Palm / Passion Sunday B Sermon (2024)

Palm / Passion Sunday
Texts: John 12:12-16;
Phil 2:5-11; Mark 15

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 26:55): https://fb.watch/r6pPyCDc3L/

TWO PARADES: SYMBOLS OF TWO POWERS

Bronze statue monument of George Washington and horse . (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

If you travel in Europe, it seems like you see the same statue in every capital city — the horse, the dude, the sword, the pigeon droppings. Of course, they’re not really the same statue, but if you’re a foreigner and don’t know who the hero is, they all look the same. I have a friend who remarked to his wife, “There’s always some dude on a horse.”1 They laughed, and it’s become a running joke. Now they have to say it every time we see one of these statues. Friends regularly send them photos of these statues from around the world tagged with, “There’s always some dude on a horse.” Now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll seen horse-riding dudes in capitals from Lisbon to London, from Rome to Paris, from St. Petersburg to Washington D.C. Of course, the dude with a tricorn hat on a horse in D.C. is George Washington. It makes a difference if the dude is your dude. Most Americans upon beholding this marble dude will feel the kind of patriotic stirring in their bosom that the citizens of other lands feel for their equestrian statuary. The statues symbolize the kind of power that we human beings typically worship, military might and imperial conquest.

On the last week of his life, Jesus had a triumphant entry into Jerusalem, riding on . . . a donkey. The Gospel writers all have Zechariah 9:9 in mind, and some of them quote it, like our reading from John does this morning, at least in part. The full quote is “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.” The word translated as “humble” is also translated in other places as “gentle.” Might we even — especially when contrasting Jesus on a donkey with a general on a war horse — translate it as “nonviolent.”2

In many ways this most holy of weeks that we embark on today is a contrast in power. We human beings have mostly trusted in the violent power of great armies and navies — and now air forces. Before our modern era of mechanization, it was always about some dude riding in on a horse, leading a charge into battle. Human history seems to boil down to a history of our wars.

But Jesus comes to invite us to place our trust in a different kind of power, the power of love, which never does harm, which never resorts to violence. It is truly a significant power, because the New Testament celebrates it in so many ways. One is in the hymn that we read this morning from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, celebrating this very different kind of power. That Jesus could grasp God’s power but didn’t, and chose a different path to power. Writers like John immediately placed that power of love at the beginning of creation itself. Love is the power which creates life, never destroys it. John begins his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:1, 3-4).

In the spring of (probably) AD 30, Pontius Pilate arrived in Jerusalem. Pilate ordinarily lived in the Roman city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast (near modern day Tel Aviv), but during Passover the Governor of Judea needed to be in Jerusalem to keep order. Passover — a holiday commemorating Israel’s liberation from a foreign empire — was the time when revolts against Roman rule could erupt, and they frequently did. Coming from Caesarea, Pilate entered the city from the west, riding a horse at the head of the Imperial Cavalry, essentially a military parade. It was intended as a show of force to intimidate any would-be revolutionaries. Military parades, then and now, are used by empires to demonstrate that they rule the world through their superior capacity to wage war.

That same week Jesus approached Jerusalem from the east, coming up to the holy city from Jericho accompanied by his twelve disciples and a crowd of Passover pilgrims from Galilee who believed that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah, their king. As Jesus neared the crest of the Mount of Olives just opposite Jerusalem, he paused and sent two disciples to obtain a donkey’s colt from the nearby village of Bethany. Jesus would ride a donkey into Jerusalem, deliberately acting out the ancient poem of Zechariah. Jesus entered Jerusalem from the opposite direction and in the opposite manner that Pilate entered the city. Instead of riding on a powerful warhorse like Pilate, Jesus rides a donkey, and not even a full-grown donkey, but a donkey’s colt. We can picture the ridiculous sight as Jesus rides a donkey so small that his feet drag the ground. Jesus’ triumphal entry was the anti-military parade. It was a mockery of Rome’s intimidating show of military power. Imagine a mock military parade where peace protestors are riding tricycles instead of tanks and you get the idea.

What we see on Palm Sunday are two parades. One from the west and one from the east. One where Caesar’s Prefect of Judea rides a warhorse and one where God’s anointed Messiah rides a donkey. One is a military parade projecting the power of empire — the Roman Empire. The other is a prophetic parade announcing the arrival of an alternative empire — the kingdom of God. One parade derives its power from a willingness to crucify its enemies. The other derives its power from the love which creates life, the power life in which Jesus put his faith at the end of the week by embracing the cross and forgiving its enemies. One is a perpetuation of the domination systems of empire. The other is the only hope the world has for true liberation.

The question this most holy of weeks is, which parade will we march in? In which power do we place our ultimate trust?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, March 24, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 26:55): https://fb.watch/r6pPyCDc3L/

Notes

1. This sermon, with the themes of both “There’s always some dude on a horse” and “Two Parades,” relies heavily (sometimes word for word) on chapter 6, “There’s Always Some Dude on a Horse,” in Brian Zahnd’s Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile (Spello Press, 2019).

2. The Greek word is praus; for more on translating it as “nonviolent,” see Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian: How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation New (O-Books, 2011), 245, and Signs of Change: The Bible’s Evolution of Divine Nonviolence (Cascade Books, 2022), 164.

 

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