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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, April 04, 2004


Scripture propers: Palm Sunday, Year C

Palm Sunday. For Christians, it’s a day of contrasts, isn’t it? We begin with celebration, with rejoicing, with what has come to be called “The Triumphal Entry.” People strewing coats on the ground, and waving palm branches, and generally making a spectacle of themselves. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

And we end with betrayal, and shame, and death.

We know it’s coming. We’ve read the book-- and maybe even seen the movie. The church calendar moved us into Lent, the season of preparation, back in February; so we’ve had weeks and weeks to prepare for this.

Jesus’ followers didn’t have that advantage. Oh, there were warning signs, certainly. The gospels record plenty of them, both subtle and blatant.

But put yourself in their shoes. Jesus has been living with them, and leading them, for years. They’ve been at risk more than once-- and always managed to come away unscathed, able to continue the ministry, the healing, the gently defiant, “in-your-face” teaching that so irritated the religious leaders. They’ve been playing a dangerous game, in direct opposition to their culture, their society-- a society without any Bill of Rights protection. And they’ve been getting away with it.

And now they’ve come to Jerusalem, the capital city, openly and with joyous abandon. They have paraded into the city, shouting and creating a ruckus, waving palms and “preparing a way for the Lord,” as the psalmist says. I’ve read more than one commentator who notes that, in this moment, they’re recognizing Jesus as more than an itinerant rabbi; that this is more in the style of a welcome that might be given a victorious military leader, or powerful state official. With all the fuss, It’s important to realize that this was not simply a religious action; it was also seen as a political statement. In this moment, the Judeans seem to believe that Jesus really is the Messiah-king they’ve been expecting, come to lead Israel out from under the crushing oppression of Roman occupation.

Then, the next thing they know, they are surrounded by soldiers in the Garden. Jesus is arrested, and sentenced, and executed-- their vaunted, miraculous leader, hung between two common criminals to die. And they weren’t ready for that, not at all.

Yes, we read of the warnings, of Jesus telling them what was to come. But we need to remember that the Gospels are written down years after all this takes place. The evangelists have the advantage of hindsight, of looking back to see the signs that were there, of remembering the indicators that should have prepared them for that night. But I don’t think they owned it, that they really understood, in the moment. That week in Jerusalem was such a reversal, as sudden as a heart attack. How could they have been ready for that?

Can you sympathize with that sort of sudden turnaround, the feeling that, in a split second, the world has been turned upside down? I know I can. I think of when my mother died, nearly six years ago. Looking back, I can recall a few things that might have warned us. Signs of change, small indicators that were overlooked in the day to day functions and busyness of life; things that might have given some hint, if I had known what I was listening for. But I didn’t.

On a Wednesday morning, I was over at the house, helping paint the bedroom closet; everything seemed as usual. Thursday afternoon, my sister called from the hospital; Mom had complained of chest pains, and Jan had taken her to the Emergency Room. I spoke to Mom, told her I loved her, and planned to head up to the hospital as soon as I could find someone to watch the kids. But before I could do that, Jan called again-- and she was gone. Yes, I was forewarned; but even the more overt notice didn’t gear me for what was to come. I can still remember standing in my kitchen, seeing the April sun pouring in the window, and whispering into the phone, one word: “No.” I couldn’t grasp that what I was hearing was real. Even with knowing what might happen, the truth came upon me suddenly, and all at once-- like soldiers in the Garden.

That’s how I imagine the disciples must have felt. Even if they had heeded all the signs, all the warnings, the reality had to have been far beyond anything they could possibly have imagined. Think about it-- would Peter have struck out, and cut off the slave’s ear, if he had known what to expect? Are we to believe his denial of Jesus was based on understanding what was going on? Or was it a gut reaction, born out of uncertainty and panic?

And the rest of the apostles-- would they have run in fear, if they were ready for what was to happen? They had been told what to expect; and, more, told of the hope that would follow; but in the face of death, they lost sight of the prior warnings-- as well as the promise of resurrection, and the kingship of Jesus that was foreshadowed in the procession that we celebrate today.

So, here’s an advantage we have over the disciples. We have scripture, laying out the story for us, from four different perspectives. We have 2000 years of history, and tradition, and lots of examples in that time-- good and bad-- of what it can mean to follow Jesus. We have all the information we could possibly ask for.

And yet, it’s still not easy, is it? With all that, we still don’t get it. We can choose to speak, and to listen, to one another in love and respect-- and still we strike out in anger and fear at those with whom we do not agree, or understand.

We can choose (in our voting, in our volunteering, in our values) to work, as the prayer says, for justice, freedom and peace-- and still we run and hide, focusing on our own security rather than standing against the violence, and hunger, and abuse that exists around us every day.

We can choose a life of discipleship, of acknowledging Christ in everything we do; and still we deny Jesus, and his call on our hearts, preferring to protect ourselves and our comfortable way of life from the changes and risks that answering that call might bring.

Just like the disciples, we still don't get it.

This is why I’ve often struggled with the phrase that we casually use so often, to explain the sacrifice at the cross: “Jesus died to save us from our sins.” That’s very easy to misuse, and to mishear. I mean, Jesus’ death certainly doesn’t keep us from sinning, does it? Human beings are still racking up the same old sins, committing the same atrocities, falling into the same traps as we ever did-- and every one of us here this morning can testify to the truth that Christians are no less liable than nonbelievers to that insidious pull. No; if that’s what that phrase means, Jesus would stand, quite bluntly, as a miserable failure.

But is it sinning from which he saves us? Or, is it the effect of that sin? Paul comments on this in his letter to the Romans, when he says “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In other words, what Jesus saves us from is death: the death that is the inevitable result of sin. Not only the cessation of our lives after we are done here on earth, but also the smaller deaths of a sort; the sins that eat away at one's soul on a daily basis.

That’s something to which we can also testify, here today: though we are still susceptible to human sin as Christians, we are also witnesses to the forgiveness and restoration that God holds out to us in Jesus Christ. That beyond the death, is resurrection.

I think this is the key to the contrast of triumph and terror that we hear on Palm Sunday: it is by living with us, as well as by dying and rising for us, that Jesus offers us salvation. His death and resurrection hold out restoration in God, and his life shows us how to accept it.

We have this incredible gift laid before us this morning. And, though we can neither know nor control what will happen in the next moment in our lives, we have, in this, been offered the clear-cut opportunity of preparing, of being strengthened for whatever that may be. We are offered death-- and then shown that only through death is resurrection possible.

So, the choice is ours. Will we continue to deny Jesus? To run and hide in our seemingly secure world? Ignore the signs, and assume that things will continue for us the way they always have?

Or shall we recognize our own failings, our own sin, and be willing, over and over again, to accept Jesus’ invitation to walk away from them? To deny ourselves, and take up the challenge and gift of the cross, and follow?


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