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Readings: Palm Sunday

04 April 2014

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Matthew 21.1-11; Isaiah 50.4-9a; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 26.14-27.66 or 27.11-54

Almighty and everlasting God, who in your tender love towards the human race sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross: grant that we may follow the example of his patience and humility, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A VISITOR at Durham Cathedral recently asked for directions to the 12.30 service of "holy commotion". It seems a rather apt phrase when we hear the Passion narrative read, since we take bread and wine in the name of one who, according to Matthew, triggered commotions: his birth caused Jerusalem to be frightened, and his riding into Jerusalem threw the whole city into turmoil.

On his death, the veil in the Temple was ripped, and two earthquakes ensued, raising dead people who later walked around, heralding the arrival of an angel and terrifying hardened soldiers. It all resonates with Ezekiel's vision of God's breath upheaving a valley of dry bones.

A recent programme on Radio 4 asked people how many friends they had. Some had three or four, perhaps ten; one said thousands, referring to her Facebook friends. I imagine the crowd who cheered Jesus as his Facebook friends. That friendship indicates support, but costs little. Matthew frequently uses the description "the crowds" of disciples en masse, people who hung on Jesus's words, enjoying the miracles, cheering loudly, but not necessarily following him.

In contrast to fickle crowds, Isaiah described one who is taught, who does not turn backwards, but sets his face like flint. Being taught and being faithful are at the heart of being disciples. Jesus formed a community of friends; he did not have lone disciples.

Paul's words to the Philippians, probably a hymn, are surrounded by exhortations about how to live as a community of disciples; we can miss the way that the word translated "you" in English is frequently plural in the original.

The Passion narrative, however, shows the disciples' friendship crumbling under pressure. This is not just Judas's fault, although Matthew gives much attention to Judas who, poignantly, Jesus called "friend" at the moment of betrayal. Peter, James, and John fell asleep when he asked them to stay awake with him; Peter denied him; the rest deserted him and fled.

This is hardly a picture of robust friendship in action; cheering from the sidelines might have seemed preferable at that moment. Only a group of women stuck it out to the end. Subsequently, Peter and Judas felt intense remorse but, while Matthew tells us that, tragically, Judas could not trust his friendship with Jesus to bear the weight of his betrayal, John records that Peter turned back when Jesus would not let their friendship end. We can only wonder what Jesus would have said to Judas had he lived: "friend" gives us a clue.

In Matthew's Passion narrative, identity becomes crucial to the rapidly unfolding story. Only Matthew records the city's question when Jesus entered Jerusalem: "Who is this?" The crowds then described Jesus as the prophet from Nazareth - an oxymoron to Jerusalemites, for whom Galilee was virtually off the map of civilisation.

When Judas asked whether he would be the betrayer, Jesus did not identify him directly. Instead, his "You have said so" forced Judas to identify himself, while also offering a last opportunity to abandon his course of action and truly be Jesus's friend.

Jesus used the same disturbing words, "You have said so," with Caiaphas and Pilate, when they demanded he identify himself. Breaking his defiant silence, he threw their attempts to define him on their terms back in their faces, forcing them - ostensibly the people with power - to answer their own questions.

It took a pagan centurion to answer Caiaphas and Pilate's questions. "Truly this man was God's son!" takes Matthew's Gospel full circle. He had begun by announcing that Jesus was the Messiah (Mathew 1.1), King of the Jews (Mathew 2.2), and Son of God (Matthew 3.17).

Midway through, Peter tumbled to that insight at Caesarea Philippi, after which the disciples had to be taught that "King" and "suffering" belonged in the same sentence. Therefore, Matthew signally omitted "triumphant and victorious is he" when quoting Zechariah 9.9 to describe the entry into Jerusalem. Unlike a conquering emperor returning triumphant on a war horse, Jesus came not in victory, but on his way to victory through suffering and dreadful forsakenness.

To all those world-changing events, the physical creation responded with holy commotion, echoing other biblical imagery of creation's responding to God (for example, Psalm 98.7-9 and Isaiah 55.12). I wonder what holy commotion God might stir in us this Holy Week.

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