We are poised on the brink of Holy Week. We are poised to witness Jesus’ ultimate journey Jesus’ journey where he confronts the powers of this world that have fallen from their true purpose, the good purpose God created then for – powers that have been twisted to violent ends. Jesus confronts these powers, Jesus suffers under these powers as so many have suffered and continue to suffer. Then on Easter, we bear witness to the truth that God’s love and power triumphs – the God of creation rises again.
We begin this journey today on Palm Sunday outside the Holy City of Jerusalem. It is a moment of New Hope. Jesus has arrived with his disciples from the countryside to Jerusalem for the Holy days of Passover, when the Jewish people remember how God freed them from slavery long ago. They need that freedom now. They suffer again under an abusive empire. Jesus has come as the new Messiah – he has been traveling the countryside healing people, restoring well-being, freeing his people from the violent powers that possess them and oppress them. He has come to embody the Holy One. And so the people sing and cheer and wave palm fronds as Jesus arrives in the Holy City. They sing “Hosana!” “You have come to save us!” “We have New Hope!”
Jesus bears in his very bones the love of God, the way of grace. And so he bears also all that rises to oppose that love of God, those forces that grip us and devour us, those forces within and without from which we need to be freed, to be saved, by grace. Jesus first act after he enters the holy city is to go to the holy Temple and confront the ways it has become corrupted. In particular he confronts what we could call an economy of sacrifice, a profitable system of religious violence. God demands blood, the belief goes – a very common belief, to this day. To purge our sins we need to give God blood, through the sacrifice of a scapegoat. So, at the temple in Jerusalem pilgrims need to buy a dove or some other innocent substitute to present to the altar to die for their sins, to appease God’s wrath. Jesus confronts this – he turns over the tables and makes a big scene proclaiming the wisdom of the prophets of old, calling for a different kind of sacrifice. Not a sacrifice that does violence but a sacrifice of violence itself. It’s an internal sacrifice rather than external, where we become free from forces within ourselves that keep us from living lives of mercy and peace and prayer, in alignment with the Ways of God. This call of the prophets, this call of Jesus is just as urgent today as it was back in the day. Notice also how it is Jesus who is quickly targeted as a scapegoat. 1. Luke 19:41-42, 45-48 As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, ‘It is written,”My house shall be a house of prayer.” But you have made it a den of robbers.’ Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.
As Jesus’ confrontation continues, he exposes the ways that religion becomes corrupted, the ways we use religion for purposes that are all-too-human- for pride, for wealth, for power … so religion becomes about performance, appearance, judgmentalism, self-satisfied displays of one’s own righteousness. Just as in Jesus’s time, religious folks today can be very clever about saying the right things, but it is quite another to practice what we preach, and surrender to the simple, humble pursuit of a holy way of life together.
2. Matthew 23:1-13, 23-25 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence.
When religion becomes corrupt, when religion becomes an abuse of the Holy, it requires violence to defend itself. Corrupt religion is quick to feel threatened. That’s why it’s been said that when Christ comes again it’ll be Christians who crucify him.
3. Matthew 23:29-37 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation. ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Jesus bore in his very bones the love of God. Jesus was the embodiment of the Holy. As a consequence, Jesus bore upon his body humanity’s abuse of the Holy. Jesus suffered what God suffers. Jesus suffered what we suffer because of humanity’s denial of God in ourselves and in one another. Jesus suffered foresakeness, even feeling forsaken by God. But Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection shows that through it all, God’s glory still shines, through it all God’s love survives … And when we know that love, even as a glimpse, we can be free us from religion that demands blood, in all its forms. “Put down your sword,” Jesus will later tell Peter. “For those who live by the sword die by the sword.” And what is more, as we know, when we as a society live by the sword it is too often innocent lives that die by the sword. So let it go, Jesus says. You may be free. When we put our trust in the Christ of Resurrection, we can know that Through all the beauty and brutality of human life God’s creative love flows, fuller and deeper and broader than our imaginations can even conceive. God loves us. God is with us. God is closer to us than we even are to ourselves.
4. Mark 14:22-31 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the Realm of God.’ When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’
5. Luke 22:39-45 Jesus came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives. And the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Yet, not my will but yours be done.” Then a heavenly messenger appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.
6. Matthew 26:47-52 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.’ At once he came up to Jesus and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ and kissed him. Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you are here to do.’ Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
7. Mark 15:1-20 As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed. Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
8. Mark 15:22,25-39 Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘This human being is God’s son? Really?!’
The curtain of the temple was torn in two. The division between divinity and humanity dissolves. God joins us in suffering … so God can bring us to resurrected life.