“The Courage of the Christ”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
March 20, 2016
I love Palm Sunday.
There is something about the chaos and the pageantry and the tradition that captures the feeling of Jesus’ triumphal entry so well.
It was great to see the kids marching around the sanctuary, waving their palms. Most of them probably didn’t know why they were waving their palms, but they’ll learn. And it’s fun; any time we can have fun in church, that is a good thing.
We sing traditional hymns on Palm Sunday, and tradition gives us a feeling of familiarity and comfort. Feeling comfortable in church is a good thing, too.
Of course, there are the deeply uncomfortable aspects of Palm Sunday that make it a powerful day as well.
Jesus rides into the holy city — the city where the mighty King David had ruled, the city where Roman generals had ridden in on massive warhorses with hundreds of soldiers accompanying them.
Jesus rides in on a donkey. And the people cheering him on are not centurions, but prostitutes and lepers and people with pronounced limps and people with serious mental illnesses and hated tax collectors and parents of kids with debilitating physical challenges. This isn’t a pretty parade; it’s a pageant of problems… and Jesus is at the center of it.
Most of us do whatever we can to avoid looking foolish, but Jesus, on his little donkey, chooses to look foolish for the sake of his message: God’s grace is for the hurting and the imperfect.
And the scene is not just awkward, it’s risky.
The Pharisees understand. They know that Jesus’ parody of a triumphal entry, with his donkey and his motley crowd of followers, is not just an amusing poke at Roman authority, it is downright dangerous for all of them.
By shouting out, Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! his disciples and the crowd are putting Jesus — and themselves — in great peril. This is an act of rebellion against Caesar, and Rome at this time has a very specific way of dealing with rebels.
Crucifixion is something with which all of them are familiar.
And yet, Jesus has the courage to stage this beautiful and truly comical pageant and rides into the city he loves. And his followers get into it. They not only wave palm branches, they put their cloaks down in the road for his donkey to walk over, a privilege normally extended only to military heroes and royalty.
And there is no mistaking their message to the Romans: We have a new king!
Of course, another one of the uncomfortable aspects of Palm Sunday is that, when Jesus gets arrested a few days later, the crowd changes its mind and winds up yelling, Crucify him!
As always, when it comes to interpreting scripture, the first question is always, What is the author (in this case, Luke) trying to tell his original audience? And what, if any, is the core message that we can apply to our lives in today’s world? What is the Spirit saying to us now?
Luke is writing in about 75 AD, about five years after the Romans have utterly destroyed Jerusalem. If we were members of the early Christian community, we would understand that Jesus is incredibly courageous. Publically standing up to the Romans? No one could survive this very audacious act.
And then he goes straight to the Temple and makes a ruckus there as well.
Why does he turn over the tables? It’s good to recall this each year because, in remembering Jesus’ motives, we can check and be sure that we, ourselves, are doing the same things here at our church that upset him in the Temple.
Jesus’ basic complaint is that the Temple has become corrupt and has lost its spiritual authenticity and effectiveness. The moneychangers are making a profit off of sincere religious people who have been told that they have to exchange their unclean Roman money for Temple money. Along with the exchange rate, the birds people have to buy for the sacrifice are too pricey for the poor who are Jesus’ core followers.
The location in the Temple where they are changing money and selling birds is supposed to be a place of prayer for those who are not Jewish or too poor to participate, and yet it’s become a circus. So he’s angry. And he is ready to do what he needs to do for his followers, which, again, takes great courage.
Later that week, after supper, Jesus shows more courage than ever as he waits in the garden to be arrested.
What about us? What does it mean for us to be courageous followers of Christ?
I don’t think it means being unafraid. Jesus was not some kind of holy Arnold Schwartzenegger and we don’t need to be, either. To me, courage means moving forward in the face of our fears, fulfilling God’s call in our lives, believing that God is with us and that we have each other’s backs as well.
There are Christians around the globe who, to this day, whip themselves (and worse) during Holy Week in order to show solidarity with Jesus in his suffering on the cross. While I respect anyone who is devoted to Jesus in such a passionate way, the gospel calls us not to become Jesus, but to follow him. I think Jesus would want us to show courage in ways that reflect his priorities of love and justice.
When we speak up on behalf of others, whose voices may not be heard, we show courage in the way I think Jesus would support. How many of us have said the words, Black Lives Matter out loud?
The other day, I watched a short video of an Iraq War veteran speaking up on behalf of himself and his family, arguing in favor of a $15/hour minimum wage. He showed great bravery, I think, both in the armed services and in taking a stand on behalf of his family.
We show courage when we confront someone we love (in a gentle way) in order to heal a relationship – with our husband, wife, child, or friend.
Sometimes leaving a relationship is an act of bravery. Other times, entering into relationship takes great courage.
Even just joining the church, which some of you have done lately and some of you will do soon, is an act of courage in our day. Making a spiritual commitment like that in a culture that devalues religion and community is a social risk. But you took that risk because you know how important your spiritual life and your connection to God and others really is.
Some of you, by avoiding drugs and alcohol, just for today, are showing tremendous bravery.
Some of you have spoken up at work when you’ve seen that something unethical was going on. And hopefully, your act of bravery made your corner of the world a better place to work.
As we move through this Holy Week and reflect on Jesus’ deliberate acts of bravery, acts meant to draw each of us closer to God, I encourage you to pray about the holy risks you might take in your everyday life. And what might God be calling us to do as a church community that would take courage?
No matter how scary it may be, when we move forward in the Spirit of Christ, we move with great love surrounding us — the greatest of loves. And though we may have to experience a cross of one kind or another, Easter’s coming!