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Palm Sunday, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
March 24, 2013

Psalm 118; John 12:12-16

Subversive faith

Jesus’ triumphal entry into the crowded streets of Jerusalem was a highly symbolic and provocative act, an enacted parable that dramatised his subversive mission. Given that the Roman state made a show of force during the Jewish Passover when pilgrims thronged to Jerusalem to celebrate their political liberation from Egypt centuries earlier, scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan imagine not one but two political processions entering Jerusalem that day (The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem).

In a blatant parody of imperial politics, “king” Jesus descended the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem from the east in fulfillment of Zechariah’s ancient prophecy: “Your ruler comes to you sitting on a donkey’s colt” (Zechariah 9:9). From the west, the Roman governor Pilate entered Jerusalem with all the pomp of state power. Pilate’s brigades showcased Rome’s military might. Jesus’ triumphal entry, by stark contrast, was an anti-imperial “counter-procession” of peasants that proclaimed an alternative and subversive social vision called the kingdom or kindom of God. God be with you

Twenty years or so after Jesus was executed, charges of subversion dogged his first followers. In Philippi, a mob dragged Paul and Silas before the city magistrates, then had them stripped, beaten, severely flogged and imprisoned: “These people are disturbing the peace by advocating practices which are unlawful for us Romans to accept …” (Acts 16:20-21). In Thessalonica, “some bad characters from the marketplace” dragged Jason and some fellow believers before the city officials, shouting: “The people who have been turning the world upside down are now here … They all defy Caesar’s edicts and claim that there is another ruler — Jesus” (Acts 17:7). Paul was persecuted by the political powers, not coddled and patronised by them. In Antioch he was run out of town. In Iconium, Luke writes, “the people of the city … were divided” over Paul’s Gospel. Jews and Gentiles joined forces to have Paul and his companions stoned (Acts 14:4-5).

What were Jesus and his first followers subverting? We know that the earliest believers were called “atheists” because they refused to participate in Rome’s cult of imperial worship, and a “third race” that distinguished itself from the first race (Greeks and Romans) and the second race (Jews). The question deserves sustained reflection, but the simple summary of Borg and Crossan makes a good beginning. Jesus’ alternative reign and rule, they argue, subverted major aspects of the way most societies in history have been organised. Whether ancient or modern, most societies have normalised a status quo of political oppression that marginalises ordinary people, economic exploitation whereby the rich take advantage of the poor, and religious legitimation that insists that “God wants things this way”.

It’s easy to think of other components of the cultural status quo that Jesus might also subvert, like ethnic stereotypes, media propaganda, gender roles and sexual identities, consumerism and the degradation of the planet.

On Palm Sunday Jesus invites us to join his subversive counter-procession into all the world. But he calls us not to just any subversion, subversion for its own sake, or to some new and improved political agenda. Rather, Christian subversion takes as its model Jesus himself (Daniel B. Clendenin).

In a little book entitled Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles’ Creed, Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast reflects on the Passion of Jesus, comparing “two sets of values — those of the Kingdom of God, as Jesus proclaimed it, and those of every domination system in history; values like compassion, beauty, and truth, that we experience in our most alive moments — our peak experiences — and the values (or lack of values) by which the world we have created is for the most part run …

“Daily experience shows us how difficult it is to stand up for those spiritual values to which we feel committed when we are at our best. Whenever we have to swim against the current for the sake of our deepest convictions, we know why Jesus SUFFERED UNDER PONTIUS PILATE …

“Jesus was executed by a representative of the domination system that is as powerful now as it was then. By putting, nevertheless, our faith in him we express our trust that the weakness of God is stronger than human power (1 Corinthians 1:25).”

Taking Jesus as a model of faith includes discerning Christ-like wisdom wherever it is expressed. “Twenty-five centuries ago, the Taoist sage Lao-tzu of ancient China … [said]: ‘Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it. The weak overcomes the powerful; the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true, but few can put it into practice’ (Tao Te Ching, 78). Those who do put this principle into practice are [people] of faith. How could they do so without authentic faith, without courageous trust in an ultimate faithfulness at the core of reality? Jesus and Paul trusted in that faithfulness as the faithfulness of God.

“Those who trust that ‘the weak overcomes the powerful; the gentle overcomes the rigid’, may not see this truth verified by outward success; Jesus did not; neither did Paul. Still, they will say with Paul, ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:10) and that very conviction will give them more inner strength than any tyrant can muster …”

Outwardly, Palm Sunday is noisy, excited, liturgical, theatrical. Inwardly, it is faith’s preparation for suffering – it is faithful preparation for suffering. From it comes the invitation to live and die for the reign of God, which is to say, the rule of love.

Brother David asks: “Do you remember pictures of civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, knocked down by the blast of fire hoses and snapped at by police dogs? Have you ever taken part in some public demonstration for peace and justice or for some other cause?”

We have our own memories and experiences of subversive faith. Let us make space for them. Let us remember and honour them with palm branches … Amen.