You’re in the centre of Perth on a shopping trip and suddenly you become aware that all the traffic on St George’s Terrace has stopped. You wonder why. And then you see them coming, quite a large number of people, most of them walking, with one or two riding bicycles. They look as if they’ve been travelling for some time.
As they come closer you can see that they’re a group of latter-day protesters – eco-warriors, planet-savers, environmental protesters. You’ve heard about them in the papers and on the television, rumours of them have reached you from numerous sources and now they’re on the same road as you, and they’re getting nearer. You know all about Swampy and his mates. They dug underground tunnels to prevent the building of freeways over-East; they built tree fortifications on the route for the new bypass; more tunnels to stop mining somewhere miles away; more tree-houses at Ningaloo Reef, and now they are on St George’s Terrace and the sound of them coming fills the air and brings you to a halt on the pavement.
Once they were just an item on the news, but now they are in the centre of Perth, bringing their message that if we want our world to survive, we have to change our lifestyles. We have to do away with certain things – our polluting technology – and we have to adopt different values and behaviours, showing more concern for our environment. They carry placards which encapsulate their message; they chant as they move down the road.
So what do we make of them? Do we cheer and clap and say ‘thank goodness at last somebody’s willing to speak out’/and join with the protesters? Or are we rather incensed by our belief that these folk are homeless, nomadic, probably on benefits, and simply travelling from place to place stirring up trouble. Do we stand on the pavement and shout ‘Get yourself a haircut’, or ‘get yourself a job and stop bothering decent hard-working citizens’? Or are we rather confused, caught up with the buzz of excitement that something big is about to happen, but not quite sure that we want it to happen in our own city?
The context of the story which we have played out here this morning is, of course, rather different, this Church was not built to remember and worship an eco-warrior but people in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday, that first Passion Sunday, must have shared some similar feelings.
There would be those who were wanting to build a better world who would have been glad that here at last were some people who seemed to have a radical commitment to a very different kind of kingdom from the one that they were experiencing, and who would have waved palm leaves and cried “Hosanna.” And there would have been a great many who shrugged their shoulders and muttered about prophets of doom casting shadows over their comfortable lifestyles, and turned away indoors, carrying on with the business of their own lives. And there would have been those, as well who, touched by the promise that something momentous was going on, would have followed out of curiosity just to see.
I suspect that there are many Christians who are not at all comfortable with the idea that Jesus rode into Jerusalem at the head of a popular demonstration. I suspect that most of us would be happier with the notion of something more akin to a sponsored walk, because the implications of a demonstration conjure up dissatisfaction, dissent, the threat of confrontation and the possibility of conflict. We get that sense from the reaction of the city’s population. Matthew tells us that ‘the whole city was in turmoil’; Mark says that the chief priests and scribes were so upset that they sought a way of doing away with Jesus; Luke’s Gospel records that the Pharisees demanded that Jesus keep his followers in check, to which Jesus replied that if his followers were to be silent, the stones would cry out; and in St John’s account the Pharisees say to one another. ‘You see there is nothing you can do; look, the whole world is running after him’.
Those of us who have been on a demonstration, or a march of protest will be able to especially feel some of the excitement of that first Palm Sunday. Something incredible happens when a large number of people get together to agree that what is going on around them is wrong; when people get together in large numbers to agree that things have to change.
Perth, at least in the short time that Luisa and I have been here, doesn’t seem to be a place of great and noisy protests. It must be something to do with the sunshine and your relaxing beaches! When you live in London you get used to the fact that some roads in the Capital will be closed every day in order for people to vent their frustration about war or taxes, or government policy on a huge range of issues. A market seems to have developed for professional organisations to manage these events, it is becoming big business to promote demonstrations there. It is no accident that the city which had the largest anti-war demonstrations, has also in the past had the largest marches of Christians proclaiming their faith. There is a marching culture in London which people are used to, and which is part of their democratic right.
Sometimes we fall into the temptation of so over-spiritualising Jesus’ life that we forget the political and social and economic consequences of what he did. Jerusalem was a place of marching too, a place of uprising and potential insurrection, a city in which there were many messiahs leading many causes with many followers. That what Jesus was doing was something more significant than just a symbolic action is suggested by the context in which the account of the entry into Jerusalem is given.
The three synoptic gospels agree that what we refer to as ‘the cleansing of the Temple’ – that great confrontation with the religious elite – was associated with the entry into Jerusalem. One of the problems with our liturgical readings is that for convenience we often divide stories one from another as if they were separate incidents, and thus lose the flow of the action.
