Holy Week: Journeying from Empire to Resurrection
We love a good parade, don’t we? All that celebration, the noise, the crowds, the jubilation … It’s exciting and contagious and a little amazing how a good parade can impact us.
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No one understood this like the Romans. These are the people of bread and circuses after all, and no one in the ancient world did empire better than the Romans. The Romans were incredibly good at subduing those people they had conquered. They celebrated the festivals of, raised up leadership from, and generally ingratiated themselves smoothly into the lives of those they ruled. But rule they did.
There certainly were people in Jesus’ time who thought Jesus’ work would be to overthrow the Roman oppressors — establish a political kingdom. Scholars surmise that Judas, the disciple who would betray Jesus to the empire, was one of these. Think of Judas as someone who saw the evils of the Roman Empire and desperately wanted Hebrew rule returned to the region. What we might today call a freedom fighter.
But throughout his ministry, Jesus talked explicitly about the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven that is not of this world but is omnipresent, always at hand, constantly among us. And God’s. Period. A very different image of kingship, of dominion.
Jesus taught us about a life in God in which sins are forgiven, the broken are made whole, the temple torn down and built anew. Not a world without death and pain and anguish but rather a reality in which those things do not get the final say.
Recently, Jesus had been warning his followers that his own death was coming. And so, Jesus turns towards Jerusalem. We Christians 2,000 years later, and Jesus himself, I believe, we know what is coming after today’s King Jesus procession.
The same crowds who shout Hosanna! today will be shouting Crucify him! Crucify him! only a few days later.
So is today’s procession just a last hurrah or a goodbye party? The events of this holy week seem arbitrary and cruel, or worse, irrelevant, without the broader context of standing counter to empire, to the values of this world.
The Gospel often doesn’t make any sense unless we understand the subtle clues of Jesus’ seemingly odd behavior. The basileia, the Kingdom of God, is the anti-empire, the turning of the way of the world on its ear. And this can be hard to grasp, hard to hear.
The Jesus Parade was not the only procession going on in Jerusalem. Earlier in the day, Pilate had arrived in a flurry of military pomp and circumstance for the great Passover festival.
Just holding a counter-procession was subversive in and of itself. Parading into Jerusalem on the heels of Pilate was smart and sneaky, savvy. Coming into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives was an action that elicited Ancient Jewish memories, memories of kingship and prophecy. Simply the act of riding a donkey had meaning and held messages of humility and peacefulness.
Jesus was, in a way, satirizing, mimicking, and reclaiming the usual actions of the empire, the heralded procession, the shouts of acclamation, the garments and palms strewn in the street.
The One who comes in the name of the Lord, the beloved son in whom God is well pleased, had arrived, a completely different kind of king.
And this had to be incredibly clear.
Because by the end of the week, it was going to appear that empire had won. Rome, and the fearful religious establishment, had a troublemaker to dispense with. Jesus is to be betrayed; the disciples will scatter and despair; Jesus will die as a criminal.
There’s not much good news in this sermon, I am afraid. And I’m sorry for that. But the truth is that we are enmeshed, entangled, entwined with being the empire ourselves. We are the crowd heralding Jesus today and condemning him on Friday. We are his deniers, and his betrayers.
The thing about being the empire is that when within empire, you aren’t trying to be the bad guy. You aren’t trying to put people down or destroy cultures. You honestly and sincerely believe that you are bettering the world. Pax Romana was something worth fighting for, in the minds of the Romans.
And frankly, we in the U.S. are very similar. We don’t invade or bomb other countries because we got up that morning and decided to spend some of our surplus military budget. We — or at least some of us — honestly believe that we are in the right, that our might will BRING right and that this is the only way to do it.
We rarely consider that the expansion of our country was paid for with the blood and labor of slaves and other exploited people. That didn’t have anything to do with me, we say.
No one scooped up all the children in an Apache village and sent them off to orphanages because he wanted to dissolve families and destroy cultures. Things like that were an honest and sincere attempt to “civilize” and better the lives of what we saw as terribly backwards and primitive natives.
No one intends to hasten the destruction of the planet simply by driving to work. But it’s easy, fast, and convenient and really, what’s one more trip in the whole scheme of things?
These are the actions of empire.
It’s egotistical to a supreme degree. It’s short-sighted, cruel behavior. But it feels perfectly normal and natural when you’re in it.
That’s the insidiousness of empire, of our powers of domination. That’s the lure of competition, and doing better than someone else. That’s the sin of hubris, of thinking that your way of being human is superior.
We of the empire feel perfectly fine and moral and even a little sure we are on a righteous path. We feel like this all the time. And we feel disassociated from the violence that our systems dispense with frightening ease. But we’re not.
We are empire, my friends. We are Judas. And Jesus is speaking directly to us with his words and actions, offering us salvation from the powers that will ultimately kill even him.
Jesus gives us marching orders this week. And nothing he says is easy. He curses a fig tree for not being fruitful and the fig tree withers and dies. He angrily overturns the tables of those doing commerce in the temple. He tells us to pay our taxes without complaint. He warns us who follow him that we will be thrown in jail and beat up and persecuted even by our own families. He asks us to stay with him in his worst hour.
The disciples certainly don’t understand what on earth Jesus is about this week. They cannot manage to stay up with Jesus to pray, they get angry when Jesus accepts a lavish and sensual gift from a woman, they deny even knowing him.
Jesus is betrayed and condemned as a criminal, ultimately executed. Basically, everything falls apart.
Of course, we are a resurrection people, and we know that next week, we will celebrate that God brings new life. That death is undone, pain is transformed. That even though once dead, Jesus now lives.
But for now, Jesus has turned his face towards Jerusalem, and he walks towards his death.
I struggled with whether or not to preach this sermon today. I wrote another one that was much more uplifting, much more about discipleship and faithfulness in the face of adversity. So stick around. You’ll hear that one of these days. But a friend reminded me that sometimes sermons are laments. And so that’s where I am with this. We’ve sung Hosannas this morning, called our King to ride on, ride on. But we also journey with Jesus towards his death.
What deaths are we called to walk toward in our own lives? What must we lay down, give up, sacrifice in order to have new life? For death is required for new life to take root.
How are we ourselves participating in the deaths of others? How do we feed the fires of empire instead of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Because we do. Every day.
I invite you to walk this journey with me, with Christ, this week. Read Scripture. Take time for daily prayer. Consider joining the rebel alliance, whatever that might look like in your world. Do what you can to turn the systems of power, domination, sin, and empire on their ears. Topsy turvey. Gospel-like.
And know that God is with you on this road. Know that Jesus himself wept with fear and frustration at that which was before him. Know that this journey can be full of pain and despair, of death and loss. But, my friends, please also know that the peace of Christ is yours and the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking open. Amen.
Jessica Abell is Pastoral Associate at First Baptist Church of Denver.
Image: Three wooden crosses, mossolainen nikolai / Shutterstock.com