Palm Sunday

The Church and Political Protest

On 18th August our church held a “pop-up” event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. It was inspired by an earlier celebration at Manchester Cathedral which had pointed out that committed Christians had been involved on both sides of the political divide at Peterloo. Many non-conformist Christians had been helped organsie the protest but there were prominent clergymen amongst the group of magistrates who ordered the troops to disperse the crowd. We thus had a session to explore whether and how individual Christians and the church as an institution should engage in political protest today. This started hearing from two Quakers who are involved in protests against the arms trade, a representative of Extinction Rebellion and a Methodist minister involved in opposing expressions of hate against minorities. After this we had a time of open discussion of the issues followed by an act of worship.

During the worship we read Luke 19:37-48, the story of Jesus entry into Jerusalem and Palm Sunday and leading to him turning the table of the money-lenders in the courtyard of  the temple which led into this sermon.

Should Christians engage in political protest?

We’re so used to thinking of Jesus as a preacher and religious teacher that we often ignore his role as a prophet and political agitator. We sometimes consider him other-worldly, but much of his teaching reveals a very shrewd understanding of human nature and how the world works. He knew that the common people that he had grown up with were oppressed. The most obvious oppression was that coming from the Roman occupying forces, but Jesus also knew that within the local population the poor were oppressed by the rich. He was particularly saddened to see the many pharisees supporting this oppression either implicitly or explicitly. Much of his teaching, particularly through his parables, and many of his actions, make as much sense as political theory as they do as theology.

Let’s look at the story of Palm Sunday. We’ve heard this told so often in church services accompanied by children’s processions, the waving of palm branches and the singing of upbeat worship songs that we assume that this was originally a religious event. Jesus leads a procession into the city of Jerusalem from the east. It certainly had religious overtones, but it was also highly political. The only other person who would process through the city gates into Jerusalem was the Roman Governor accompanied by his troops.

It’s quite likely that the Governor, Pontius Pilate, was processing into the city from the west on that very day. Jerusalem always filled up with people at Passover. The crowds were generally peaceful but, just as the Magistrates at Peterloo considered it expedient to have over a thousand troops available just in case, so Pilate wanted troops who could disperse the crowd if necessary. In the lead up to the festival each year he would lead them into the city to remind the people who was in control. By staging an alternative procession into Jerusalem, Jesus was promoting himself as an alternative to Roman authority. His procession was no accident, Jesus had made elaborate plans (Luke 19:30) to ensure that a colt is available and that the demonstration would have maximum effective.

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38) sounds like a religious chant but it is first and foremost a political claim. If this is the King, then what authority does the Roman Governor or even Caesar himself have?

It’s for this reason perhaps that the pharisees rebuke Jesus (Luke 19:39). There was an uneasy coalition between the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. If the Jewish leaders ensured that the people were peaceful and paid their taxes, then the Romans allowed them to continue in positions of power and influence. The Pharisees are trying to hush Jesus and his followers up. “Keep quiet”, they are saying, “don’t you realise what trouble you could get into, and get us into”.

Jesus reply? ”I tell you if we keep quiet the very stones will shout out” (Luke 19:40). The signs of oppression and injustice are so clear that it doesn’t really matter whether we draw attention to them or not. This recognition drives him to tears (Luke 19:41). He weeps for a society that cannot even see the way to peace through justice and is destined for destruction as predicted by prophets like Amos (e.g. Amos 8:1-8).

Following his entry into the city he proceeds further to the Temple. He’s been there before. He knows what to expect. Although the Jewish authorities know that the Temple should be a house of prayer, he knows that they tolerate the money lenders as long as they are given a share of the profits. His actions are not an impulsive outrage at a surprising finding, they are pre-planned to create maximum effect in a response to a situation he knows he is going to encounter.

Although the procession appears to be in defiance of the Roman authorities and the turned tables were those of the money lenders, both protests are effectively against the Jewish authorities and their complicity with power (the Romans) and money (the money lenders). The Romans and money lenders didn’t, or couldn’t, know better but the Jewish authorities, so well versed in the Torah and words of the prophets, were guilty of ignoring both.

Jesus realised that imposing a solution with force could never work. The Romans imposed peace, and did it very effectively, but that imposed peace had a huge human and financial cost and could only last for as long as the force was there to impose it. Jesus advocated God’s peace, a peace that would last forever. That is only possible if it arises out of the people’s desire for justice.

Jesus’ chose particular actions not because they were likely to be effective in themselves. He knew that a small group of unarmed Galileans led by a man sitting on a donkey was no match for the might of Rome. He knew that upturned tables could be replaced almost immediately. Instead he wanted the people who saw what he was doing to start questioning what they regarded as inevitable and unchangeable. He wanted them to be incensed by the injustice of what was being imposed on them by the forces of power and wealth. He wanted them to first glimpse, then desire and then work for the peace that comes through justice rather than the sword.

So if you ask me, “Should Christians become involved in political protest”, I will answer with an unequivocal “yes”. Jesus planned and executed political protests himself, he showed us how to do it, he wrote the rule book. If we are called to follow Jesus then we should be following both his political agitation as well as his religious teachings. The question for me is not so much “if?” but “how?” and “when?”. It’s this that we’ve been tussling with earlier in the afternoon and that I hope we’ll pray about in the rest of the service.

Ride on, ride on in majesty?

800px-assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro_lorenzetti

Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1320) by Pietro Lorenzetti.

This is a sermon preached on Palm Sunday after a reading of Luke’s account of the “Triumphal Entry”.

