March 20, 2016
Luke 19:28-40 and 22:14-23:56 [Common English Bible]
It’s Palm Sunday. Like Christians for nearly two thousand years, we’ve just paraded through the building, waving our palm leaves, shouting Hosannah! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Let’s do it again:
Hosannah! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God! Hosannah!
Come on, wave your palm leaves!
Wait — why are we doing this? What’s this all about?
Well, downstairs we heard a reading from the Gospel according to Luke, in which Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a young donkey. Luke tells us that as he rode along on the path down from the Mount of Olives, people were spreading their cloaks on the road and a huge crowd of disciples began to praise God with joy because of everything that Jesus had done, saying, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!”
But what’s this word, “hosannah”? It’s a Hebrew word, more properly pronounced “hoshanah.” It means “ please save us.” But you wouldn’t know that from any English translation of the any of the Gospel accounts.Actually, you wouldn’t know it from the Greek, either, because the Hebrew word is just rendered in Greek letters: “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God! [Mark 11:9 and John 12:13]
But then, I wondered, what could it possibly mean to say “please save us in the highest”? I was remembered that there is a Jewish holiday called “Hoshanah Rabbah,” which means “many supplications.” That holiday came into being right around the time that Jesus was living, and so maybe there is a connection because the word “rabbah” could mean “great” or “high,” but it more often means something like “a lot.” So maybe what the people were shouting was not “praise God,” or even “praise Jesus,” but “please save us, all of us!” Which makes a lot of sense, since that is what the messiah is supposed to do — save us.
So let’s wave our palm leaves one more time, and shout, “Jesus, save us!”
Ok, now put down your palm leaves, because the next part of the story gets serious. I’m guessing that most of us have heard this story so many times we can almost tell it in our sleep, but let’s pretend we are there in Jerusalem, sitting with Jesus and his friends.
That’s not too hard for me, just now, because when I was at the Oblate Retreat Center in San Antonio last month, there was a wonderful table in the garden that had twelve seats, and a slightly-bigger-than-life-sized statue of Jesus sitting in the middle of one side, breaking a piece of bread, a goblet next to his strong, weathered hand. People would have picnics at that table, sometimes in groups, including him casually in their conversation; and sometimes alone, just having a chat with Jesus over lunch. Yes, I sat there once or twice, too, telling my troubles to Jesus. But that’s a different story for a different time.
In today’s story, Jesus is having dinner with his friends, and he says,
“I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. I tell you, I won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in God’s kingdom.” After taking a cup and giving thanks, he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves. I tell you that from now on I won’t drink from the fruit of the vine until God’s kingdom has come.” After taking the bread and giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup after the meal and said, “This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you.
We say something like this every time we share Communion, but what does it mean that bread is Christ’s body and wine is his blood? In his discussion of Paul’s account of this moment, Richard Rohr says,
Paul makes use of the almost physical language of shared embodiment in his single most used phrase “en Christo.” Further Paul offers us the most beautiful teaching on the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), which takes the form of a meal so we can be reminded frequently of our core identity (1 Corinthians 11:17-26). As Augustine said, “We are what we eat! We are what we drink!”
As we hand the bread and cup around the circle, somehow, Christ becomes present in our midst, in one another, yes, and also in the elements that we consume. Otherwise, Rohr remarks,
the Eucharist is just a child’s pretend tea party. Transformation must be real for persons, for creation, for all that lives and dies. This is summed up in the literal act and metaphor of humans digesting simple elements that grow from the earth.1
We are what we eat. We become what we already are: the Body of Christ. We share our small bits of bread, our tiny sips of juice. Jesus saves us from our isolation, from our selfishness, from our separation of body and soul. Hosanna! Save us, Jesus.
Of course, the story doesn’t stop there, either. Jesus says, “But look! My betrayer is with me; his hand is on this table.” And the disciples began to argue among themselves about which of them it could possibly be who would do this terrible thing. And not only do they argue about which of them is going to betray Jesus, they argue about which one is the best disciple! Just like us, they can’t seem to remember what Jesus has been teaching them about love from one minute to the next. In their very arguments about who is the best, they are betraying Jesus. But instead of getting angry at their thick-headedness, Jesus reminds them again that following him is not about being in charge. Instead, he said, “I am among you as one who serves.”
And then — maybe just to make the point about how easy it is to betray someone — he turns to Simon Peter, saying, “the rooster won’t crow today before you have denied three times that you know me.” Can’t you just see Simon Peter spluttering and protesting his faithfulness? And can’t you just see all the disciples continuing to misunderstand Jesus, just as they had all along. Just like we do?
