Jesus’ Politics – April 14, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
In the name of our all-loving God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. AMEN.
Today is the first day of Holy Week, the most important days in the church year, marking the last week of Jesus’ life. The Church’s observance of Holy Week with its various liturgies is intended to be experiential and incarnational for us all. We are being asked to invest our time and our very selves in these liturgies, by physically participating in the services as we are able. By having our feet washed on Thursday or washing another’s. By keeping watch with the Sacrament. By walking the Stations of the Cross. By kneeling, bowing, keeping silence. This is our work this week, our liturgy. I invite, no implore, you to participate as much as you are able.
And we begin Holy Week with Palm Sunday, marking Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Many churches include the reading of the Passion today; here at St. Paul’s, we focus on Palm Sunday itself. To begin, I want to put this story into context, not only the biblical story of Jesus’ life, but in the importance of this event to early Christians. The story of the palm procession in Jerusalem that we just heard is one of the few stories of Jesus that can be found in all four gospels. That fact alone should call our attention to its importance. Interestingly in today’s version, there is no mention of palms.
Jerusalem at Passover time was teeming with people. People who lived there, thousands and thousands of pilgrims who had come there from all over the known world, to celebrate the annual festival of deliverance from bondage. Passover was meant to invoke and memorialize the divine act of liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian oppression. And the Romans were worried about insurrection, revolt at this season. This is why Pontius Pilate and his legions, his armies, left the comfortable confines of his palace in on the Mediterranean coast, Caesarea Marittima for the provincial, backwater space of Jerusalem, to make sure the Jewish population knew who was in charge.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a prophetic action. It is planned. It is an overt political statement. He has been heading toward Jerusalem for the past 10 chapters in Luke’s Gospel, when “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51).
Jesus knows his own tradition, he knows what happens to prophets, that prophets are killed in Jerusalem. He knows that what he is doing is dangerous, and so there’s an element of secrecy to his actions. He tells his disciples to go into the village and untie a colt and bring it; if there’s any question, just say the secret password, “The Lord needs it”, and everything will be okay. And it is.
So Jesus gets on the colt and people spread their cloaks and start cheering him. Riding a colt was a symbol of peace and humility, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9). The words Luke uses to describe the crowd’s affirmations echo his Christmas story and the song of the angels who sang when Jesus was born, “Peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). Now, as Jesus rides his colt toward Jerusalem, the people look to the sky and sing, “Peace in heaven.” Heaven sings of peace on earth. Earth echoes back, “Peace in heaven.” Throughout his Gospel, Luke presents a Jesus who embodies peace.
The people’s cry, “Blessed is the king” reiterates their hopes and dreams. The hope is genuine. The crowds are sincere in their praise of Jesus. Among the people waving their palms, spreading their cloaks and shouting their joy are those Jesus has healed, those he has fed, those who have received his words as good news, as Luke says, “for all the deeds of power they had seen.” Those who for so many years had felt themselves locked out of the community — the marginalized and excluded — are now restored to society. Jesus affirmed them. They are truly grateful.
At the same time, they dream and anticipate that the oppressive Roman rule will be finally overthrown by this hero riding on a colt. There’s a glitch, however. When they start to proclaim Jesus as king, they’re saying that Caesar is not the king. It borders on treason.
Even if Jesus is heralded as king, he is no normal king. He is no Caesar. The way in which Caesar conducted business was through force, fear, and bloodshed; he was the human epitome of power. In fact, he was even viewed as a god. Jesus’ “kingdom” is one of peace and forgiveness and selflessness. Antithetical to the kingdom of Caesar.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was revealing that the reign or kingdom of God stands in stark contrast to the reign of Rome and every other political system that seeks triumphant victory by influencing people through violence and coercion. The Gospel of Jesus subverts the politics of violence because the Gospel is the politics of humility, service, forgiveness, and a nonviolent love that embraces all people of every race and religion and ethnicity, but especially those we call our enemies.
The world of Jerusalem 2000 years ago and our own world in the 21st century are not all that different. So many of the same issues dominate, violence, racism, oppression, fear of the other, poverty, suffering. And we mostly tend to live by the politics of Rome, rather than the politics of Jesus. Whenever we use power over others, whenever we use force or coercion as our most trusted tool, whenever we demean or denigrate others, whenever we demand and/or use weapons of war, we are following the politics of Rome.
Fortunately, Jesus revealed the alternative. He called it “The Kingdom of God.” It’s a political way of life based not on triumphant violence, but rather humble service. The politics of Jesus makes sure everyone has daily bread, it seeks to forgive debts and sins, it avoids the temptation to commit evil against our neighbors, and it calls us into a life of forgiveness.
But this is risky. We know that the politics of Jesus led him to Good Friday, where he suffered and died. And yet he stayed true to the Kingdom of God, speaking words of forgiveness even as he was murdered, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
The Kingdom of God is not just a call to a personal ethic; it’s a political ethic. Indeed, the politics of Jesus seeks to influence not just our personal lives, but it also seeks to influence our political lives. Wherever personal or political systems use violence, power, and coercion to be triumphant and victorious, Jesus beckons us to follow him into a different kind of politics – into the Kingdom of God that lives and dies by love, service, and forgiveness.
Palm Sunday and Holy Week are unsettling because the story reveals so much about us, reminding us of our transient tendencies, or our “cut-and-run” proclivities. This is me and this is you. At the same time, Holy Week reminds us of God’s amazing mercy and love. And so, on this Palm Sunday, the question we each face is, what response will we make? Will we be bystanders waving our palms, not risking participation? Or will we engage with Jesus, share in his Passion through this Holy Week, and accept his love for us and for all persons, everywhere.
Michael Joseph Brown, Commentary on Luke 19:28-40, March 16, 2016.
Bartlett, David L. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 5142-5185). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Adam Erickson, “The Subversive Politics of Palm Sunday”, March 16, 2016.