I’ve preached here before on Palm Sunday. I know because I always find it a challenge to preach on Palm Sunday and I can remember facing up to that challenge here in a previous year. The challenge is that traditional perceptions of what Palm Sunday should be and my own reading of the scriptures disagree quite fundamentally. Traditionally Palm Sunday is perceived as a time of celebration – a time when the church celebrates with the crowd in Jerusalem before getting down to the real business of Holy Week.

When I read the scriptures that is not what I think is appropriate. If the crowd were celebrating (Luke’s gospel is inconclusive and can be read as suggesting that it was actually the disciples who were celebrating), they were celebrating for the wrong reason. The crowd wanted a political leader to free them from oppression. They wanted a competitor for Pilate who was probably progressing to his palace from the other side of city. For many of them, worn down by years of oppression and poverty, they may simply have wanted a party.

I don’t think, though, that Jesus was celebrating. He chose to ride on a donkey, the most humble of beasts. His is not a triumphant entry, it is a humble entry, even a penitential entry. Jesus knows that in entering Jerusalem he is signing his own death warrant. This is not a time of celebration for Jesus. It is the start of a long walk from freedom to death row. Make no mistake, Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week.

The lectionary hides this to a certain extent. It misses the point, it focuses on the celebration. It stops short of the two verses that make it clear that this is very far from a celebration in the eyes of Jesus. ‘He came closer to the city, and when he saw it, he wept over it, saying, “If you only knew today what is needed for peace! But now you cannot see it!”

Jesus weeps for Jerusalem, He sees the celebrating crowds and knows that they are celebrating for the wrong reasons. Put yourself in his shoes, you feel you’ve been sent by God to preach his word. You’ve spent the last three years travelling round the country preaching that word with a disparate groups of disciples and with no place to call home. You thought you were getting somewhere, you thought the people understood. You thought it was time to come to Jerusalem and proclaim God’s Kingdom in the holiest of cities … and when you get there you realise that no-one has understood you – that they’ve got it wrong. How would that make you feel? I suspect it would drive you to weep.

“If you only knew today what is needed for peace! But now you cannot see it!”

Don’t those words resonate for us today as we look around the world? As we watch our televisions, listen to our radios, read our newspapers. We can apply them literally to countries at war or at risk of war. If only we knew today what is needed for peace in Syria. Alternatively we can be more metaphorical and apply them to political turmoil caused by corrupt politicians in countries like Brazil. We can apply them to the fear of immigration that is threatening to dissolve 70 years of peace and cooperation within Europe. We can apply them to the war that we are fighting with our own planet. We can apply them to a war that is being fought within our society and as reflected in the recent turmoil within the conservative party between those who have much and want more and those who have very little. If only we knew today what was needed for peace – but we cannot see it. Palm Sunday is not a time to celebrate with the crowd but a time to empathise with Jesus and weep with him.

But it is more than that – it is also a time of hope. Jesus felt all these things. He must have wondered if all his sacrifices so far had been in vain. He must have wanted to get off that donkeys back, turn around and walk back to a quiet life in the rural town from which he had come. But he didn’t, he continued riding forwards, through the gates and into the city. For all that he must have questioned whether he was being successful or not, he knew that this was his purpose. Recognising how little the people knew of God’s Kingdom he was even more determined than ever to explain it to them. According to Luke’s Gospel he rode straight on to the Temple and began to drive out those who did not understand what the Temple was for, “It is written in the Scriptures that God said, ‘My Temple will be a house of prayer.’ But you have turned it into a hideout for thieves!” Jesus turned his disappointment and pity into motivation to follow God even more actively. Rather than turning away in despair he upped his game in hope.

There are many reasons for the contemporary church to share Jesus’ disappointment, pity and perhaps even despair. As I’ve already noted there are all sorts of situations in our world where what is needed is peace but where society cannot see how to achieve it. After a period of perhaps a thousand years when the church has dominated society within Europe it is in serious decline. Our congregations are getting older, they are getting smaller and in many cases are disappearing. To many of us the society in which we live seems to have turned away from God. Jesus preached of God’s Kingdom for three years only to discover, on his arrival in Jerusalem, that no-one had understood. Has the church in Europe been preaching the same message for a thousand years with the same result?

There is, of course, a complex answer to this question. Whilst there are undoubtedly many aspects of modern society that lead us to despair, considerable progress has been made. We live in a democracy in which all people regardless of gender, wealth, race or physical ability have equal rights. Slavery has been abolished (if not eradicated entirely). Western Europe, at least, has left behind war and recognised that political cooperation is the pathway to future prosperity. For all the tensions within our education, healthcare and welfare systems we recognise that the extent to which we educate our children, care for the ill and support the disadvantaged are measures of the health of our society. Many of these things have been driven by Christians active within society and most of the rest has been driven by a contemporary value system which, whilst becoming apparently more secular, is a direct consequence of that thousand years of Christian teaching.

All this, it can be argued, is a result of Jesus not turning back, of him putting aside his personal sense of despair and focussing on God and the world’s need for His Kingdom, of a recognition that whilst that Kingdom will not appear overnight it will come. It is the result of Jesus placing hope at the centre of his mission.

Let’s do the same. Let’s look at the progress that the world has made through the time of Christendom and give thanks. We should by all means look at the contemporary world and recognise that the completion of God’s kingdom still seems only a far off prospect. But we should recognise that it is a progress that has started, that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Our role as a church, however, small or apparently impotent we may feel ourselves, is to hold up God’s light to the world, to proclaim the Good News, to offer up Hope. In a world that is desperate for peace we must show how this can be attained.  If Jesus, sitting on that donkey, in the middle of a crowd that was celebrating for the wrong reasons, and conscious of the hostile establishment within Jerusalem could continue to hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, then so to can we. Amen.