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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=77


Palm Sunday, Year B (March 29, 2015)                         St James', Peace River

There are so many dimensions to the Palm Sunday stories, as we find ourselves at the end of the trajectory of Jesus' life and ministry, heading towards the cross. In some ways it feels like the final episode of an intense TV series, bringing together all the different threads and elevating them to a climax that no one saw coming, and which yet somehow makes perfect sense. A good TV finale keeps people talking about it for a whole week afterward. This one, we're still talking about 2000 years later. And by the way – it's a two-parter: tune in again next week for the stunning conclusion.

The thread that I've been teasing out of the story this week is the one that revolves around a perennial human question: Who's in charge? It's a question that runs through the whole of the gospel story of Jesus, as he challenges the various ways people think they can exercise power, through wealth, family influence, politics or even religion. And it's a question that resonates in our everyday lives, since in one way or another we're always asking it. Who gets to make decisions? Who can I pass the buck to? Who controls how I live my life? Who gets the credit, the responsibility, and the blame? We work out these questions day after day in our workplaces and communities, in our households and amongst our peers.

You can watch how people run up against that question throughout the gospel readings today. We started with the crowd welcoming Jesus into the city, with their hosannas and their palm branches – the 1st century equivalent of rolling out the red carpet. It feels like a naive attempt at a kind of democracy. The people are speaking. They like what they hear from Jesus – he's one of their own, a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy; in stark contrast to the corrupt and manipulative government based in the city. So they shout out to Jesus saying that HE is in charge, though underneath there is a veiled threat, conscious or not, that really they (the crowd) are in charge, and the powers that be are going to have to listen to them for a change.

And there, I suppose, is the problem that we can understand from our own experience. You can take power into your own hands – or you can try, anyway. But what are you going to do with it? If you try to take charge you bump up almost immediately against your own ignorance. You don't really know how things work. You'll meet resistance and not even know where it is coming from. And even if your plans work initially, you run into the law of unintended consequences – because when you try to exercise power, others will push back, and you have no control over that and no way of knowing how it will play out. That's a phenomenon we're becoming increasingly aware of in the 21st century, but for the crowd entering Jerusalem with Jesus, it was a trap that they walked themselves right into.

Once we're in the city, other forces start to make themselves felt. First it's the turn of the high priest's council. They know they have Jesus exactly where they want him. They've been gunning for him for some time, and he's fallen into their hands. They know the city well, they have people wherever they need them, and they can control the timing. I'm sure many of them thought they were only doing the right thing: after all, Jesus was a threat to faith as well as to public order, and it wasn't hard in the end to convict him of that out of his own mouth. (“You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision? [Mk 14.64]) But of course, what he really threatened was their own power at the top of the structure created by the faith they claimed to defend, because he asked, “Who's really in charge?”

But the priest's council gets stuck in the same mire of power games as the crowd. In order to enforce their decision, they have to resort to betrayal, armed force, suborning perjury, and abuse of process – all of which undermine their image as the group with the divinely sanctioned claim to power. And at the end of it all, they run up against the clearest and most embarrassing limitation on their claim – they can't actually get rid of Jesus without the help of the Romans. As a conquered people, they can impose a death sentence, but they can't carry it out – not without incurring the wrath of both Jesus' supporters and the Roman governor. So, who IS really in charge? If you've ever been in a position of any power yourself, you'll know what that feels like – to know what you have to do, but to lack the power to accomplish it. Do you accept failure, or do you compromise your integrity in order to succeed?

Ironically, it's Pilate, the governor, who has the least freedom of action of all the forces in this scenario. He has to tread very carefully indeed. He wants to follow the path of least resistance, so he looks for a way to set Jesus free and defuse the situation. But he also has to maintain a decent working relationship with the local leaders, and he's nervous of the crowd – so when agitators stir up the mob to demand release for someone else instead, he has to give them Barabbas.

I suspect most of us don't realize how often people in positions of institutional or political power get stuck in exactly this way. We think they have total freedom to make decisions, because they are “in charge”; but from where they stand there is only one path open, if they're lucky, and their job is to take it. Once in a while there is a creative solution, or a risky alternative, that a leader might take if they saw it and were willing. But creativity and large institutions don't mix well; and as for risk-taking, well, the higher up the food chain you get, the bigger the risks are. Pilate knows he's playing with fire. He's thinking of his own future, but also his own safety, and to be fair, the safety of the city – if a riot broke out, it would not be just his own neck on the line.

So throughout this story, everyone gets a chance to be in charge, and it does them no good. No one can actually control the course of events – things just keep rolling on to an inevitable conclusion. There is one last scene where we see the most brutal version of what “being in charge” might mean. The soldiers take full advantage of their physical power over their prisoner, beating and mocking him, and even dragging in an innocent bystander who simply has to do what they say, forcing him to carry the cross alongside the condemned man. There's an ugly human characteristic at work there which is very recognizable: when you have very little to be in charge of, you may as well make the most of it.

Something happens, though, when Jesus gets to the place of execution, is bound and nailed to the wood, and hauled up into the air for all to see. The crowd, the soldiers, the priests, even his fellow victims, keep harassing him, but by that point it starts to ring pretty hollow. What is the point of bullying someone who literally can't even move? Everything that can be done to him, has been. And then, in a strange reversal, Jesus' death on that cross reveals something unexpected about where the power truly lies. The sun itself laments his approaching end, and in the final moment the veil of the temple tears apart. The centurion gives voice to what we've known all along as we've read and heard the story: “Truly this man was God's Son.”

There's always a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I hear those words. They emphasize the horror of what has been done. But they also turn the world upside down. They tell us where to look for who's in charge, and it's not farther and farther up the pyramid of worldly power. Quite the opposite. It's the victim on the cross. It turns out the only person who's had any control or influence in this whole sorry episode, the only one who's really made a choice, is the one who died. That was the choice he made. The Son of God, who could have summoned legions of angels, wiped the Romans off the map, done whatever it took to put everyone back in their place – chose instead to let everyone do to him what they, or should I say we, chose to do.

It turns out that is what “being in charge” means in a world where God is present. It means taking a risk, not so that others should bear the consequences, but so that all the consequences fall back on the one with the power. It means being willing to do that, not for the sake of innocent bystanders, but for the sake of your enemies. It means being dehumanized, immobilized, stripped bare, so that the real source of power can shine out with no interference from its worldly trappings. It means being willing to give your life for the world to see that being in charge doesn't mean arranging things for your own good, but rather for the good of everyone else.

That's where we leave the story today. But the story doesn't leave us. We can't walk away and not be any different because of these events, which are so far away in time and yet so near in reality. We are going to walk out the church door and find ourselves back in a world that still wants to know who's in charge. We are going to struggle with that question in homes and workplaces, in economic and political decision making. Sometimes we're going to want someone to blame, someone to pass responsibility off to; sometimes we're going to want our share of the power and the chance to get some of our own back, just like everybody else. And maybe we'll be tempted to say, well, that's just the way the world works. Because doesn't everyone think and act like that?

The body being taken down from the cross says, No. It says, you can act and think like that if you wish, but only if you turn your back on me, and pretend that I do not exist. And that's not easy to do. Because we've seen. We've seen what the ultimate outcome of that world looks like. And we've also seen what ultimate power looks like when it's exercised in love, when it's able to give itself away so completely as to die. Next to that, nothing else is worth fighting for.