March 29, 2015
Scripture: Mark 11: 1-11
Palm Sunday is such an incongruous mixture of celebration and hopefulness mixed with an undercurrent of fear and dread. Like us, the disciples knew – and didn’t want to know – what was coming. They dreaded the confrontations ahead.
As Mark tells the story, crowds of rural pilgrims were converging in Jerusalem for Passover, stirred by the stories of liberation and freedom in their yearly Passover liturgy. These excited visitors, surging through the streets of Jerusalem, would also bring legions of Roman soldiers to the city, to keep things in order. It was a volatile mix.
Although Paul was the earliest writer to describe the spiritual presence of Christ, Mark’s gospel is the earliest record that we have of Jesus’ ministry. It is a wartime gospel, written down around 63 A.D., when Jewish rebels were trying to expel Roman rule from Jerusalem. By 70 A.D., Rome had smashed the opposition, expelled all Jews from Jerusalem, and leveled the Second Temple – leaving only a piece of wall which can be seen by visitors today.
Mark’s gospel was probably written for the diaspora, to sustain the early church as it scattered away from Jerusalem. In ten short chapters, Mark has hurried us along the way with Jesus toward the climactic events of Holy Week in chapter 11– to proclaim a different kind of Passover for Jesus’ followers.
As Mark tells it, the Temple authorities were angry about Jesus’ teachings – claiming his authority to forgive sins, healing on the Sabbath, eating with sinners, preaching the realm of God here and now. In Mark 10, Jesus tells his disciples exactly what is going to happen: “Listen,” he says, “we are going up to Jerusalem where the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. They will condemn him to death and then hand him over to the Gentiles. These will make fun of him, spit on him, whip him, and kill him. And after three days he will rise to life.”
Following that dreadful preview, Mark includes two important stories before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the final time. One is about distraction. James and John deal with the possibility of Jesus’ death by asking to sit on his right and his left when Jesus claims his throne “in the glorious Kingdom.”
They want to by-pass the horrors ahead and get some guarantee about the future, but Jesus takes them right back to reality. “Can you drink the cup that I must drink? Can you be baptized in the way I must be baptized?” When they say that they can, Jesus reminds them that discipleship is about serving, not power, authority and recognition.
The other story is a challenge for serious seekers. Bartemaeus, a blind man by the roadside, called out until Jesus noticed him. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. “I want to see again,” replies Bartemaeus. “Your faith has made you well,” says Jesus.
Your faith in what, we might ask. Faith in Jesus? Faith in his desire to see? The wording is ambiguous. Bartemaeus is not some passive victim who is being rescued by Jesus. He fights for the chance to be fully alive again – to see what is really going on and to walk with Jesus into the fray.
Both stories open our eyes to the demands of discipleship. Can we drink the cup of truth and reality? Can we be baptized as Jesus was, facing our fear of death and emerging as new creatures with a different guidance system in place? Do we want to be healed – changed – transformed? It’s a question we need to ask ourselves again and again.
Mark’s narrative then brings us to what we celebrate as Palm Sunday. In chapter 11, my Bible translation calls this “The Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem.” It is the culmination of a long journey on foot from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north. Crowds have gathered and disbursed, some moving with Jesus toward Jerusalem for Passover. That’s why Bartemaeus had such a hard time getting his attention.
Apparently entering the city on a young colt was prearranged. Jesus sends a couple of disciples on ahead, to untie a colt and bring it to him. “Tell them,” he says, “The Master needs it.” This detail – that Jesus will come “humble and riding on a colt” — would recall for devout Jews a passage from Hebrew scripture which we know as Zechariah 9:9: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Notice the universal dimension of this oracle. “He shall command peace to the nations – dominion from sea to sea – and from the River to the ends of the earth. This reference to Zechariah speaks to me of our theme for Lent – that God’s realm means peace and harmony for all aspects of creation, to the ends of the earth. Could it be that the dream of a peaceable kingdom is planted in all of us? That it only needs to be fed and watered to thrive? And when we listen, really listen, to the birds of the air and the bears of the polar sea, can we hear their cries of distress? Can we see those people who are systematically ignored by our economic and social policies?
Jesus came into Jerusalem, in the midst of a palm-waving crowd of nobodies, barely carried by an undersized and unarmored colt. He embodies God’s realm, the peaceable kingdom, the creative and inclusive hope of the world. In contrast, the Roman soldiers would be coming in from the north toward the praetorium, marching with clanking swords, creaking armor, and horse-drawn chariots, embodying the violent world-order of Rome.
Can you imagine where would you be in that picture of Jerusalem? Would you be in the exuberant crowd around Jesus? Pressing close to the colt, watching for trouble? Would you be an onlooker, hiding inside your Jerusalem house, waiting for all the crowds to go home? Or might you be hanging around the temple yard, selling something? Where would you be? What would you be thinking? Feeling? What would you fear most? And where do you imagine Seekers might be clustered?
When I visualize these two contrasting images, I realize that both are alive in me. On one hand, I see and hear the predictable, orderly, reliable Roman solider in me, who is fearful of boisterous unruly crowds. On the other hand, there is a lively creative artist in me, who loves the hopefulness and possibility of newness that I sense around Jesus.
