Sermon for Palm Sunday: Joint Old Catholic Anglican service.
Jesus on a donkey, a colt or a mule is the stuff of pictures from our first Bible onwards. Usually it is taken to signify modesty that ‘the King who comes in the name of the Lord’ chose to ride a slow beast of burden, a poor man’s Trabant, rather than an Arab stallion. Zechariah has his King ‘riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey,’ while another Hebrew Bible text sees King David, shortly before he died, bid his son Solomon ride a mule into Gihon to be anointed King by Zedok the priest, made famous through Haendel’s magnificent anthem. So perhaps donkey’s and mules are not so modest? Or perhaps just that’s what was there: John doesn’t mention any riding at all.
Jerusalem was the focus for the feast of Tabernacles celebrating the autumn grape harvest, and it was to that festival in the temple in Jerusalem that the largest number of Jews made the journey every year. Passover, Pesach, commemorating the ‘passing over’ and thus saving of Jewish families in Egypt, was less well attended at that time: currently Yom Kippur and Pesach are the main festivals, change being part of any tradition. But two thousand years ago, Pesach was always well-attended by the Roman colonial authorities. The reason is clear: this festival was always a political powder-keg, because Passover spoke of past enslavement, subordination, and resistance in an eight-day act of memory and celebration which pointed to future freedom. Emperor Trajan, writing a little later with the caution of a tyrant, noted that ‘Whenever people gather together for a common purpose, they soon become political groups.’ Tacitus, another colonial subject, described the Romans as ‘robbing, slaughtering, plundering, making wastelands, and calling the result “peace.” ’ So the authorities of the state were on edge: a perfect time for the religious authorities to cause their upstart enemy Jesus to be arrested and speedily dispatched.
Why did he go when he knew what would happen? We could slickly say: that was his Godly fate, that was his Godly wish, that was his Godly purpose, leaving Jesus’ example of sacrifice for others as ‘just what Jesus’ did. But why do the Medicins sans frontiere doctors and nurses go to all the most dangerous places in the world today? Because that is their commitment, their purpose in life despite the high risk of death, their hope. Why do Christians in countries where to be Christian is to be at daily risk of death, abuse and total absence of rights, continue to hold to their faith? Because that is their commitment, their purpose in life despite the risks, their hope. Jesus went to Jerusalem because that, even that painful end, was his purpose in life and his hope for humanity effected through painful dying for us and for our sake and joyful living again, also for us and for our sake.
And that, as we sang in the Philippians hymn, is the lesson for today. However inept or useless we might feel, each of us has much, whether that is a skill, wealth, experience, or any other gift. Whatever its source or power, no gift allows us to exploit others, nor to raise us up above others. Our gifts, however modest – a smile, a touch, a kindness, a listening ear- are there to be given to and for others, as Jesus gave himself for all. Then the Holy Spirit has space enough to dwell within us.