Seven years ago I made my way to the Potter’s House in Washington, D.C., to see Gordon Cosby, the founder of Church of the Saviour and my spiritual mentor. Beginning shortly after World War II, this pioneering church community combined a commitment to the disciplined “inward journey” of spiritual formation and the “outward journey” of creative engagement in the missional needs of the community. The high commitment expected of its members and costly engagement in the world has been an inspiring model for congregational renewal over many decades.
This church community shaped my faith and gave direction to my life in my 2os, and its lessons have stayed with me for more than four decades. Gordon Cosby was the church’s founder and long-term pastor. He married my wife Karin and me and served as the deepest spiritual influence on my life. When I came to see him, his health was failing but his mind was sharp, and his spirit was vital. And he was worried.
“I hear all these people talking about Jesus — preachers on television, and in the media, with large congregations,” Gordon said, “and I keep wondering, which Jesus are they talking about? It just isn’t the Jesus I read about in the Bible. It’s not the Jesus I’ve been trying to follow. Which Jesus is this?”
I’ve been thinking about that conversation during this Lent, which ushered us into in Holy Week on Palm Sunday. Which Jesus?
Isn’t that the question that the thousands gathered in Jerusalem for Passover, and the small circle of disciples and friends, were asking on that first Palm Sunday, and in the fateful week that followed? Who is this Jesus? And is it the Jesus we want to follow? The one we thought we were following? Or the one we now end up denying and rejecting? Which Jesus?
Historians now tell us that there were two processions entering Jerusalem that day, as Passover was beginning. One is in the Bible, recorded in all four Gospels. Jesus enters the city not on a horse or stallion, but on a humble donkey. When he asks his disciples to go find it, two Gospel writers refer to a passage from Zechariah:
“Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey …”
Those there, and reading this account later, knew their Hebrew scriptures, and would remember that this passage continues:
“He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9: 9-10)
This procession of Jesus, on a humble donkey, with cloaks and palms spread before his way, and people proclaiming, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” was in stark contrast to the other procession entering Jerusalem that day.
On the west side of Jerusalem, opposite Jesus, Pilate was entering Jerusalem, leading Roman soldiers clad in armor, with steel swords flashing in the sunlight, and drummers announcing their arrival. It was a procession of mighty military force, intended to intimidate Jews gathering for the Passover. Roman power reigned, and any dissent or rebellion would not be tolerated. About 37 years earlier, the Romans had ruthlessly crushed an attempted rebellion. Two thousand of those suspected of being a part were crucified.
In the tense, dramatic days that followed, leading to the confrontation described in the Gospel reading from John, Jesus makes clear who he is, and what it means to come “in the name of the Lord.” He attacks the corruption in the temple, disrupting its operation by overturning the tables and driving out the animals of those religious leaders controlling a sacrificial system that made them rich, while oppressing the poor — particularly poor women. In other words, this Jesus wouldn’t tolerate unjust economic power in the temple, the heart of Jewish life, with its thievery and corruption.
Beyond that, the exclusivism of the temple’s rules and practices brought forth the condemnation of Jesus. It’s not just that Jesus characterized those in control as running a “den of thieves,” but he declared that the temple was to be a holy “place of prayer for all the nations,” and not just for those in a protected cultural and religious enclave.
But there was far more. The ruling religious authorities, including the family of the High Priest, and the Sadducees, were the religious aristocracy of that day, controlling the temple and holding their grip political and religious power. And they compromised and even betrayed the heart of the Jewish tradition by supporting the oppressive rule of Rome. Their complicity with Roman power was the trade-off that kept them in power. And Jesus was steadfast in his rejection of all corruption of faith for the protection of oppressive injustice, through an unholy alliance between religious authority and Roman power.
Jesus not only attacked those making money unjustly in the temple, but he predicted the destruction of the temple itself. He wanted to make clear that God’s holiness was not wedded to religious practices in the temple which had become self-righteous and poisoned by the protection of power and privilege.
Finally, by the end of this week, right before the account of his arrest in Matthew, we read how Jesus declares that the framework for God’s judgment will be set by those who treat the poor, the stranger, the foreigner, the naked, and the one in prison as though they were Jesus himself, and those who do not.
It’s no wonder that the chief priest Caiaphas and the religious authorities plotted to kill Jesus, arranged his arrest, and initially put him on trial. But they needed to have Pilate on their side. We read the crucial exchange in John’s Gospel. “Shall I crucify your King?” Pilate asks. And the response — which John notes is from the chief priests — is telling: “We have no king but Caesar (the emperor).”
Which Jesus? For those who shouted, “Crucify him,” it was not the one who challenges corruption, religious hypocrisy, and compromised faith wedded to political power. Not the one who claims that “coming in the name of the Lord” means seeking a reign of justice and righteousness that overturns all their tables and calls them to honor what is truly holy. Not the one who breaks down self-righteous boundaries of comfortable exclusivism. They would rather usher that Jesus away to Golgotha.
The procession of Pilate, offering the security and might of oppressive power, claimed their allegiance. Caesar was their king, rather than the One who processed on a donkey, as a humble servant-king, but in the name of the Lord.
And what would our response be? Which Jesus would we have followed? Which Jesus do we follow today?
On Ash Wednesday I was in the New York apartment of Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Fifteen of us had gathered there — most of us were former heads of denominations and organizations. Now we are called “elders.” And we had gathered to pray and ask this same question. “Which Jesus?” What should it mean, during this time of Lent, in this time and place, to declare that “Jesus is Lord?” To reverse the cry of those who in John’s account say, “We have no King but Caesar,” and instead declare, “Jesus is Lord!”
