesus Followers – were in on fanning the spark of God within themselves and throughout creation back to life. We may not have thought about it before, but without humans Easter does not happen. To be sure the humans who cheered him on Palm Sunday abandoned him in the face of terror. Were they to have walked as he walked Holy Week they would likely have suffered and died. It took a remarkable being to endure what Jesus did. The later glorifying of martyrdom aside, Jesus like God has never wanted anyone to suffer or die as he did. He wants us to seek justice and love kindness with humble courage and it may lead to suffering but never because Jesus or God wills it.

What happened after Jesus died was incredible. The love that fueled his life and ministry reignited. It was lit back up by God, the God spark in humans that followed Jesus were essential to that re-ignition. It has remained lit by humans choosing to fan the spark of God ever since. Just like we cannot have Easter without Holy Week we cannot have Easter without God incarnate in humans without our understanding that Rome did not, and could not, keep Jesus down. Jesus has risen in one form or another far higher than Rome could ever imagine. God gave us that Good News and relies on us to keep the news alive The love that Jesus brought and brings fuels God’s flames of love, and it breaks in the realm of God now and forever. So at the first Palm Sunday cries of “Hosanna!” – “O Save Now”– can be understood to have been heard. In one week’s time they worked to save us now and forever. They worked because of God, because of God incarnate in Jesus . . . because of God incarnate in his followers then and ever since!