Palm Sunday 24th March 24 : Isaiah ch 58 vs 6-12 Matthew ch 21 vs 1 – 11.

The well known triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem must be described as a joyfully subversive event. The Triumphal entry of Jesus, – usually seen in contrast to the triumphalism of the Roman authorities. One on a war horse, Jesus on a donkey. There are several questions we want to ask. What was he doing ? Often portrayed as advocating a different kind of kingdom, one of peace and forgiveness, not war and punishment. Acting out a well known scriptural picture from the book of the prophet Zechariah.
And what did the crowd really think.? Was it the start of an uprising a revolution? If so it did not go very far. How did the crowd change in the course of a week ? From the cry of “Hosanna”, in such a short space of time, to the shout of “crucify him” a few days later ? Difficult to fathom,
Jesus followed it up by upturning the tables in the temple precincts – some suggest that this was the action which sealed his fate.

It helps to understand a bit of the social situation, the context in which it happened. Israel was not a happy place, the Sabbath rest by Galilee of which we have all sung is a somewhat sugar coated view. They were an occupied nation. The pride of the people had been hurt. Just as important, possibly more so was the fact that it was a grossly unfair society, with the majority of the populace living at subsistence level, never confident of the future harvest, poverty very close to the door. A small number were much better off, guarding their wealth, and the Roman authority with their slaves and the power of the military, quite untouchable. Politics and social status was about knowing the right people, patronage and preferment were shared round among a powerful minority. The ordinary people had to know their place, and trouble came to any with opinions above their station. They had to accept their place in the pecking order of an unfair social system, or else.

Then came Jesus with his stories of the importance of lost sheep, who mixed with all types, with the outcasts, the marginalised, the lepers, who treated women with respect, suggested that Samaritans could be kind, who said that the last would be first in the new age, and who created among friends and followers a community of equals, where everybody counted, where children were held up as an example to which all should aspire, where those in authority were given no more respect than they deserved. Where ordinary downtrodden people were told that they mattered, that they might be first in the economy of the God he knew.

The term subversive hardly begins to describe it, it was a revolutionary challenge to the way things were. This is what the crowd was celebrating as Jesus entered Jerusalem. It was virtually inevitable that the authorities would want to stamp on it as quickly as they could.
Jesus was like Alexi Navalny on a different stage, showing immense courage in challenging a corrupt authority. The political prospectus was different but the similar level of bravery is recognisable. And the end was almost inevitable, in the case of Jesus, a public execution, to serve as an example and a warning to others, for Navalny a back room murder , with propagandist denials of guilt.

And Jesus was not the last. Post Easter the early church continues to experience that same sense of community of inclusiveness, and equality as it had with Jesus earthly presence. The early church continues to defy the divinity and lordship of the Roman Emperor, and persecution of the church became the order of the day. The emperor was not their ultimate lord, they had a higher authority which they chose to obey and they suffered for it.

It was not until the emperor Constantine in the year 325 decided that Christianity was to be the official religion of the empire and established the council of Nicaea, that the church ceased to be persecuted. But it was a strange kind of victory, because society was still corrupt and now the church was in part being used by the authorities and the empire as an instrument of social control, ostensibly to bring peace but also by bringing the church to heel, it became far more difficult to emulate the liberating experience of inclusive love which was at the heart of the Jesus community.

Interesting, to me at any rate, is the way the participants in the council of Nicaea managed to maintain the prominence of the lordship of |Christ over that of the emperor, by stating that Jesus Christ was one with God. It’s a strange statement if made out of the blue, but in the context in which it was decided it was a clear statement that unlike Caesar, Jesus Christ was one with ultimate authority. You might have wondered, probably not, why in our Christmas carol we sing that Jesus was begotten, not created, It came from the bishops at Nicaea saying that Jesus Christ was a higher authority than the emperor. Who was merely created. (A lot of people don’t know that).

The subversive nature of early Christianity is still relevant in the world of today. But it is difficult to hold as an idea along with the glib assumption that we are or ever were a Christian country. Many of our values and cultural traditions are based on a Christian background of language and ecclesiastical dominance. But to what extent do we challenge today the injustices of our society and world.? The poverty which exists in Britain today, the continued exploitation of poorer countries and the earth itself for short term gain or profit. The power exerted by media tycoons and executives and the privileges of some over others, not only in authoritarian regimes the world over but also here in our own country.

Why do you think the theology of Christianity moved towards and increasingly concentrated on the afterlife, rather than transforming the lives of people in this life. In part at least because it was a way of controlling the populace. There has long been a strand of thinking which told the poor, accept your lot with humility, and you’ll get your reward in heaven. But that was never the thinking of Jesus or the church in early days. Fortunately we have moved away from some of that ; did you know that the hymn All things bright and beautiful, had as one of its original verses the words “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.” Poor people, accept your lot, and much of Christian art and story has told the frightening punishments for those who object, who rock the boat or challenge the rulings from worldly and ecclesiastical authorities.

An authentic church is still a subversive church. Subversive of all the false values, the prejudicial views, the barriers which divide people and are often still used to create division for short term political or social advantage. The list of prejudices which love is called to dismantle, of race or religion of sexual orientation, of educational privilege, of economic inequality far too great, of sheer poverty and vulnerable health care. Of climate catastrophe which will affect some greatly more than others, and not those who have largely caused it. The demonisation and scapegoating of refugees. These are areas where an authentic church will continue to challenge all that is wrong with society today. And this is the church which is most true to the nature of its founder and to the gospel his early followers continued to proclaim.
On Palm Sunday we are challenged to welcome again into our midst the ongoing joyful subversiveness of the gospel which is our duty to live and to proclaim.

Amen , and thanks be to God for the continuing challenge of his word.