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This Sunday, which is Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week.
It is the beginning of a week full of drama – of hope and despair, of promises made and promises broken, of divine forgiveness and human folly, of Empire and God’s commonwealth.
<M> What are three events / things you remember of Holy Week?
I invite you to take time this week to read Mark 14 & 15, Luke 22 & 23, Matthew 26 & 27 – the chapters that narrate what transpired during Jesus’ last week.
Traditionally, we remember it as Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But why do we think it is triumphant? Was it because we were taught that it was Jesus’ triumphant entry?
All four Gospels recorded that there were many people – a large crowd – who laid their cloaks on the road, and shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Three of the Gospels – Mark, Matthew and John – mentioned that the crowd greeted Jesus with the palm branches. And this three Gospels recorded the crowd shouting “Hosanna!”
<M> What do you think Hosanna means?
(Those of you who have heard my sermon on Palm Sunday in 2019 may have an edge here. It is ok to get it wrong. I had been singing Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest as though it had the same meaning as Hallelujah! (Praise the Lord!)
In the Gospel according to Matthew 21:9, the crowds were shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.[c]
25 Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.[d]
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.[e]
38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”[b] is actually part of Psalm 118: – verse 26. And Hosanna is actually from verse 25: hoshiya na “meaning save us, we beseech you, O Lord!”
25 Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!
O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.[d]
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
That was very different what I first thought Hosanna means. Hosanna means save us!
I had been singing Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest as though it had the same meaning as Hallelujah! (Praise the Lord!) If you search online – lots of people explain Hosanna means “adoration, praise, or joy”
How did “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD” become “Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis?”
Perhaps it was lost in translation – from Hebrew, the language of the Jews, to Latin, the language of the Roman Empire.
Or perhaps it was something else. Who did the crowd want the Messiah to save them from?
The Roman Empire. And when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, then isn’t it a little ironic? Saving yourselves from the patron of your religion? It is just like asking the Russian Orthodox Church to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We get that right? Then we need to understand Palm Sunday in the context of everything that is happening at that time.
<M> What were people were heading into Jerusalem to celebrate? And what was this celebration about?
Passover – the festival that celebrates God liberating the Israelites from captivity in Egypt.
And what was the situation at that time then? Israel then was under Roman occupation. Isn’t it ironic to be celebrating liberation when they are occupied?
So when the crowds gathered was crying out for help – they were hoping that Jesus is the one God has sent to rescue them. Just like Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, just like Cyrus liberated them from Babylonian exile – they wanted someone to liberate them. They shouted Hosanna to the son of David, expecting Jesus to bring change.
Moses led the Israelites out of captivity after ten plagues struck the Egyptians, and Pharoah’s army perished in the sea after they crossed the Red Sea.
Cyrus, (Isaiah 45:1) who defeated the Babylonians in 539 BCE with military might and liberated the Judeans held captive in Babylon and allowed them to return to their homeland.
They were hoping that Jesus – one who performed miracles after miracles – will do the same to set them free.
But that didn’t happen.
Debie Thomas describes Palm Sunday as “a story about what happens when the God we want and think we know doesn’t show up, and another God — a less efficient, less aggressive, far less muscular God — shows up instead, and saves us in ways we didn’t know were possible.”
Being progressive Christians mean that we don’t stop at traditional understanding of Scripture but continuously interrogate what we have been taught and what we hold to be true to arrive at a deeper understanding and be as close to the truth as we can because we could be wrong.
The crowd got it wrong then.
Are we still getting it wrong?
We are still getting it wrong if we think the Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a victory march – no. It is a protest march. It is a march of resistance. It is a march that refuses to follow the ways of crowd, the ways of violence.
We get it wrong too, when we keep declaring Jesus as king, and secretly in our hearts, desiring to be treated like kings too. Personally, I believe the heart of Holy Week is Maundy Thursday. I wonder why so few churches commemorate it. Is it because we only pay lip service to being servants to each other? Is it because we are unwilling to serve?
When we sing “Forever our God is glorified,” do you think Jesus wanted glory? Who exactly wants glory?
Kneeling there to wash the disciple’s feet like a servant – was that glory? Not the kind of glory we understand. That is the kind of glory we should be seeking. The kind that is humble, the kind that does not seek attention, the kind that spills over from acts of great love.
I have to ask myself too – am I willing to love others as Christ has loved me? Am I willing to wash the feet of the stranger? Am I willing to wash the feet of the migrant worker? Am I willing to wash the feet of the least in our midst? Am I willing to wash the feet of the criminal on a death sentence?
Because that is what Maundy Thursday reveals – Maundy comes from the Latin word Mandatum which means Command – from the verse John 13:34 “I give you a new commandment, That ye love one another as I have loved you.”
I am so glad our T-mart project is stepping up not only to collect donations of groceries, but also to deliver it to them, to befriend them, and to have the opportunity to serve them and treat them as equals. This is what we are commanded. When we just donate, without encountering them, we are not treating them as equals and not loving them as Jesus loved us.
We get it wrong, when we see Easter Sunday as being just about resurrection and the life after death. Easter Sunday and resurrection is also about the life here and now. It is about God’s power – love – to overcome everything, even death.
