Lent 2017 – Palm Sunday
WERE YOU THERE? Finding Ourselves at the Foot of the Cross
Going With the Crowd Click here for audio
John 12:12-15, Mark 15:6-15
Pastor Marty Raths
During Lent we have been making our way through the passion story, looking especially at the people in the story and their differing responses to the unfolding events. We have looked at the woman who anointed Jesus with oil and the disciple who drew his sword, at Judas and Joseph of Arimathea, at Pilate, and at Simon of Cyrene and the penitent rebel. Until now, we have looked at individuals who had some part to play in the story of Jesus’ last days. Now, as we enter into holy week, we are going to look at the part played not by individuals but by groups of people.
These groups add another whole dimension to the story because we may act in a group in ways that we would never act as an individual. This can be a hard truth for us to accept about ourselves. But groups can take on a will of their own, and we can get so caught up in that that we end up saying and doing things that we would never do otherwise.
J.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, has one of his characters say, “It does not do you any good to leave a dragon out of your calculations if you live near one.” That, it seems to me, is a bit of wisdom that we need to take with us as we make our way to the cross. If I may paraphrase Tolkien, “It does not do us any good to leave out the human heart in our calculations if we have one.”
The human heart is really one of the main characters in the passion story, as represented by all the different people who respond in differing ways to the unfolding events. And given all those differing responses, it seems that the human heart is capable of most anything, from love to courage to fear to cruelty.
It was the beginning of Passover, and as was the custom in those days, thousands of Jewish pilgrims had made their way to Jerusalem. It was no coincidence that Jesus chose that week to make his confrontational entry into the city. At no other time during the year was the city of Jerusalem so filled with religious fervor.
And as he made his way into the city, the crowds came out to welcome him, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” Most of us are fond of Palm Sunday. It makes for such festive worship, and no doubt things were festive as Jesus rode that donkey into the city. And we can commend those in the crowd who welcomed him that day, but as the week unfolds, drawing Jesus ever closer to the cross, we begin to see that crowd in a very different light, one which calls into question the people’s motives and expectations and commitments.
A famous philosopher once made a very important distinction. He said that Jesus wants followers not admirers. My sense is that there were far more admirers than followers who came out that day to welcome Jesus, people who were curious about Jesus and enticed by the sense of excitement within the crowd.
But such excitement and curiosity lasts only so long, so that crowd eventually dispersed, and then, when we fast forward a few days, we see another crowd that is becoming a mob, one that will end up calling for Jesus’ crucifixion. From “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” in just a matter of days. As I said, the human heart is capable of most anything.
Now this cannot help but create in us a little of what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” It just does not make sense, 2 such contradictory responses to Jesus. One way that we can, and often do, resolve this is by imagining 2 very different sorts of people. There was one group of people that came out on Palm Sunday and another group altogether that gathered on Good Friday, and of course we would want to count ourselves among the Palm Sunday crowd. This may be so, except that it is does not account for the human heart. My guess is that there was some overlap among the people in those two groups because that is the nature of the human heart.
The truth is that we are all capable of both responses. Surely there is a part of us that is curious about Jesus, so much so that we would seek him out, if given the opportunity. But surely there is another part of us that would like to reject Jesus as well. Once, during a retreat, the leader asked the group to think of someone who represented Christ in their lives. When it came time to share answers, one woman stood up and said, “I had to think hard about this. I kept thinking to myself, who is it who told me the truth about myself with such clarity that I wanted to crucify them for it?”
That is hard for me to think about too, that there is a part of me that wants to crucify Jesus, that part that must change but does not want to change, that would rather kill the messenger than heed the message.
But Jesus reveals to us both the truth about God and the truth about us, and what he reveals about us is not always very flattering. Few of us like having someone else hold up to our lives a mirror showing us all of our faults and failings. When that happens, we usually get defensive or angry. And if we magnify this spirit in a group of people, we can go from crowd to mob very quickly, which is one of the problems with groups. They magnify emotions, and depending upon the group and the emotions that can be a very good or a very bad thing.
Groups magnify emotions by diluting personal responsibility. There is an old saying, “No single drop of water ever considers itself responsible for the flood.” And that same sort of thinking goes on in groups all the time. Imagine the men in that mob who called for Jesus’ crucifixion, and it would have been all men in those days. And imagine them coming home afterwards, coming home to their families who asked, “What happened?” My guess is that most of the men would have responded, “They freed Barabbas and condemned Jesus.” They did it, meaning the group. Not we and certainly not I. It was not my decision. I was just there.
And to a certain extent that would have been true, but not entirely, and that is one of the problems with groups. Even if we are a part of one, they allow us to point the finger of responsibility elsewhere, and when it comes to the moral life, this is a real problem. Since we are all a part of many different groups, there are a lot of opportunities for us to avoid taking real responsibility for our choices. I doubt whether anyone in the mob that condemned Jesus ever took full responsibility for it, but in that they would have been no different than any of us.