In my journal this week, I’ve written some dialogues between the centurion and Bartemaeus about the ministry and meaning of Jesus. Another day, I tried one between James and Jesus. It’s something you might try during Holy Week, as you enter Jerusalem with Jesus, one short chapter in Mark at a time.
Our text for today ends simply: Jesus rode into Jerusalem, went into the temple and looked around, and then, since it was late in the day, he went back to Bethany with his disciples.
As we look ahead toward Maundy Thursday and the crucifixion on “Good” Friday, there are two other stories that seem important to consider as we explore what it means to be healed, and to grow as disciples.
Bethany, you remember, is where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. Jesus might have been staying with them, as he had before. Later in this momentous week, Jesus was at the house of Simon the leper – another one of those unclean people that he often ate with. An unnamed woman comes in with an alabaster jar full of expensive perfume, and anoints Jesus’ head.
When the disciples object to this extravagant gesture by the woman, Jesus defends her by saying “You will always have poor people to help, but she has anointed my body for burial. Wherever the gospel is preached, all over the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
In fact, I have rarely heard a sermon preached “in memory of her.” But in this incident, we catch sight of God’s realm once again. The usual hierarchy of anointing is upended. A nameless woman does what the disciples cannot do because they don’t want to admit Jesus will die. Like Bartemaeus, she breaks through social convention with an act of love and compassion, and Jesus affirms her for it. He keeps exposing his disciples to God’s peaceable kingdom – his version of the beloved community – hoping (I suspect) that they will have a deep enough experience to continue his work once he is gone.
The anointing at Bethany prefigures the footwashing and communion supper that we will celebrate on Maundy Thursday. Once again, in Mark 14, Jesus sends his disciples ahead to spot a man with a jug of water who will lead them to the upper room where they will celebrate Passover together. This too seems prearranged. By using this repetitive pattern, Mark links the extensive palm branch parade with the intensive upper room preparation for ministry. Both are facets of God’s realm here on earth.
In the middle of their Passover meal, Jesus acknowledges that one of the disciples will betray him – and they begin to worry, “Could it be me?”
What a revealing response. Could it be me? Could it be true? What if we asked that question rather than giving a defensive response whenever a challenge came up? As I prayed over this text, I had to ask myself: When have I betrayed Jesus by closing my eyes to the need of someone else? How often have I backed away when I heard Jesus say “Do you want to be healed?
Betrayal doesn’t always mean turning your leader in to the police for money. Sometimes it’s as “simple” as what happened to Peter while Jesus was dying on the cross: “I am not one of his disciples,” he said, as the cock crowed in the distance. We all know that story of denial, but it didn’t disqualify Peter from becoming a leader in the early Christian community.
After supper, Jesus goes out to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, taking Peter, James and John with him. According to Mark and the other gospel writers, these three were the inner circle, the servant leadership team among the disciples. They were with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration; the two Zebedee brothers, James and John, argued about power and prestige to distract themselves from their fears of impending death, and Peter always seemed to be elbowing his way to the head of the line. But these three stalwarts, the chosen inner circle, failed Jesus once again. They fell asleep, not once or twice, but three times – while Jesus begged for some miraculous rescue from the suffering he knew the Romans would impose.
This story reminds me (again) how easy it is to fall asleep when it’s important not to. We can’t stand too much reality, apparently. When we really don’t want to face the amount of danger and suffering around us, we reach for distractions. We argue about who’s in charge, or what if this or that might happen. We go to sleep. And we all do it.
But the good news is this: falling asleep didn’t disqualify Peter, James or John for the tasks ahead of them. Instead, failing Jesus in his hour of need was part of their preparation, their self-knowledge and discipline for the work they were being called to.
In his pamphlet, “Leading From Within,” Parker Palmer warns of leaders who project their unconscious shadows onto others. This whole section on betrayal and denial and sleepiness suggests to me that Jesus was well aware of the numbing fears that were haunting his disciples. In the Garden, Jesus faced his own worst fears and was still able to call Peter, James and John toward their work in the world.
My gleanings so far from this Palm Sunday meditation on Mark’s gospel are these:
- • Becoming a follower of Jesus is open to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Like Bartemaeus, we just have to cry out for healing.
- • Jesus called a smaller group of disciples for special education in servant leadership. Their payoff was that they got to work harder and go deeper into life.
- • Neither sleep, nor betrayal could separate them from the love and learning that would come from passionate intruders, like the anointing woman.
As we enter Holy Week through the gateway of Palm Sunday, I want to challenge you to read the rest of the Gospel of Mark, starting with Chapter 11. You could take one chapter a day, to ponder for yourself what it means to be called to journey into Jerusalem, toward the cross with Jesus. You might try writing a dialogue in response to each chapter, to explore the different sides of yourself – the answer-loving centurion, the brave anointing woman, blind Bartemaeus or the sleep-walking disciples — in each of these situations during Holy Week. Ask yourself, “What do you have to say to me?”
And record their responses. Ask if their response sheds light on hyour inner journey. It’s a way to keep your eyes and your heart open to the newness that is promised on Easter morning.
May we all choose into this Easter journey with Jesus – because it leads to new life!