Even though we get a lot of things wrong still, we need to take heart. After all, didn’t Jesus disciples get a lot of things wrong? But we need to be honest – and dig deep to reflect and see if we got it wrong, and be willing to change if we realise that we are. Open our eyes Lord!
Are we a crowd who cries out “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” and later shouts “Crucify him!”?
We may react like Peter – we may all reply very quickly “No! We will never be the ones shouting crucify him.”
When Jesus said in Mark 14:27 “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” Peter replied quickly “Even though all become deserters, I will not.”
But Jesus told him “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And Peter did deny Jesus 3 times, even after declaring “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.”
Do we think we are better than Peter? Peter, who had walked on water (even though it was a couple of steps)? Peter, who witnessed all the signs and wonders and miracles that Jesus performed first hand?
We may declare with our lips that “it is in dying that we will live,” but when the moment comes, we may not deny Jesus as explicitly as Peter and say “I do not know this man you are talking about,” but we will do a lot of theological acrobatics to say “this isn’t what Jesus meant when he said love each other as I have loved you.”
I believe we get it wrong when we support the death penalty.
I wasn’t aware of the protest against the death penalty in Hong Lim Park last Sunday. If I was, I wonder if I would have gone down to support. Would I have told myself “I am tired – I want to rest” or “it is raining” or, if I was maybe more honest “I don’t want to get into trouble, and I don’t want to “get FCC into trouble.”
In my silence, I have joined the crowd that shouts “crucify him!” In my silence, I have supported the death penalty.
Debbie Thomas – writes
“standing on this side of resurrection history as we do, it’s easy for us to skip past the cross at times, or to soften its sting with sentimentality. It’s easy for us to forget that two thousand years ago, Jesus’s death held no religious meaning whatsoever. No veneer of holiness, no hint of redemption, and absolutely no connection to God. For Jesus’s first followers, the cross was a state instrument of torture and death. Period. Imagine for a minute if the central symbol of our faith nowadays was an electric chair, or a lethal injection chamber, or a lynching tree.
Biblical historians tell us that it was not uncommon for the road to Jerusalem to be lined with crosses in Jesus’s day, each of them bearing a body. Anyone who took that road from their home to the market, or from the market to the temple, or from the temple to a friend’s house, would have no choice but to encounter those grim instruments of capital punishment on a regular basis.
Think once again about those crosses that lined the road to Jerusalem. Think about the fundamental passivity those crosses were meant to instill in the people who gazed up at them. And then think about Jesus willingly taking up one of those crosses and saying, “I will not stop for you. I will not choose safety at the expense of injustice and evil. I will not save my own skin while you keep killing the people I love.”
What would he say to my own frightened heart, that flees from all things cruciform, prioritizing self-protection over everything else that matters in this life?
The cross is not about remaining passive and fearful. The cross is not about admitting defeat. The cross is not about opting out. The cross is about shaking things up. The cross is about rattling the system to its core. The cross is about enduring whatever might happen to us when we confront, resist, and protest the injustices we see around us.
*Here and now, the cross is about saying: “It’s not enough that my children are safe on the streets if yours are not. It’s not enough that I have clean air to breathe when my neighbors two towns over do not. It’s not enough that I’ll have dinner to eat tonight if you will not. It’s not enough that my zip code grants me prestige and security while yours does not. It’s not enough that I feel welcomed and nourished by the church if you do not.”
To live a cruciform life is to live in the center of the world’s pain. Taking up the cross means recognizing Christ crucified in every suffering soul and body we encounter, and pouring our energies into alleviating that pain. It means accepting — against all the lies of our culture — that we will die, and following up that courageous acceptance with the most important question we can ask: how shall we spend this one, brief, singular, God-breathed life?
For those of us who’ve grown up in the church, the actual scandal and strangeness of Jesus’s death has maybe long faded away. But the bottom line is: God died. Jesus willingly took the violence, the contempt, the apathy, and the arrogance of this world, and absorbed them all into his body. He resisted the powers — terrifying as they were — and in doing so, declared solidarity for all time with those who are abandoned, colonized, oppressed, accused, imprisoned, beaten, mocked, and murdered. He took an instrument of torture and turned it into a vehicle of hospitality and communion for all people, everywhere. He loved and he loved and he loved — all the way to the end.
Dr Lai Ah-Eng wrote this recently on Facebook –
“Nearly 17 years ago, I “witnessed” one such case and tragedy which still haunts me. Briefly, Shanmugam Murugesu, then 38, a former jet ski champion and who served 8 years in the army and another 4 years in the Singapore Sports Council, was arrested in August 2003 after six packets containing a total of 1.03kg of cannabis were found in his bags when he returned home after a trip to Malaysia. He admitted to knowing about one of the packets containing 300g, but nothing about the others. His admission, repeated expressions of regret and co-operation with the authorities, including naming the contact who gave him the drugs to carry, proved futile for the divorced father of 14-year-old twin sons. He was sentenced to death despite his only previous conviction being a minor traffic offence. Shanmugam had his appeal dismissed, the President did not offer clemency and he was hung on 13 May 2005.
