Friday, April 10, 2009

It’s a long way from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him.”

Last Sunday, we celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We waved palm branches, and acted out the part of the crowd cheering Jesus on as he entered town. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”

But today, again acting out the part of the crowd, we shouted, “Crucify him!”

What changed? Jesus got caught. Messiahs aren’t supposed to get arrested.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowds’ expectation was clear. This was not just a healer, a miracle worker coming into town for Passover. When they shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” they had something very concrete in mind.

Passover is the feast when the descendants of Jacob celebrate their liberation from slavery at the hands of a foreign king, the Pharaoh of Egypt. Passover is the feast when the children of Israel celebrate the end of their status as a subject people, and the beginning of the journey to self-rule in their own land.

Jesus’ miracles showed that he was favored by God. So when this great leader favored by God came to Jerusalem for the great feast of liberation, people thought it was time: God was about to drive the Romans out, and put a descendant of David on the throne again.

After centuries of first exile and then oppression, the Messiah was at hand to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. This Jesus was the one. The crowds gathered in Jerusalem that Passover just knew it, so they hailed him as the coming king when he entered town.

So how then today could the crowd call for the hated Roman governor to publicly torture to death the one whom they had expected to be their military deliverer?

In the eyes of the crowd, Jesus had committed the most unthinkable of sins for a Messiah: The worst a military deliverer can do is to lead a failed uprising. Drive the Romans out and you’re almost everyone’s hero. Unsuccessfully attempt to drive the Romans out and no one wants to have anything to do with you. “Crucify him” is a message to the Roman governor: “We were just kidding when we said this guy was the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Governor Pilate, sir, we know you represent the real king. We’ve got nothing to do with this ‘coming kingdom’ bit. Don’t crucify us too.”

John’s gospel, which we heard today, paints a favorable picture of Pilate, but the historical record shows that Pilate had a well-established record for cruelty, even compared to other Roman governors. The crowds had ample reason to be afraid of him. Could his repeated offers to release Jesus have been a perverse loyalty test? A Messiah who tried and failed to overthrow Pilate was a dangerous thing indeed for the people of Jerusalem.

In the eyes of the crowd, a would-be Messiah who could be arrested was worse than no Messiah at all. A failure. The antithesis of all-powerful. How could someone represent the power of the Lord Almighty who can’t overpower a band sent to arrest him, or the the Roman guards who hold him captive?

If Pilate was offering to release their would-be Messiah to them, the message was clear: this was no Messiah. Fear won out over hope: No one could free them from the Romans who wasn’t more powerful than the Romans. No one could deliver them from Pilate’s ever-present threat of torture, death, and destruction who couldn’t defeat it personally. If this Messiah can’t stick it to the Romans, they’d better rid themselves of him, and fast, before the Romans get upset. It’s better for the Romans to torture to death this one person rather than lots of them.

If might must be toppled by greater might, if the way to overcome an army is to shock and awe them into submission with superior military force, then Jesus was an utter failure. Crucify him, Pilate, and forgive us for even thinking about backing the wrong horse here.

Where’s the good news here? A man travels around for three years proclaiming that a new kingdom is at hand, and performing signs that indicate he’s really someone out of the ordinary. He enters the holy city at the time of year they’re expecting a deliverer. The crowd hails him as the coming king. He gets arrested, the crowd realizes that he’s not unbeatable, and the occupying army tortures and kills him.

Some agent of an all-powerful god. Some “good” news.

And yet we call today Good Friday.

In today’s events, Jesus didn’t merely overthrow the Romans; he made them utterly impotent and irrelevant. Because their stock in trade for running an empire was fear, and Jesus didn’t let fear of their power to torture and kill him change his course of action. Jesus didn’t overthrow the Romans; he overthrew death itself, and in the process, negated the need to fear mere Roman armies.

Today we remember how good triumphs over evil. But there’s an awful lot of evil. Abandonment and cowardice and cruelty and pain and death are all too real, both on that Friday almost two thousand years ago and in our own day.

The crowds wanted a Messiah who would overthrow the Romans. If Jesus was taking on more than that: death itself, for instance, we’d still like a more spectacular demonstration. Because Jesus suffered, and died, and yes, he defeated death, and yes, it no longer has dominion over him, as we’ll sing on Sunday, but there’s still a lot of people suffering and dying now. If the crowds thought Jesus was a failure as a Messiah for not making a more spectacular public show of driving out the Romans, we’re not all that different. It sure would be nice for us now to see a more spectacular show of driving out suffering and death. We know that death doesn’t have the final word, but the word it does have is pretty intimidating.

The crowds didn’t see it. His closest followers didn’t see it. Even today, sometimes it’s hard to see. But in the actions of this day, the Messiah completely and utterly overthrew the reign of not only the Romans but anyone who would attempt to enslave God’s people. The crowds didn’t realize, but today their savior ended the need to live in fear of the threat of death. A conqueror could threaten to kill them, but death no longer had the final word.

We might wish Jesus had somehow destroyed death, rather than just neutralizing it. But if Jesus had met power with power, we who don’t have omnipotent power would still need to fear power.

If Jesus had met the Roman army with the hosts of heaven, we who don’t have legions of angels at our command would still need to fear the might of earthly rulers.

If Jesus had met death with immortality, we who are mortal would still need to fear death.

Instead, Jesus stood in the face of all the pain and suffering that evil could throw at him, and let it wash over him. He endured mocking, beating, sinister betrayal by Judas, cowardly betrayal by the crowd, abandonment by his closest followers, flogging, humiliation, lugging heavy beams, drinking sour wine, and even death itself. Jesus stood before the evil of the world, and somehow, through amazing grace, he didn’t use his infinite power to drive it off.

He let evil do its worst, and it did not prevail.

The good news here today is that evil can’t win. If we are baptized into Christ’s death, we share in this passion today. We share in Jesus’ facing up to all the terrible suffering that the mightiest empire in the world could throw at him, and not resisting it precisely because the worst they had to give was incapable of destroying him. The man who said “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you. Bless those who curse you.” didn’t need to add a clause “unless they’re about to kill you; then, smite them with the hosts of heaven.”

The crowds we acted out today represent the victory of fear over hope. The passion of the Christ represents the victory of love over fear, and we are baptized into that victory. Evil has no power over us, because it can do its dreaded worst but not change our trajectory.

The crowds in today’s Gospel seemed to have in mind the old admonition “do unto others before they do unto you.” All this talk of loving enemies is great, but when things are really on the line, sometimes you have to be realistic, right?

But the triumph of the cross is the triumph of idealism over realism: Jesus said no to the temptation to abandon the strength of nonviolence, the power of selflessness, the might of love. The cross today is the ultimate act of practicing what one preaches. This passion and death that we heard in today’s gospel is the very enactment of the Sermon on the Mount.

The world is too much with us. We have much in common with the crowds we acted out today. We often let fear win out over hope, and power over love. Sin and fear are all too present, and we do not always live with the awareness of the present Kingdom of God. Disease, cruelty, loss, and death are realities. And even Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, even when he was about to bring him back from the dead moments later.

But our baptism into Christ’s passion and death helps us to share in Christ’s triumph today: sometimes, in moments of hope and glimpses of grace, we can act differently than the crowds in today’s story. We do not need to act out of the fear of suffering or death. To Jesus, death did its worst, and now death is all used up. Even when it’s hardest to see that it’s true, death doesn’t have the final word. All of us go down to the dust, but even at the grave we make our song. Amen.