Saturday, 19 March 2016

Four "P"s for Palm Sunday

Passover Supper today - part of a local church Lent Course

Philippians 2: 7-8 And being found in human form, 
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. 

Luke 19:36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

Sermon for Palm Sunday

about the BBC’s 2-part adaptation of Jesus’s last week on earth, entitled The Passion (2009) staring Joseph Mawle as Jesus.
Mawle was 31 when he was cast in the part.
He has a certain piercing look that is most arresting, but also a bit disconcerting.
There’s something about the eyes and the gaze that is both holy and playful.
I since discovered that Joseph Mawle is almost entirely deaf.
One reviewer has written of Mawle as an actor:

“It took guts to pursue his acting dream after contracting an airborne virus which lead to the disorder labyrinthitis. It destroyed the hairs of his inner ears and he was left with 70 per cent impaired hearing and with tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears. He wears discreet digital hearing aids but prefers to take them out while he’s acting, relying on lip-reading to know when to say his lines.” (
It may account for the mesmerising performance he gave as Jesus, a performance which catapulted him into the public eye as an actor of some note.
The Passion traces the last events of Jesus’ life, beginning with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on the back of a donkey.

To understand the subversiveness of this act and the subversiveness of Jesus’ humility, we need to paint a picture of what was really going on that day, to examine all the cross currents swirling around - political, religious and spiritual – if you like, the 4 “P”s for Palm Sunday (and not one of them is P for Palm - there's not a palm in sight in Luke’s account!)

Passover, Pilate, Priests and Perception.

Firstly – Passover.
Judea was an occupied territory, governed by the Romans, who in their turn were trying to keep the peace.
And tensions were never so high as at Passover.
We re-enacted a Passover Meal recently as part of our Lent Course (see above) and an amazing experience it was.
A lovely fellowship meal with wine, candles and a very special atmosphere.
But to Jews at the time of Jesus, Passover was always about to boil over politically.
Passover was the single most important Jewish festival in the whole year – the time when Jews from all over the known world would flock to Jerusalem, make sacrifice, and recall their release from captivity under the Pharoah.
Because of this there was a strong sense of national religious fervour around the theme of liberation, which, given the occupation, was a highly charged theme, emotionally and spiritually.

Secondly – Pilate.
In the BBC film, as in the gospel, Pilate is a cynical figure, tired of these zealous Jews, not wanting unnecessary trouble.
Because we all know that crowds have their own dynamic, especially where religion is concerned.
Crowds are volatile  - a sudden change of feeling and they can turn nasty and you can have a riot on your hands.
In The Passion, Pilate and his wife are gearing up for the heady crowds of the Passover, these troublesome Judeans they are obliged to rule over.
You can hardly move in Jerusalem for pilgrims.
Knock into someone and they might just give you a black eye.
Someone has already been murdered – a ruffian called Barabbas is responsible.
‘A Judean will start an argument in an empty house’, says Pilate’s wife.
‘Priests are the worst’, agrees Pilate, dryly.

Thirdly – Priests.
The BBC film very subtly portrays the Jewish High Priest, Ciaphas, as a man torn by conflicting impressions of Jesus.
He has heard that the Jewish people are turning to this Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t do things the normal religious way.
Jesus is a radical.
He claims that he will tear down the Temple and rebuild it in three days.
This is blasphemy.
He forgives prostitutes and heals lepers.
He doesn’t appear to need or even like Temple life.
There’s a powerful scene in part one of The Passion where Jesus enters the Temple Courts with his disciples.
Everywhere pilgrims are bustling and jostling each other, all making their Passover sacrifice, either a lamb if they’re wealthy enough, or a simple white dove.
Judas has been tasked with buying a dove, which he goes off to do, but while this is happening he is cornered by two Temple priests who want to know what Jesus’ plans are.
He says he doesn’t know – you can see he’s looking really nervous and feeling threatened by the power of the Jewish priests to throw him into jail.
What they want is for Judas to lead them to Jesus, and so, for money, he reluctantly agrees…

A few moments later, Judas rejoins the group of disciples and hands Jesus a white dove.
It looks as though Jesus is about to make a sacrifice of it, like everyone else is doing.
At the moment in which he takes the dove in his hands, Ciaphas appears at the top of the steps, smoke rising from the altar where the blood is being poured from the sacrifices.
He looks at Jesus and Jesus looks at him.
You have to imagine what’s going through the mind of each.
One is the Jewish High Priest, the most exalted religious person in the whole of Judaism, responsible for seeing that the Passover comes off without trouble.
The other, an itinerant preacher from Galilee, who is about to lay down his life and become our Great High Priest.
They look at each other for a moment and then, smiling wryly, Jesus turns, and in an act of subversion, instead of offering the dove, he lets it go with a swift upward movement of his arms, and it flies of high into the sky, alive and free.
It’s almost a moment of resurrection.
It’s as if he is saying, there will be no sacrifice save my own.
In letting the bird go free, Jesus is at once innocent, playful and yet deadly serious.
Ciaphas is bemused and troubled.

Although Jesus has ridden into town on a donkey, as the prophet foretold the Messiah would, the high Priest he does not recognise the coming of the King.

Fourthly – Perception.
We had a visit from the pre-school to church this week.
Eight 3 year olds were shown round the church and looked at the font, the windows, the altar and the bible.
I think it may have been the case that some of them had never been in a church before.
Clearly one boy had read some picture books about castles and to him, it was basically an old castle in here.
He kept wandering round looking puzzled and asking, ‘but where’s the king?’
The adults were telling him, ‘there is no king here’, but in a sense we were all wrong, and he was right to be looking for the king!
On Palm Sunday the people were looking for certain kind of king, but they didn’t perceive the king amongst them.
Only the disciples and the children spotted it. And the stones:
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

A final word about humility.
The way of humility is actually quite subversive, if you think about it.
It has been observed that the more defensive someone is, the more they feel the need to justify their behaviour, to cajole and persuade and advertise themselves.
The humble have no such need, because they live by trust.
We notice this as the US election bandwagon rolls on; this week Donald Trump announced that if he didn’t win the nomination, his supporters would riot.
Contrast this with Jesus, who did not seek equality with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and being obedient to death, even death on a cross.
And before Pilate, Jesus said nothing.

As Christians we cannot afford to be strident about rights and privileges.
If we follow the king who rode on a donkey, we will follow the way of humility.
We will find that God is on the side of the poor – the poor are those who have come to the end of their own resources and who call out to God for his empowering.
As we seek to find the way ahead for our building project, this could very well soon be us.
And it probably needs to be.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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