Groups also magnify emotions by downplaying moral complexity. Groups tend to see things in black and white. I like tee shirt wisdom, and I once saw a tee shirt that read, “When I want your opinion, I will give it to you.” That tends to be the thought process of groups. Groups want conformity because the greater the conformity the greater the cohesiveness of the group, but the greater the conformity the greater the loss of individuality. We can lose our self in a group, lose our own independent thinking and our own personal morality. Groups can lead us to the very edge of a cliff, so to speak. And at such a place progress does not mean one more step forward. But the will of a group can compel us to do just that, take that last step right over the cliff.
That is why group actions often end up with the individuals in the group saying, “What have we done?” As I said before, we will say and do things in a group that we would never say or do as an individual. There is just something about the human heart that finds it easier to yield to the will of a group, to go along to get along. And it makes me wonder how many in the mob that condemned Jesus had regrets later. The day after has a way of bringing us back to our senses. My guess is that there were quite a few who as individuals would have never chosen Barabbas over Jesus, but once the group got going, once the mob mentality took hold of them, there was just no going back. It would have taken a person of rare moral courage to bring the mob back to its senses, and that day there was no such person.
In many ways this could serve as a sort of refrain for the events of Holy Week. All along the way there were certainly opportunities for individuals to show moral courage, among them the disciples, the religious leaders, Caiaphas, Pilate, the soldiers . . . but apart from a few notable exceptions, the woman who anointed Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, the centurion at the cross, there were no such persons.
Now I say this not in judgment of those people because we are looking in a mirror here. When we look at them, we are looking at ourselves. And if we were to rewind that week, play it again with different people, ourselves included, more than likely we would have the very same outcome. Such is the nature of the human heart.
But, and there is a gracious but here. Thank God. But there was another group. With the dawn of Easter Morn we will begin to see another group come together. Not a group of Palm Sunday admirers, nor a group of Good Friday condemners, but a group of Easter followers. Now they were human too, and they had messed up during that dreadful week, and they all knew it.
But they started coming together again as a group. Granted they were tentative at first, some gathering behind locked doors, and others making their way away from Jerusalem, anywhere but Jerusalem, and the events leading to Jesus’ death, which they wished they could just leave behind for good.
But they hung together, and there were at least 3 things that brought them together, and then held them together. They trusted in the God that Jesus had revealed to them, a loving and forgiving God. Despite the dreadful week past, they continued to trust in the grace of God and the possibility of second chances. And they had faith in Jesus. He had prepared them for his death, and hinted at his resurrection, though they failed to understand it at the time. But by the dawn of Easter Morn word had come, “He is risen!” They still did not know what all that meant. That would unfold over time. It still is unfolding really. But it filled them with hope, and in the coming days Jesus would appear to them as their Risen Lord, assuring them of his abiding presence with them. And they were loyal to one another. They had been through so much together already, so they could not help but stay together now. They were a group, and they needed each other, now more than ever.
Despite the passage of time, some things do not change much. 2000 years later this remains the bedrock of what it means to be part of a group like us who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. We trust in the God revealed to us in the life and teachings, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. We put our faith in Jesus, take him at his word, and walk in his ways, believing that they are the way that leads to life. And we abide in the Spirit, meaning that we live not only as followers of Jesus but as brother and sisters in Christ. Through all the years this much has not changed.
Another Holy Week is upon us. Jesus has come into Jerusalem, and the first of the groups has gathered, and we can count ourselves among that crowd. We are here. But let us not stop here, being admirers only. Let us make our way through this week with Jesus. Granted events will try us, test us, expose us, even convict us, but then this should come as no surprise to us really, for that is the nature of the human heart.
But there is a heart far greater than the human heart, and that is the heart of God. With God the cross becomes not only the means of our judgment but of our salvation as well. Human sin, our sin, is very real, but greater still, is the reality of God’s grace. So let us go all the way to the cross because, by the grace of God, that has become the way to the empty tomb, and it is only there that will find ourselves among the gathering of that first group in the passion story who seek to be not just admirers, and certainly not condemners, but followers of Jesus Christ . . .
Let us Pray
Lord Jesus, in your life we see who you are calling us to be. In you deeds and dreams were one. You remained faithful to the will of your Father, and to the call of the kingdom, even unto death.
We are so often conflicted, Lord, of two minds about so many things. Our hearts are pulled this way and that, and so often we settle for just going with the crowd. That may be the easier way, but that was never your way. Your way was always the right way, the just way, the loving way.
Forgive us for failing you, Lord, for remaining silent when we should have spoken up, for turning away when we could have made a difference, for just going along in life to get along.
You were faithful in your life, Lord, let us be in ours. Uphold us by your Holy Spirit, and make us worthy to be counted among your followers, among those who truly seek to live as you lived. You lived and died for us, may we live for you.
Now as we prepare to enter into the events of Holy Week, we commit ourselves again to you, relying upon your grace. Give us the courage to go with you all the way to the cross, that by the power of the resurrection we may die and rise with you into new life. And let the perfect goodness of your life be a light to guide us in ours, even unto eternal life. In your name we pray. Amen.