You have heard it said to them of old, that “Jesus Saves”, but I say to you this morning, consider if it could be that “it is HE who needs OUR salvation”. Could it be that “it is God who needs OUR salvation?”Today is one of the most important days in our Christian calendar — Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday.
This day marks the move from Lent to the beginning of Holy Week. It is not just about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, amidst waving of palm leaves, praise and celebration because in reality the week moves on to the trial and the agony of Jesus’ death. We are very familiar with the common and widespread understanding of Jesus’death – movies have been made about his passion. We are very familiar with the central message of Christianity. That Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven. Good Friday is about Jesus as the sacrifice for our sins and Easter is about the promise of life beyond death, our eternal life in heaven.
No doubt, this understanding has had good results and has changed the lives of many over the centuries. But together today, shall we take a close look at the story of Holy Week and Jesus’ death in its 1st century context of early Christianity – for those who first wrote about these events, to try and see more clearly what they thoughtit meant for them in their time.
There is a lot of biblical text about the events of Holy Week and in fact they are all chosen as lectionary readings for today, including that of the well-known passion narrative. The lectionary texts selected are the most history-like part of the Gospels. Complete with political intrigue, confrontation and conflict, plotting and scheming, betrayal, agony, death and grief.
Scholars tend to focus on Mark’s gospel because it is considered the earliest of the four Gospels, and the primary source for the later gospel writers, Matthew and Luke. The gospel of Mark was reckoned to be written 60-70 years after Jesus’ death. Eyewitnesses were likely quite old by then, and the author more likely drew from oral stories that were handed down.
I show you this to highlight how careful Mark was in detailing the eight days of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, specifying “morning” and “evening” for some of these days:
“When they were approaching Jerusalem” (11:1) – Palm Sunday
“On the following day” (11:12) – Monday
“In the morning” (11:20) – Tuesday
“It was two days before the Passover” (14:1) – Wednesday
“On the first day of Unleavened Bread” (14:12) – Maundy Thursday
“As soon as it was morning” (15:1) – Good Friday
“The Sabbath” (15:42, 16:1) – Holy Saturday
“Very early on the first day of the week” (16:2) – Easter Sunday
So let’s begin our journey-
The week begins with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, the Holy City and the center of Jewish devotion, the place of God’s presence in the temple. However also a city that had become the center of collaboration between religious authorities and Roman imperial power. The high priest and his circle of aristocratic families owed their positions of power and wealth to appointment by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem from the east in a procession riding on a donkey cheered by his followers who lay down their cloaks in front of his path, as if rolling out a“red carpet” for him.At the same time, scholars have alerted us to a another procession – a Roman imperial procession of troops and cavalry entering the city from the west, headed by Pilate. Their purpose was to reinforce the Roman garrison stationed near the temple for the season of Passover, when thousands of Jewish pilgrims filled the city.
Be reminded that the festival of Passover was to celebrate God’s “passing over”the houses of Israelites marked with lamb’s blood when God imposed the last most horrible plague upon Pharoah’s Egypt – the slaying of their first-born sons, because Pharoah refused to free the Jewish slaves. So the mood of Jesus’ entry was a time of celebration, of great joy, excitement and hope among the Jewish people. And the joyful crowds welcome Jesus like royalty.
Compare Jesus’ entry and Pilates and his troops’ entry – it foretells the main conflict that will unfold during the rest of the week. Jesus’ entry on a donkey was symbolic, signifying peace, non-violence and humility. Pilates’ troops entered on war horses, a cavalry as well as foot soldiers, and with drums, and with banners waving. Two distinctly contrasting processions – the way of Jesus and the way of the empire.
Mark recounts that Jesus carefully planned his way of entering the city. In Mark 11:2 we hear Jesus giving specific instructions to two of his disciples to
“Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it” – true enough they find this colt, verse 4 continues – “tied near a door, outside in the street”. So we can say that Jesus deliberately planned the manner in which he was to enter Jerusalem. It was his way of staging a peaceful “political demonstration”. Jesus knew the Torah well and drew on the prophet Zechariah, who mentioned the king entering Jerusalem on a donkey to banish the weapons of war from the land and speak peace to the nations.On Monday, Jesus performs another provocative public demonstration. In the courtyard of the temple, he overturns tables of the money changers, and declares in Mark 11:17 “you have made it (the temple) a den of robbers.” He accuses the priests and scribes of robbery, of collaborating with the Roman rulers to unjustly rob or exploit the people. How?