Before he was hung, Shanmugam’s twin sons frantically distributed pamphlets for public support and knelt in front of the Istana gates to plead for clemency by Singapore’s President for their father – this must be one the most heartbreaking images to come out of this episode, and indeed of Singapore.
There was also a forum organised in April 2005 and a candlelight vigil for Shanmugam on 6 May 2005 during which there were speeches and artistic performances. At the forum, his then 62-year-old mother pleaded to an audience of about 100 people. “Please don’t hang my son. This is the first time that he has committed a crime out of folly. Spare him!” At the vigil, candles were lit and messages written for Shanmugam. It was reported that even in the gallows, he asked why he was not given a chance to be rehabilitated when he remorseful about his one mistake. He pleaded with fellow Singaporeans and the international community to end the death penalty and stop hangings. No one, he added, knows the grief of the families and the dependents of those who are executed.
“Spare him” Shanmugam’s mother pleaded. In her cry I hear Hosanna.
The way of Christ is the way of love, the way of compassion, the way of forgiveness.
Pauline and I had lunch recently with Rabbis Miriam and Beni of United Hebrew Congregation. Rabbi Beni shared this “According to the Jewish (tradition) there are two thrones on which God sits – the throne of mercy – rachamim (from the Hebrew for womb, rechem) and the throne of judgment (din). To balance it out, God sits on the throne opposite to what the matter require to ensure fairness and compassion at the same time”
Justice without mercy is cruelty. Mercy without justice is the mother of all dissolution.” — Thomas Aquinas.
This is what Holy Week is about – “a less efficient, less aggressive, far less muscular God — shows up instead, and saves us in ways we didn’t know were possible.”
If we don’t see Holy Week as one overarching story, if we see Palm Sunday as triumphant, and rush through Good Friday to quicky arrive at Easter Sunday so we don’t have to deal with the difficult questions and challenges Holy Week pose to us, then we certainly have got it all wrong.
In other words, we will have missed the point. Then we are still following the way of the crowd.
The way of the crowd, I think, is part of human nature.
It is human nature to think that victory comes through power and violence.
It is human nature to seek to be kings – seeking to be served instead of being served.
It is human nature too, to give up hope and despair.
It is human nature to think that victory comes through power and violence. I have been obsessed about the Russian invasion of Ukraine since the beginning. I have been doomscrolling – constantly scrolling through new sites to keep up with the despressing news. I want the war to end. Yet, at the same time, I know that more violence isn’t the answer. I feel angry, and helpless. To resolve this invasion with more violence is the way of the crowd.
What I know is that we will continue to have wars and violence and deaths as long as we think violence is the solution. We are worshipping violence if we think violence is the solution. When we are able to lay down arms, beat swords to ploughshares – that will herald a time of true peace.
This line from Project Ploughshares, the peace research institute of The Canadian Council of Churches that works to advance policies and actions to prevent war and armed violence and build peace, really inspires me – and I hope inspires you too – that I believe reveals the way of Christ instead of the way of the crowd.
“The foundation and inspiration of our work in peacebuilding is the reconciling and renewing life, death, and resurrection of Christ and Christ’s moral teaching. The witness of Christ demonstrates that all people draw life from a single source and are members of one global community. Christ’s teaching demands that evil in human society be overcome with good and that justice and peace be built by means of love and nonviolent action.
“God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) This is not just a vision. It is a commandment.”
The way of Christ, the way of God is one of paradox, and one that requires great faith. Instead of meeting those who seek to harm or hurt us with clenched fists, or wielding weapons, we meet them with open arms.
The way of the crowd, the way of the World teaches us this – the stupidest way to resist evil is to get yourself killed.
What does Jesus teach us?
Perhaps to resist evil requires us to get killed – it will require our willingness to lay down our lives for it. And God will be with us – and God’s resurrection power will be shown through that. Just like how God reclaimed the symbol of death, an instrument of torture – the cross – and transformed it into a symbol of hospitality and communion and love for all people, everywhere. EVEN for the non-Christians – what’s that symbol on the ambulance?
God, save us from our worship of violence
Thinking that violence – war, capital punishment, hate – will solve our problems.
God, save us from our worship of glory
And help us see you, in Jesus, who knelt to wash our feet, and told us that is the way of true love.
Help us see the actual scandal and strangeness of Jesus’s death – that God, you died. Jesus willingly took the violence, the hate, the apathy, the selfishness, the real sins of this world, and absorbed them all into his body.
Jesus resisted the powers — terrifying as they were — and in doing so, declared solidarity for all time with those who are abandoned, colonized, oppressed, accused, abused, tortured, imprisoned, beaten, mocked, and murdered.
He loved and he loved and he loved — all the way to the end.
May we love and love and love all the way to the end too.
Freely You gave it all for us
Surrendered Your life upon that cross
Great is the love poured out for all (criminals, victims, Russians, Ukrainians, soldiers, civilians, drug traffickers, policemen, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Atheists, political, apolitical) POURED OUT FOR ALL.
This is our God
This is our God
Lifted on high from death to life
Forever our God is glorified
Servant and King rescued the world
This is our God