We decided to put into words a statement, or what you might call a confession, expressing our response. And in the weeks since Ash Wednesday, we’ve worked on that, wanting to finish it by Palm Sunday. We did.
As a group, we crossed denominational lines, from the Reformed Church in America and Christian Reformed Church to Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, and historic black denominations, as well as evangelicals like Ron Sider, Tony Compolo, and Jim Wallis, and authors like Richard Rohr. Nearly all of us are receiving social security.
But we all feel that something grave and dangerous is happening in our country today. It all goes far beyond normal partisan politics. What we said is that “the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith is now at stake.”
We hope that the words we framed might contain an expression of gospel truth for our time and help those in congregations to reflect on what it means today is say, “Jesus is Lord.”
This begins by being clear about what we believe. We affirm again truths that are central to our faith. But then we take the next step and declare what we must reject because of these truths. If you’ve ever studied the Confessions of the Reformed Church in America, you’ll know that two of them generally follow that formula — and especially the Canons of Dort and the Belhar Confession. We declare our belief, and then boldly identify what we reject. That’s what we did. Here are some examples:
We believe each human being is made in God’s image and likeness. Therefore, we reject the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts …
We believe we are one body. In Christ there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class. Therefore, we reject misogmy, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women being further revealed in our culture …
We believe how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. Therefore, we reject the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God … (including) immigrants and refugees.
We believe the truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Therefore, we reject the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life.
We believe Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. Therefore, we reject any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule.
We believe Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples … Therefore, we reject “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ ….
Yes, those are strong words, and that’s just a sampling. But it’s certainly enough to make many of us here feel uncomfortable, including me. But I think that’s part of the journey for all us on Palm Sunday, entering Holy Week. Which Jesus is it that we are following? What does it mean, for us today, to say that “Jesus is Lord?”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the promising young German theologian who was executed in one of Hitler’s prisons shorty before the end of World War II, said this:
“Christianity has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power It should give much more offense, more shock to the world, than it is doing.”
Certainly, this was the conviction of Jesus as he rode that donkey into Jerusalem, while Pilate’s mighty, military procession was entering from the opposite side of the city. The religious authorities of his time had adjusted themselves far too easily to the worship of power. And Jesus gave them offense. He was coming as a servant-king in the name of the Lord, to declare what truly was holy, and what was not. And he did so claiming his identity and authority, during the drama of his final days, as God’s own Son.
On Palm Sunday, we each began our journey into Holy Week, celebrated through the world by Christians as the holiest week of the year. We should join the question asked by the thousands of pilgrims who came to Jerusalem on that Passover, and asked by the religious establishment of the time, and even by Pilate, the ruler representing the power of the Roman Empire: Which Jesus is this? How do we respond? Can we follow the Jesus who went from a humble donkey, to confronting corruption in the temple, and condemning complicity with unrighteous power, to healing those excluded by that culture’s fearful prejudices, to gathering those he loved to wash their feet and promise the sharing of his life, to a lonely garden in agonizing prayer, and then to a mockery of a trial and death on a cross? That’s the Jesus we’re asked to follow.
We all know the theological truths that reverberate through Holy Week, in Scripture, liturgy, and cherished hymns. Christ’s death on the cross, in a mysterious and eternal way, conquered the power of sin in our lives, and in the life of the world. It offers the hope of new life, sealed by the power of the resurrection.
But those truths aren’t abstract. It’s not just a doctrine to be recited. Rather, it reveals a path of discipleship to be followed. That’s seen, not only throughout the ministry of Jesus, but especially in what Jesus did and said in these four days between the Hosannas of today and the shouts to crucify him on Friday.
His journey during those days took place in the face of the social, political, and religious realities of his time. And so does ours. That’s why Dietrich Bonhoeffer kept asking, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” And that’s why we ask, this week, “Which Jesus?”
Perhaps you can begin to image the questions which might come if you begin to ask, this week, “Which Jesus” am I following. Or perhaps not. Surely, the disciples did not see what was in store, even from one day, and one hour, to the next. But let me encourage you to take this pilgrimage during Holy Week. Please don’t leave church simply expecting to come back to the lilies of next Easter Sunday. That day will really mean next to nothing, except for bunnies, eggs, and spring celebrations, if you don’t travel through this holiest of weeks.
As you walk though this week, trying to understand and follow the journey that Jesus took, remember that Jesus is also walking with you. He has faced all the most difficult questions, challenges, and betrayals that you might encounter, and far more. And he has made it through, showing us the Way, the truth, and the life.
A theologian, Marcus Borg, who helped explain the two processions on Palm Sunday, also described in a sentence what Jesus was like, in these words:
“Jesus was a person radically centered in God, empowered by that relationship, and filled with God’s passion for the world—a passion that led to his execution and vindication.”
Those words bring me back to Gordon Cosby and Church of the Saviour. To have our lives radically centered in God and empowered by that relationship — an inward spiritual journey of courage and integrity. And then to be filled from this with God’s passion for the world — an outward journey infused by God’s unquenchable love. If we rely on those two qualities during this week, we all we be able to answer, for our own journeys, the question asked by Gordon, and echoing through the centuries from that first Palm Sunday and Holy Week, to you here today: “Which Jesus?”