Well, once a year in a period just before Passover, temple tax is collected and paid in a particular coinage, the Tyrian shekel. It is of 94% or more silver content as opposed to the 80% silver content of Roman coins, which was the common currency of commerce. So pilgrims had to exchange their common Roman currency for this particular Tyrian coinage to pay the temple tax. At who knows what rate! Animals were also required to be sacrificed in the temple and they were to be ‘without defect or blemish’ so pilgrims often bought a spotless animal once they arrived in Jerusalem. These sacrifices were a necessary prerequisite for entering into the temple, into presence of God to obtain forgiveness of sins. So the temple claimed a monopoly on access to God and thus, a monopoly on forgiveness.Keep in mind that throughout his public ministry Jesus forgave sins without any need for going to the temple; in effect upstaging the temple. So you could say Jesus embodied a radical alternative to the temple. “Go, your sins are forgiven” you often hear Jesus say. In this 1st century context, it is indeed a profoundly radical statement to make. A proclamation of God’s radical grace! So Jesus was not against commercial activities in the temple as many have said, but rather he symbolically wanted to stop the injustice and to stand up for those who were exploited by the domination system of his time.
From that moment, Jesus fate is sealed.
Mark writes in verse 18 , “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard this, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching”. They said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (Mark 14:2)
So the conflict and confrontation continues and on Tuesday, the authorities confront Jesus in the temple courtyard, seeking to get him to say something that will discredit him with the crowd but they fail.
On Wednesday, the authorities find a betrayer who will lead them to Jesus when he is alone.
On Thursday Jesus has a final meal with his followers and then, in the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane, is arrested.
On Friday, he is beaten, tortured, mocked as “King of the Jews,” and crucified. At mid-afternoon he dies and his body is placed in a tomb.
On Sunday, some of his women followers find his tomb empty and an angel declares to them: “He is not here – he is risen.” This is where Mark ends his narrative – at the empty tomb. The later gospel writers Matthew and Luke add stories of Jesus appearing to his followers.
So having studied the events that happened during Holy Week, even in this very cursory way, do we get a sense of why Jesus died? Bearing in mind that Jesus didn’t simply die. He was executed.
The mode of his execution is highly significant: in that world, crucifixion meant “executed by Rome.” A cross was always an imperial cross, reserved for those who defied imperial authority. Jesus was killed – he didn’t just die. He was executed by the powers that ruled his world.So why did they execute Jesus? Yes, because he defied imperial authority. He challenged the injustices and angered the religious and political authorities. The historical answer is clear.
When we read the story, study the narrative closely – it does not speak specifically of Jesus dying to save us, does it?Instead, it speaks of an angry mob, a governor who feels he can do nothing, a corrupt justice system, and a society caught in the tension of Roman rule and the desire for Jewish independence, while the poor were marginalized, and one man who did not fit into any of the groups fighting for a new kind of world where justice rules, who becomes the scapegoat. Innocent but sentenced to death as a criminal.
Study the narrative closely and we see religious authorities arguing while the poor are suffering and kept out of the temple unless they could afford the taxes, priests and lawyers more concerned with keeping the law than the people hurt by strict interpretations– let me ask you, are these not the sins of the world? Did perhaps Jesus die because of our sins instead of for our sins?Reflect on Jesus’ life from boyhood. We easily imagine Jesus being brought up to ask lots of questions. He did so even as a boy in the temple. One Passover when he was twelve, he went missing for a few days and his parents found
him in the Temple, sitting with the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. All who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and his answers.
We read that Jesus grows in power and understanding and reaches adulthood. After some time with his cousin, the rabble-rousing prophet John the Baptist (who was also later executed), Jesus retreats into the wilderness where he undergoes an intense challenge within his deepest self about his identity.Satan challenges him to clarify if he is “the Son of God”. Yes, but Jesus stands firm on what kind of“Son of God” he is – NOT the kind that Satan offers based on power and control. Jesus takes the role of a suffering servant, one who brings healing to the world by not only bringing good news to the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised, BUT by walking and suffering with them. AND by challenging the people in political and religious power. AND he did this with open hands—no swords or guns, no war horses and tanks, no police or military. AND importantly he brings the good news and healing NOW (then) in earthly life.
Can you not see that it was precisely Jesus’ calling and Jesus’ passion for this kindom on earth that led ironically to his own passion in the sense of his suffering and death. We have had many who’ve come before us taking up their own crosses – Bishop Oscar Romero, Dr Martin Luther King to name a couple but there have been many nameless souls of people of conscience who faced hardship, even death, simply due to following the path Jesus walked— the path of radical welcome, compassion, dissent, saying no to the powers-that-be.