Jesus saves us from our delusions of grandeur, our spiritual pretensions, our insistence that our way is the right way. Hosannah! Save us, Jesus.
Jesus tries a few more times to let his disciples know what is coming, and finally just invites them to go for a little walk. He leads them out to the Mount of Olives, where he prays alone, begging God,
“if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.” Then a heavenly angel appeared to him and strengthened him. He was in anguish and prayed even more earnestly. His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground. When he got up from praying, he went to the disciples. He found them asleep, overcome by grief. He said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray so that you won’t give in to temptation.”
In his own fear and anguish, Jesus saves us from imagining that we can save ourselves. Jesus teaches us by example that living in God’s will is our only hope. Hosannah! Save us, Jesus.
Soon, Judas shows up with a bunch of other people, coming to greet Jesus with a kiss. When the disciples figure out that all those other people are there to take Jesus away, they try to stop them with violence, but Jesus heals the injured, saying “Stop! No more of this.” Addressing the people in charge, he gets a little sarcastic: “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, as though I were a thief? Day after day I was with you in the temple, but you didn’t arrest me. But this is your time, when shadows rule.”
Indeed, the story just keeps getting more and more shady. After Jesus is arrested, Peter does exactly as Jesus thought he would, denying him three times before the rooster crows. Jesus is blindfolded, beaten, and insulted all night. In the morning, he stands before the council, accused of claiming to be the Son of God, and then is taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Jerusalem. There he is accused of misleading the people, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar, and claiming that he is the Christ, a king. Pilate doesn’t seem to believe the accusations, and passes the buck, sending him off to Herod because Herod is in charge of Galilee, where Jesus came from. Luke tells us,
Herod was very glad to see Jesus, for he had heard about Jesus and had wanted to see him for quite some time. He was hoping to see Jesus perform some sign. Herod questioned Jesus at length, but Jesus didn’t respond to him. The chief priests and the legal experts were there, fiercely accusing Jesus. Herod and his soldiers treated Jesus with contempt. Herod mocked him by dressing Jesus in elegant clothes and sent him back to Pilate.
Pilate, as you may recall, still didn’t want to put Jesus to death, but those who believed that Jesus was a threat to their power insisted until Pilate gave in and ordered Jesus crucified. As I follow the machinations of Pilate, Herod, and all those high priests and elders, I am reminded of how easy it is for leaders to whip up angry crowds, and then blame the will of the crowd for their own evil actions. I am reminded, also, that it is this part of the story — which I have merely summarized here — that has been used so often as the basis for Christian hatred of Jews.
And I am reminded that Jesus saves us from indulging in self-righteous hatred and vengeance by his principled non-violence. Jesus refuses to argue or fight back or to harm anyone, no matter how terrible his own physical or emotional pain. Hosanna! Save us, Jesus.
As they led Jesus away, they grabbed Simon, a man from Cyrene, who was coming in from the countryside. They put the cross on his back and made him carry it behind Jesus. A huge crowd of people followed Jesus, including women, who were mourning and wailing for him. Jesus turned to the women and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Rather, cry for yourselves and your children. The time will come when they will say, ‘Happy are those who are unable to become pregnant, the wombs that never gave birth, and the breasts that never nursed a child.’ Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ If they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
When terrible things are happening and we want to hide under the covers, Jesus saves us from wasting our energy by fighting with reality. Instead, Jesus shows us how to face what is real with honesty and courage, and to do what we can to heal what is broken. Hosannah! Save us, Jesus.
They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.
The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”
The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”
One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”
In his compassion for the criminals who were crucified with him, and even for the soldiers who did their jobs without realizing what evil they were doing, Jesus saves us from self-pity and teaches us to forgive. Hosanna! Save us, Jesus.
Today’s account of the Passion ends with Jesus’ death just as the day was ending. The women who had come with him from Galilee and followed him in his travels now followed Joseph of Arimithea as he took the body down from the cross, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a cave set aside for burial. Then they went away and prepared fragrant spices and perfumed oils until after they kept the Sabbath rest, according to the custom of their people.
Save us, Jesus, from believing that death is the final word. Hosannah! Amen.
1 Richard Rohr, “Divinization”, Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for March 4, 2016 at http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1103098668616&ca=98a43445-88fb-48be-bb1e-745fa5fee697