One of the advantages of these ceremonies that we will be observing during Holy Week, and I hope that as many of us as possible will be able to make a real commitment to living out the whole of this week, is that we are touched with the strong sense of the unity of the events surrounding the passion and death of Jesus; we both read the accounts, and in our ceremonies follow the actions in one continuous movement. Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, and he enters the Temple precinct in rage.
But how, this week, are we going to treat the role of Jesus in the passion drama? Was Jesus the victim of historic events, caught up because of the divine destiny of God’s plan for him, which could not be altered? Or does Jesus have a choice about what he is going to do? Does Jesus know by some divine inspiration what is about to happen to him? Or is he – like his disciples appear to be — living for the moment, unaware of what will happen next? The seemingly insignificant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, accompanied by the poor, the marginalized and the dispossessed of the countryside, certainly threw the religious and political establishment into panic. It seemed to them that the whole world was following him. And it seems to me that this was a deliberate plan on the part of Jesus.
He had not arrived in the city in the manner in which those who were looking for some kind of alternative community had anticipated. Fed on a diet of messianic and apocalyptic literature, they awaited a warrior king who would ride on a magnificent steed at the head of an invincible army, and wipe out every trace of the corrupt and oppressive regime of the Romans. But Jesus knew that that would not work. You cannot construct a peaceful society on the basis of violence. No, to make his point about the kind of society that the Kingdom of God embraces, Jesus rode not on a war-horse, but on that silliest and most humble of creatures, the donkey.
He arrived not with armed men, but in the company of men and women whose poverty, commitment to truth and passion for justice were disarming. With the crowd expectantly buzzing around him, and the authorities feverishly plotting against him, he goes to the heart of the city, to the Temple, and he stands there and soaks it all in. He uses all his senses. He sees what is going on. He hears the prayers, the arguments, the clinking of coins. He smells the incense, the burning flesh of the animal sacrifices. And he senses that what he is experiencing is so wrong.
It was not simply that people were behaving inappropriately in the Temple. It was that the Temple itself which should have symbolised the love and the peace and the justice of God, had come to symbolise all that was corrupt and oppressive in the world. The Temple was literally the centre of the universe. In the Hebrew ideology, the Temple was the world’s great central pillar which separated the earth from the heavens. If it were not there in place then the whole of the known world would collapse and there would be nothing but chaos and darkness.
That was why, when Jesus spoke about the Temple being brought to ruin, with not one stone being left standing upon another, he was not just talking about the demise of a beautiful building, but the end of civilization as people knew it. Yet over the years, the religious and spiritual dimension to Temple life had been compromised by other activities – we have been challenged by that in our services this Lent. The Sanhedrin, the Great Council which had become the final arbiter of all criminal, political and religious matters, met in the Temple. The Commander of the Temple exercised the function we would today call Chief of Police. One Chief Priest served as Temple Treasurer and the Temple Treasury was to all intents and purposes the State Treasury, collecting local taxes, the revenues from great estates, and the contributions from Jews living overseas.
To ordinary men and women the Temple represented an immense concentration of power. All that was repressive and debilitating in terms of crippling taxation, the dominance of aristocratic families, the oppressive political and religious structures, and police brutality were located there in one form or another/if you had been asked to choose a single symbol of everything that was destructive of human freedom and dignity, it would have to be the Temple. So when he cleansed the Temple, Jesus was directly addressing the source of human oppression and suffering. His disruption of the Temple’s activities was not just an argument about separating religious from commercial activities. In doing what he did within that symbol of power, Jesus was embodying both the frustrations and the aspirations of the world’s oppressed people. This was a symbolic action, carefully conceived and brilliantly staged. Jesus is announcing that his movement is unstoppable. The final showdown with the authorities has been set up. The downtrodden will soon be free.
That is the context of the journey that we will be following this week in the company of Jesus and his followers. Jesus was building a new kin’ el of community, one that Christians believe can still be a reality today. That is the context in which we wave not palm branches, but palm crosses this morning. And it is an unsettling situation for all of us, because for Jesus’ disciples, the excitement of following him into the Temple would have been mixed with the fear of what would happen next.
And if we can capture some of that uncertainty and excitement in our own minds this week, then we top may experience afresh the drama which is ahead of us/Which brings us back to two haunting questions.
If that demonstration coming down St George’s Terrace wasn’t eco-warriors, but as on the first Palm Sunday was Jesus and his disarming followers, would we join him if we did not know the end of the story? And if this morning Jesus were to confront in Perth some symbol of everything which is dehumanising about human life, what do you think that symbol would be, and would we be willing to stand up with him and oppose it?