If you are still not convinced, let me add that the idea of Jesus dying in our place to pay for our sins was actually not evident at the time of ancient Christianity. It was the theology of the early church fathers, first developed in the 11thcentury (a thousand years after Jesus’ death, if you can fathom that time lag) by St Anselm of Canterbury and later refined by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and John Calvin in the 16thcentury.
Even in the earliest documents of the New Testament, by the apostle Paul, we are provided an interpretation of one who has most powerfully shaped the generations, for better or worse. He wrote about 50 odd years after Jesus’ death, and we see a theology so complex and so dense that scholars continue to this day to grapple with Paul’s ideas. But even Paulunderstood salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world. For Paul, salvation is a gift of a relational God who seeks to free us from bondage, sin and death.
According to Paul in Romans 1–3, the most extended argument he put forth, the fundamental need humanity has is to be freed from or saved from the power of sin. He defines “sin” as being most identified with idolatry, where human beings do not give God gratitude for what is but rather put their trust in worldly things, often exchanging wholeness for brokenness. And Paul speaks of himself as being crucified with Christ– the old Paul has died and a new Paul whose identity is now in Christ has been born. He, at the time, already speaks of following Jesus metaphorically as “dying and rising” – a metaphor for interior transformation.In fact, female theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson in her piece, “The Word was Made Flesh and Dwelt Among Us” tells us that there were in those days already diverse NT metaphors for what Jesus “did for us”.
There were –
business metaphors: buying, redeeming, ransoming
medical metaphors: healing and wholeness
legal metaphors: justification or acquittal
political metaphors: liberation, deliverance, freedom
military metaphors: victory over the opposing powers
cultic metaphors: sacrifices, atonement
relational metaphors: dividing walls removed, proximity after distance
family metaphors: adoption as children
but Western theology has largely adopted the cultic metaphors of sacrifice and atonement, and displaced the earlier diversity of interpretations of Jesus’ death.They focus “.. on the cross, moreover, leads to the idea that death was the very purpose of Jesus’ life. He came to die; the script was already written before he stepped onto the world stage. This not only robs Jesus of his human freedom, but it sacralizes (makes sacred) suffering more than joy as an avenue to God. It tends to glorify violent death as somehow of value”.
Elizabeth Johnson insists that we must redress this imbalance in Western theology and appreciate the rich vocabulary of salvation. And assign value to the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry, not just his final hours; with the resurrection as the definitive action of God in not allowing death to have the last word.
She goes on to say that
“ Jesus, far from being a masochist, came not to die but to live and to help others live in the joy of the divine love. To put it boldly, God the Creator and Lover of the human race did not need Jesus’ death as an act of atonement but wanted him to flourish in his ministry of the coming reign of God. Human sin thwarted this divine desire yet did not defeat it”.
And for Korean theologian, Andrew Sung Park, western theology has historically had a one-sided perspective of sin.
He says “ sin must take on a bilateral perspective, one which looks at salvation , justification and sanctification not only in terms of sin, but also of the han(a Korean concept describing the depths of pain of human suffering)” of victims – victims whose very souls are broken, those who are abused or abandoned.For Park, there exists a relationship between the two that cannot be excluded one from the other. Salvation must be liberating to both the sinner and sinned against. How many of us while watching Jesus’ agony in Mel Gibson’s movie, look beyond his agony to the agony of victims – the sinned against? And feel their pain?
Park continues, “for over 2000 years the church has paid a great deal of attention to the spiritual well-being of sinners while generally neglecting the healing of the sinned-against.” So our vocabulary is dominated by doctrines of repentance, forgiveness, Justification, sanctification and salvation. What about the poor victims of our sins?
“We think of the cross of Jesus as the emblem of forgiveness and redemption, but we scarcely acknowledge its significance as the piercing suffering of God as victim.”Closer to home, Sharon Bong, Catholic Malaysian lecturer in gender studies at Monash University in KL, images a suffering Christ as women (and men) who are dehumanized. For her, that is embodied theology – faithful to Christ’s preferential option. Bodies that suffer are those who KNOW suffering.
It was contemporary theologians like these who begun to speak of God’s suffering on the cross with Jesus. God suffers because God loves. God suffers not because God is not all-powerful, but because of a love that is so strong it cannot ignore human suffering. Human suffering that breaks and wounds God’s heart. God did not require Jesus to die in our place to save us. It was God who suffered on the cross with Jesus out of a love for Jesus, and all victim of han. We need to save God from this suffering, which is why Park says, it is God who needs our salvation – from which I draw the tile of my message this morning.
