A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor of New Millineum Church, of Little Rock, Ark., March 28, 2010.
Luke 19:28-40; Philippians 2:5-11
There were two processions into Jerusalem that Passover week of the first Palm Sunday. We read in the gospels about Jesus riding a borrowed donkey and entering the city from the east. We read about people throwing their cloaks along the way before him. We read that his followers sang, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” And we read that some of the Pharisees [not all Pharisees opposed Jesus, by the way, so we must be careful] were displeased and urged Jesus to direct his followers to stop their chanting, but that Jesus refused to do it.
But there was another procession into Jerusalem that week. Scholars have concluded that Pontus Pilate, the Roman governor over Palestine, entered the city from the west with the customary accessories of imperial power. Pilate came with horses, not a donkey. Pilate, the Roman representative of Caesar, entered Jerusalem riding a chariot. Pilate came to Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week to make sure that no insurrection took place. After all, Passover week was when the Hebrew people remembered their deliverance by God from slavery under the Egyptian empire. The Romans did not want to become the new Egyptians, so Pilate came to Jerusalem with chariots, stallions, and armed troops.
Perhaps this is why some Pharisees urged Jesus to hush the crowd as it sang “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” They seemed to understand that Jesus was more than a religious teacher to those singers. Jesus was a political force ”a ruler acclaimed by the masses. After all, the crowd sang, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” Pilate was in town to make sure no king challenged the authority of Caesar. Now there was Jesus, being heralded by the common people as a king.
We know that at the end of the week the popular sentiment would turn against Jesus. We know that on Good Friday, the shout would be “crucify him.” But on Palm Sunday, the refrain was “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” And in that refrain, we are presented with the contrast between Jesus and Caesar, the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. What are we to make of it all?
Following Jesus is a political choice. Some Christians are convinced that following Jesus has nothing to do with politics because faith in God does not involve social and political concerns. That is an odd way to understand the Bible. After all, Jacob and his family entered Egypt because of a social condition called a famine. They were protected by Joseph, whose political rank and influence was exercised to preserve them during the famine. Moses led Jacob’s descendants from Egypt and away from slavery. Gideon led the Hebrew people against the terrorism and military oppression of the Midianites. The God we meet in the Bible works on, through, and around social and political regimes and situations to love and redeem humanity.
However, in Jesus that work operates through one person rather than the entire ancestry of Abraham. In Jesus, the justice of God loves us. In Jesus, righteousness is defined by love, not based on force. In Jesus, we are lovingly chosen, not forcefully conquered.
Yes, Glenn Beck, in Jesus piety has implications for policy. Sick people are healed. Ostracized people are embraced. Notorious outcasts are reclaimed. In Jesus, God’s love is plainly and unapologetically displayed as the great law of life. There is no life without that love, no law without that love, and no true liberty without that love.
In Jesus, grace is good government, and good government is characterized by grace. In Jesus, power is exercised to lift us, not oppress us. In Jesus, we are delivered, not dominated. In Jesus, God shows us that love is always the best law, and that law without love is simply Caesar and Pilate, no matter what kind of politics we practice or what name we place on it.
Sadly, American Christianity appears to prefer Caesar to Jesus. It is one thing when this preference is chosen by people who maintain their distance from Christ. But when people who sing Amazing Grace on Sunday denounce the love of God that includes every person and the whole creation a few breaths later, they have chosen the mind of Caesar and Pilate. Their piety has been exposed in their politics, and they have chosen Pilate and Caesar over Jesus Christ, while shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Choose the life of Christ, not a label! Perhaps this explains Paul’s urgency when he wrote Christians at Philippi saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death ”even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8) Following Jesus Christ is a call to servant living in obedience to him who was the greatest servant. We are called to live humbly with each other and before God. We are called to live sacrificially with each other and before God. We are called to live obediently with each other and before God. We are called to a new and higher life, not merely a label. Christianity is a life, not a label.
The life of Christ is chosen, not forced. Jesus calls us to follow him, but does not force us. Jesus calls us to empty our prideful notions of self-importance, self-sufficiency, and self-righteousness. Jesus calls us to take up the donkey life, rather than the stallion. Jesus calls us to be agents of love and peace and justice in the face of conflicts, not agents of hate, confusion, and oppression. But none of these things will define our living unless and until we have chosen to live obediently to God’s love law as displayed by Jesus. Following Jesus is a choice about how to live.
Following Jesus is a choice about what we believe truly makes for peace, truth, justice, and community. Following Jesus is a choice away from the greedy race to look bigger, better, and stronger than our neighbors. Following Jesus is a choice to love people because God loves them rather than because of what they can do for us. Following Jesus is a choice to forgive because God forgives rather than because we can gain an advantage. And, let us never forget that following Jesus is a choice to sacrifice ”even to the point of self-denial ”rather than stand on our privileges while others suffer.
Notice that having the mind of Christ is something that we choose. God does not force the mind of Christ on us. God does not force us to humble ourselves. God does not force us to give up the notions of self-righteousness, self-importance, and self-sufficiency that are all too popular in human experience. Jesus became a servant by choice. Jesus sacrificed his divine privileges by choice. Jesus emptied himself by choice. That choice defined his living. It also beckons anyone who would follow Jesus.
Jesus or Caesar? Whose mind is governing your life? Are the choices of your living being governed by the example of Jesus or that of Caesar?
There are suffering people around us. Are we like Jesus or Caesar concerning their situations? There are sorrowful people around us. Are we embracing them in their grief or do we stand distant from them? There are ostracized people among us who cannot enjoy acceptance and who are treated as if they do not matter. Are we identifying with them, affirming them, speaking up for them, standing with them, willing to even suffer loss for their sake?
On Palm Sunday, we have contrasting images of what kind of leadership we are following, and what kind of living we have chosen for ourselves. We have contrasting examples of the kind of rulers we respect. Can we handle the truth about that contrast?
When will we admit that the way of Jesus is better than that of Caesar? Will we admit that the example of Gandhi, King, Tutu, Mandela, and so many other servants of God’s love and peace is more like Jesus than wars of shock and awe, tanks and fighter jets, stealthy unmanned drones or land mines? Will we admit that the way of the donkey-riding carpenter-preacher is better than the way of the imperial ruler?
If we truly believe that Jesus is Lord, then let us follow his life by our living. Let us show by our actions that we have chosen to follow the servant leader named Jesus. Let us not be afraid to hail him as the king who comes in the name of the Lord, but not merely by our words. Let us hail him as king by our living. Let us hail him as king by the way we love the whole creation and all its inhabitants. Let us hail him as king by forsaking our self-importance, self-righteousness, and self-sufficiency. Let us live like Jesus, love like Jesus, serve like Jesus, and even desire to suffer and die like Jesus.
By this living, we show that we know who Jesus is. By this living, we show that we know what glorifies God. By this living, we show that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, and that we will follow Jesus wherever he leads.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.