This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for Palm Sunday, 13 April 2003. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 50: 4 – 9, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Mark 11: 1 – 11.
Our celebration of Holy Week is perhaps one of the most contradictory celebrations I know. We begin on Sunday with a parade and a celebration and end with the execution of the person the parade was celebrating. And it is made even more contradictory by the fact that those who cheered the loudest on Sunday where among the loudest calling for the execution on Thursday.
But the problem is that very few of the people cheering on Sunday understood what the week was to bring. Most certainly his disciples, the twelve people closest to him, the twelve who had spent the better part of three years listening and learning, did not. Even though Jesus told them rather emphatically three times what the week was to bring, they still did not understand. In fact, their response on each occasion made it evident they had no idea what this week was about. It becomes more amazing when you hear their comments in which they claimed to understand and yet still engaged in divisive competition amongst themselves for the honored seats in the kingdom that was to come.
They, like the crowd who cheered that first Palm Sunday, were seeing the end of the mission, the end of three years of hard work before the mission was over and most certainly before they, for whom the three years had been training, had even began to walk the walk. It should have been obvious, given the fact that new king was triumphantly entering into Jerusalem, not on a great white steed in front of a conquering army, but on the back of a small and lowly donkey. Was the irony of this not caught on those who watched?
We must be careful this Palm Sunday of how we cheer, for we might fall into the trap of cheering for a hollow victory as did those people in Jerusalem so many years ago. We may cheer the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and his possible death and we may say that freedom has come to a long oppressed people. But like other countries and other peoples who have been oppressed, the death of a dictator or the collapse of a totalitarian regime does not guarantee a just and lasting freedom.
One need only look at Germany in the 1930’s or even Russia today to know that the freedom gained when a dictator falls is not the freedom we know today. The freedom we have was gained through trial and hardship and most certainly not just handed to us. Those who experience the momentary freedom of today are like those who are given a drink of water. The thirst is quenched for the moment, but there is no well from which to draw the next drink. And without the well to draw from, the thirst gets stronger each time. The well from which a newly liberated people drink must be dug and we must understand that we have to help them dig that well, not simply give them drinks of water every time they are thirsty.
The democracy that Germany experience in the 1930’s was quickly replaced by the nationalism and then tyranny of Adolph Hitler because the victors in World War I exacted a very stiff price from the German people for the victory. The freedom that replaced the tyranny of communism and state control on one’s life in Russia has been replaced with a tyranny of economics and with a government sharing an uneasy truce with a crime syndicate that makes organized crime in America look childish and foolish. Yes, the Russia of today is a lot better off that it was even during the Cold War but it is a freedom reminiscent of Germany so many years ago, with the powers of nationalism ready to rise up in a new totalitarian form.
Our own recent history is full of incidents where we have sought freedom for others but we have not been willing to carry out the complete task. For many people do not know what freedom is and simply removing the bonds of slavery does not help the formerly enslaved develop freedom. We may wish for freedom in this world but if we are not willing to work for it, we will see the past repeated many times over.
The cheering in Iraq today will be short-lived unless we understand that working for peace does not stop when the war is over. If anything, one must worker harder peace when there is no war. We cannot impose a peace on people, for it will exact a rather stiff penalty. For if conditions allow dictators to rise and let situations develop that allow individuals to utilize nationalistic feelings for their own benefits will continue to exist, all the efforts in the world to bring peace to the world will be left behind.
We can cheer today for freedom in the world but we must not gloat. Freedom is only found when there is peace, and peace will only come when there are no conditions by which conflict can arise. We must make sure that our efforts have a peaceful world continue and we must seek to remove those conditions that would seek to enslave and oppress people. The cause for peace does not end when there is no shooting; rather, it begins even more in earnest.
Freedom carries a price with it. But it is not a price easily determined. All we need to do is remember what happened to our own John Wesley. He knew and understood that freedom from the slavery of sin could be overcome through Christ. But he himself could not find the freedom he thought through the imposition of a strict set of rules and behavior. His early attempts at ministry here in America some two hundred and sixty years ago are clearly evidence of what happens when you try to impose a strict set of rules on someone; it will not work. And though he was supremely confident that he had found the way to true freedom when he came to America, he left feeling a complete failure and questioning not only the nature of his own work but the nature of his own faith and beliefs.
As Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem amidst the cheering and hosannas, he knew what lie ahead for him and for those that followed him. He knew that his ministry would not be measured by the loudness of the cheers on Sunday but rather by his death on the cross on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter morning. Jesus also knew that his disciples would be tested and challenged during this week. He could tell Peter, the one disciple that everyone felt would never fall, that he would be the first to do so. But he was not condemning Peter for what he was to do but merely pointing out that the road that he, Peter, and the others would have to walk in His place was not an easy one. The kingdom for which they cheered on Sunday would be theirs but at a price they could not yet comprehend.
It may sound contradictory but the price of freedom from sin and death is found in the death of Christ on the cross and obedience to God. Now, some may say that obedience to God is not true freedom but we have to look at what Christ had to do. Christ did not have to die on the cross, as Paul noted in his words today. He was God’s son and His place in heaven was established. But his ministry on earth could not have been accomplished that way. If Christ had not been obedient to God, our assurance that there is no freedom could never have been accomplished. He showed us that obedience to God must be first in our lives. If we are obedient to God and our work on this earth is guided by his presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit then true peace and freedom will be found.
Yes, the price of freedom is exacting and there are going to be times of stress and need. But as Isaiah wrote about the suffering of Christ, when the pain of the times is too great, we will always know that God is with us, beside us and part of our life. There are going to be times in our lives when what we seek is not easily gained or when others do not accept what we say or believe. There may even be times when we are forgotten or rejected because of what we believe. For us, the cheering will have stopped. But if our faith is true, if our obedience to God is certain then there is hope.
On that Thursday before He died, as the disciples gathered with Him for the Last Supper, Jesus gave one more lesson in the price of freedom. As each disciple sat down to eat, Jesus washed his feet. This was a reminder that Christ’s ministry begins with us as humble servants, not as jubilant victors. And as we come to the table this morning in anticipation of the great victory banquet that awaits us, we should remind ourselves that we can come as free people because Jesus died for us on the cross.
We should also remember that Jesus’ ministry did not end with the cheering on Palm Sunday but began because of his resurrection on Easter morning. Jesus knew that he must move forward from Palm Sunday into the week that was to come; so too must our ministry move forward throughout the coming days as we celebrate Christ’s presence and victory through our words, our deeds, and our actions.