Do you see how exploring the nature of different religious ideas in our world can be not only fascinating but
critical? Do you see how exploring theologies of people with different perspectives – through the eyes of women, of ethnic minorities –eg. Asian as opposed to western people, sexual minorities like us, enrich the conversation? The western capitalist thinking has long focused on God as one who is all powerful and incapable of suffering. God is at the top of the totem pole, below God comes the angels, below angels, white men, below white men, white women and children, below them ethnic minority men, then ethnic minority women and children, below them animals, below them plants …This way of thinking of God, these categories of patriarchy, economic & cultural & racial discrimination have led to oppressing, exploiting, maiming and killing. One culture becomes superior to the other, one gender becomes superior to the other, one race becomes superior to the other. These were the “sins” that Jesus died for in his passion for the true kindom of God. So I contend that – Jesus did not die to save us from our sins. He died to free us – to empower us to save the world by being all that we can be in His image.
There are many scholars doing theology, working out their salvation with fear and trembling. But in the pews of mainline churches hardly anyone wants to offer us insights into their intriguing work and thinking. This is why you should continue to come to FCC …. Because we are faithful enough to challenge what some religious authorities mindlessly dictate as the only way to interpret scripture, or the only way to salvation, etc etc.Many of them mostly focus on personal morality, on forgiveness when and where we fall short, and heaven in the end.Still the majority form of Christianity with its own appeal. But it makes for focus on moral issues – like abortion, contraception, abstinence, and closer to us, sexual orientation and same-sex marriage.
Do we want to focus our faith instead, on seeking to transform the world, standing up and speaking out for what Jesus was passionate about. His passion for transformation – personal and corporate– on ssues of human rights, economic and social justice, issues of ecology. His passion was to see the coming of the kindom of God on earth. God’s kindom is not so much about life after death, but about a just and peaceful life on earth. This is God’s dream, and God’s Kindom.
Some of you may be asking, why can’t I just stick to the beliefs I’ve always had? What I have been used to believing, what has worked for me. After all, it ain’t broke. Well, you sure can. In fact it is somewhat heartening that an illiterate person in the pew can also find spiritual support knowing s/he is loved, and saved to go to heaven. God can offer a minimalist option to us and perhaps it is us who make God more complicated than necessary. If you were to ask Jack Miles (author of God: A Biography) to tell you his thoughts about God, he’ll first ask you, “Well, how complicated a God do you want?”
In a way, I have perhaps made things a little too complicated for you this morning. But perhaps you were supposed to be here for such a Sunday as this . But seriously, the test is our hearts – our hearts are restless till they find rest in God, and only you know when your restless heart finds rest. My heart is still restless, still questioning, still giving God a hard time – so I am not there yet. At least, that’s how I see it.
In his book, Jack Miles also asks us to recall the questions that Jesus asks the crowd about John the Baptist? “What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What did you go out to see? A man in soft garments? What did you go out to see? A prophet? We go out to see but not quite knowing why or what.
What do we go to see when we go to church? To see someone speaking out loud from the pulpit and reassuring us that God is real, present, almighty, all powerful and will save us from every bad situation we find ourselves in? Miak, Pauline, Gary, others in our church leadership become our loyal designated believers – almost the sacrificial lambs, keeping our image of God consistent, teaching and guiding us, doing the work of thinking, and bleeding for us. They really don’t have to be strong for us, especially not in a church like FCC where we freely admit we often have uncertainties and doubt; we often have differing views; and where we are continually working out our salvation.
So let us admit that we are “almost agnostic”. It is not that we admit “we don’t know” but that “we don’t know …..yet”.And we are always open to new ideas about our mysterious and creative God. Agreement and consensus do not bind us together in this church –something else does and that is Love – the love we have for each other and the love we demonstrate for others in society (especially those who are in need of love). For Paul says that we can have faith that moves mountains but it is nothing, absolutely nothing, without Love. And Jesus tells us over and over that the Love we show for the least of our brethren is the Love we show for him.
So where is the hope of Easter that we will celebrate next Sunday? We know the story – we know it doesn’t end at the cross, that death will be defeated at the cross.
But until then, do we find any hope as Christ goes to the cross, humbly, to become one with the forsaken? The victims?
Do we find any hope today in the one-room flats just around the corner?
Do we find any hope today in the wards of IMH?
Do we find any hope today in the migrant worker shelters?Or are WE called to bring this hope into the world? Are WE called to accompany Jesus to Calvary this week, not just as spectators, but to also carry the cross with him? We have a part to play, a cross to bear, if we are willing.
Are we willing together, to help save God? AMEN.