In the name of the One who gave himself up to save us, Amen.
A few years ago, I saw a book whose title I wish I had written down. The book was called something along the lines of, “How to Follow Jesus Without Changing the Way You Live Your Life.” As I said, I really wish I could find that book, because I would love to see if it was meant to be ironically funny, or if someone just wrote a book that was that far off-base.
On this Sunday – the Sunday of the Palms & the Sunday of the Passion – we get a combined version of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and the Passion, Crucifixion and death of Jesus. About a century ago, the Church began to have this story read in the way that it is now. Back then a majority of people could not get off work on Good Friday in order to attend church. The story was mandated to be read, and since people weren’t able to get to church on Friday, it began to be read on this Sunday as well. Now we get the story twice in less than a week because it is so important to our Christian identity.
The story begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt, to chants of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” And then within a very few days (for us, just a few minutes), He was subjected to the same crowd yelling, “Away with him! Crucify him!” This is the most horrendous story of human depravity in the entirety of the Bible. To my mind, this story is worse than Herod killing the infant boys after Jesus’ birth. It is worse than any of the Israelite slaughter stories from the Old Testament. You see, at least some of the people who did the chanting – both as He came into town and as Pilate debated letting Him go free – were people who had heard Jesus preach, had attended His teachings – had seen Him perform miracles. They knew that Jesus was the Messiah and yet they treated Him as a criminal. On some level they understood that Jesus had come to bring them salvation, but His way was not how they wanted it, so they refused His gift and treated Him as if He was worse than a man accused of murder.
The horror of the amalgamation of events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday can be very hard to look at. That is to say, if we are honest with ourselves, and about ourselves, this story can be hard to bear. Tennessee Williams wrote in the preface to his play, The Rose Tattoo,
Men pity and love each other more deeply than they permit themselves to know. The moment after the phone has been hung up, the hand reaches for a scratch pad and scrawls a notation: ‘Funeral Tuesday at five, Church of the Holy Redeemer, don’t forget flowers.’ And the same hand is only a little shakier than usual as it reaches, some minutes later, for a highball glass that will pour a stupefaction over the kindled nerves. Fear and evasion are the two little beasts that chase each other’s tail in the revolving wire-cage of our nervous world. They distract us from feeling too much about things. Time rushes toward us with its hospital tray of infinitely varied narcotics, even while it is preparing us for its inevitably fatal operation.
We don’t want to look at what happened in Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday and that Good Friday. We don’t really want to see the stark contrast between “Hosanna” and “Crucify Him!” We don’t really want to see where we – as 21st Century Christians – fit into this story. We want to find out How to Follow Jesus Without Changing the Way You Live Your Life. In fact, we really would like to go about our lives as they are – having Jesus as our friend and personal Savior – without ever taking stock of what human beings (just like us) did to Him, and without assessing what we would do if faced with the same situation today. And so we numb ourselves at this time of the year. We may not actually choose to drink thoughts of His suffering away. We may not actually use Tennessee Williams’ “tray of narcotics” to make it all disappear. But we do choose not to come to services that are “depressing.” We tell each other that we will be so glad when Easter finally gets here so that we don’t have to have that horrible Rite I anymore, with its terrible penitential order. We have something of extreme importance to do on Maundy Thursday night, then through the overnight watch and into the hours from noon until three o’clock on Good Friday; something that keeps us from coming here to relive the last hours of Jesus’ human experience.
You see … we just want all of this to be over, so that we can get back to happy, feel good church. We just want to go on with our Christian lives without changing how we live. We just want not to be reminded that we might have been part of the chanting crowd if we had been there in Jerusalem those millennia ago.
But what about those times in our lives today in which we too say, “Crucify Him!” When we do those things that Jesus would have us not do, or fail to do those things He commanded, we too are betraying Him and, metaphorically at least, yelling, “Crucify Him!” When we fail to welcome the stranger; when we don’t feed the hungry and clothe the naked; when we fail to tend to the sick or visit those who are shut in, we are not doing likewise to Him. When we treat each other as less than human; when we fail to honor the divine spark that dwells within each and every human being, we are, by extension failing to honor and acknowledge that He is Lord of our lives.
As we enter Holy Week don’t close your eyes; don’t look away; don’t dull the pain with any chemical compound; don’t avoid being here so that you don’t have to relive what happened. A flesh and blood human being stood and listened as the people who professed love for Him, screamed at the top of their lungs for Him to die. Those who had so recently sworn that they would be with Him even into death had run away and the crowd had mocked Him, made merciless fun of Him and had even spit at Him as He made his way to His death. And die He did, even as He said, “Father forgive them; because they do not know what they are doing.”