Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Palm Sunday 2017

Palm Sunday in the Parish - photo courtesy of Sarah Gilbert

Matthew 21:1-11; 27.11-54

Being Governor of Judea was not the cushiest job in the Roman Empire. It was a fractious part of the world, rife with sects and factions at loggerheads with each other, and violence constantly threatening to break out. The rich elite collaborated with the Roman occupation to secure their own position, but that made the ordinary people resent the Romans all the more.
The political and religious centre of Judea was Jerusalem, the holy city of the Temple, the seat of its priesthood, the city of David, Israel’s ancient king. It was of supreme importance to the Jewish people, the heart of their identity. But it was a city under foreign occupation. And it was then, as it is now, a city of simmering tensions constantly ready to erupt.
Pontius Pilate, the Governor, tended to reside for most of the year in Caesarea, a port on the Mediterranean coast with good connections to Rome. It was also rather more secular and pagan than Jerusalem, a more comfortable environment for a Roman. But there were certain times of year when he had to be in Jerusalem, and the most important was Passover.
Passover was the festival of Jewish liberation, recalling their freedom from Pharaoh’s tyranny in Egypt and their long march into the promised land. It was the time of year when nationalistic feelings, and resentment of the Roman occupation, were most keenly felt. And the powder keg at the centre of those feelings was Jerusalem.
So every year, just before Passover, Pontius Pilate would leave Caesarea and march into Jerusalem in a heavy show of force, to make sure that any hotheads in the crowd would think twice before attempting an uprising. Coming from the Mediterranean coast, he would enter Jerusalem from the West.
And on this particular Passover, at around the same time that Pontius Pilate was entering from the West, mounted on a warhorse, with crowds of soldiers, Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the East, seated on a donkey. He had no soldiers, but did bring with him a crowd who hailed him as the “Son of David”, the rightful heir to the Jewish kingdom whose heart was Jerusalem.
This was an audacious and overtly political act. Jesus was claiming to be king, in a city where Caesar thought he had already staked that claim.
But it was also of course an overtly religious act. Jesus was enacting prophecies that would have been well known to the Jews. By riding a donkey, by entering from the East, by the crowds acclaiming him with cries of “hosanna”, he was calling to mind many passages in the scriptures which spoke of the coming King of the line of David, the Messiah, the Liberator.
No wonder the whole city was in turmoil. The adulation of the crowd who came with Jesus contrasts with the confusion of the people in Jerusalem. Who is this? The prophet Jesus from Nazareth. Well, Nazareth was a long way away. What was he doing here?
What Jesus was doing was indeed proclaiming liberty from oppression, freedom from captivity, and a different Kingdom from that of Caesar. But the crowds, and the religious authorities, and the Romans, would not understand how different that Kingdom was.
For Jesus religion and politics were not separate. That is to say, the worship of God, and how human beings are to live together as a people, go together. The whole of what Jesus does in Holy Week is about the worship of God. And from that worship will come the new way of living as human beings, the holy people that is the Body of Christ, the Church.
Jesus is no rival to Caesar. True freedom is not found by replacing one oppressive system with another. True freedom is found in holiness, in being ordered towards God. It is found in a people made holy by worshipping the Father in spirit and in truth. Get God right, and you get human community right, too. As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said, “Without true worship of God, there is no way to know what a true politics might be”.
So Jesus begins Holy Week by enacting prophesy in his entry into Jerusalem, proclaiming that God was acting, there and then, to free his people. But then he goes straight into the Temple and overturns the tables of the money changers. The place of worship has been corrupted and his first task is to put it right. And we are told that the blind and the crippled went into the Temple, where they were forbidden to go, and he healed them. Jesus restores the Temple as a house of prayer for all people. Holiness is restored at the heart of Israel’s worship, and it is open to all.
Through the rest of Holy Week Jesus teaches in the Temple, and all come to hear him. The religious authorities are outraged. Jesus has taken away their monopoly on God – and he threatens their lucrative income.
And so the tables turn, and Jesus knew they must. Betrayal and death are near at hand. But his death too will be an act of worship, of perfect obedience to the Father’s will. What was foreshadowed in the temple sacrifices became concrete reality on the cross, as Jesus freely gave his own life in atonement for the sins of the world.
This gives the true meaning of a verse in Matthew’s passion narrative that has so often been tragically misunderstood. “The people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’”.  That text has been used to blame the Jewish people for the death of Jesus, an excuse to justify violence and persecution. In fact, its real meaning is the opposite: it refers to the Rite of Atonement in the Old Testament, when the people were sprinkled and sanctified with the blood of the sacrifice. The blood of Jesus, the perfect sacrifice, brings pardon, not blame. Before the crowd is being enacted the perfect act of worship that will free the world from sin and restore human beings in the right relationship with God and one another.
Immediately before his betrayal Jesus had instituted one final act of worship, given to the Church as the memorial of his sacrifice: the Eucharist. “This is my body; this is my blood.” Although the church is spread through time and space, it is still Jesus himself who offers his body and his blood at every Eucharist. This is, most fundamentally, not our action, but his. It is his worship of the Father, in which we join by doing the thing he told us to do.
And because it is his worship of the Father, it is perfect worship, a real making effective in every time and place of his one sacrifice once offered. This true worship tells us what true politics might be, for it is a remaking of humanity as a new creation, a holy people, the body of Christ.

Holy Week really happens again and again at every Mass, but our minds can’t take it in all at once. So every year we have this solemn season in which we can live as fully as we can, in heart and mind, the worship that Jesus offers. For through that worship we are remade in his image as the body of Christ, the holy people of God, and we attain to the true freedom he came to bring.

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