I am an author of fiction, and non-fiction, who publishes my books through my single author publishing business MMMporium. This author site is focused on all my writings. I am also a key worker and used to work as a priest, so this front page will be taken over the next week with a series of sermons linking the story of Jesus' final week to the COVID-19 crisis.
Yesterday on Palm Sunday I spoke about the two crowds when Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the back of two donkeys, but the most important pair for Matthew's setting the scene for his Holy Week drama is the two-fold answer of the crowd of Galilean pilgrims to the question of the Jerusalem crowd, "Who is he?" They answer that Jesus is a prophet and that he comes from Nazareth in Galilee. Traditionally it is just that story of the triumphant entry that is celebrated in churches that honour the Sunday before Holy Week as Palm Sunday. Many churches now honour instead or as well as Passion Sunday. That means a reading of the entire Holy Week story from one of the gospels, but for the tradition I knew back in the Church of Ireland it was Palm Sunday focused on Jesus on a donkey. The Holy Week theme of conflict rather than triumph begins in Matthew with Jesus going into the Temple, which happens immediately after the triumphant entry. Jesus then goes out to Bethany to spend the night and returns to the Temple the next day. The visit on Palm Sunday to the Temple involves the best known story of Jesus driving out the traders from the Temple, but also the ill comes to him in the Temple and Jesus heals them there. The people praise Jesus for what he does, but the chief priests and experts in Jewish law begin their conflict with Jesus in response to Jesus' healing and the people's positive response. That conflict is expanded on the next day when Jesus is back in the Temple and the topic comes back to Galilean prophets.
On Jesus' return to the Temple he is immediately challenged by those chief priests and legal experts with a demand to know by what authority he did these things. Jesus gives a rather unusual answer in turning the question to what was the authority of John the Baptist to baptise people. The religious leaders refuse to answer because they are aware that the people revered John as a prophet. As the leaders will not answer his question Jesus refuses to answer their question and so the conflict is set in train that will lead within the week to Jesus' death. The reference to John the Baptist so soon after the Galilean crowd proclaim Jesus a prophet from their land brings us to another pair. This time it a pair of prophets, one of whom has already been killed by Herod the ruler of Galilee. Now Jesus the prophet from Galilee is in conflict with religious authorities in Jerusalem and soon that conflict will include the Roman secular authorities, because unlike during Jesus' childhood Judea is now part of the Roman Empire, while Galilee remains a vassal state that is ruled, as Judea once was, on behalf of Rome.
In the Temple Jesus was not forthcoming with an answer, although he will enter into debate while the conflict deepened during the Holy Week. Questions and answers are something that we are becoming very well used to at the moment with leaders, scientists, and medical advisors giving press conferences and taking questions from the media. There is none of that refusal to answer questions that Jesus showed in the Temple because thankfully these press conferences are not about setting up a conflict between rival views. Jesus' prophetic and Galilean style of Judaism is coming into conflict with the Temple-focused alternative that understandably dominated in Judea, which had the Temple in Jerusalem, which people throughout Judea could reach without the dangerous trek through Samaria that the Galilean Jews had to undertake. We now find ourselves in a different situation where regional tensions seem less important as politicians, scientists, and medics around the world seek to learn from each other as they fight a virus that has spread very quickly. Yet those tensions still exist. We hear of the poor sanitation and under-resourced health system in the Gaza Strip, an area that was just to the south of what Jesus knew as Judea. We may not hear much about over conflicts, but they have not gone away.
What happened that week in Jerusalem would led to the creation of a worldwide church of Jesus followers, but first there was a conflict to be gone through. One that sometimes saw Jesus engaging with his rivals and sometimes refusing to do so. We are now in a situation in our world where rivals are thankfully pulling together and we can hope that it is not long before a worldwide suppression of COVID-19 is achieved. Yet those tensions are still there and new tensions will arise as our world acts together and often in rivalry to tackle this virus. Sometimes when a rival is trying to stop you doing what you feel must be done you will respond with a refusal to engage, as Jesus did on the second, but not the first, day in the Temple. Many of us will have clear ideas of what the best thing to do in this present crisis is and hopefully we can learn to live with others whose idea of the best thing to do is different. And having accepted the different approaches hopefully we can engage with one another to work to fight this danger to people all around the globe. The Holy Week story is a drama to which we already know the resolution and so we can take the conflict as part of the narrative. We do not know the resolution to this pandemic nor how quickly the solution will be found. In a story that is still unfolding we need to be patient with each other and leave conflicts over how the narrative should progress until after the story has reached its happy ending.
It is over ten years since I last wrote a sermon. With churches all over Europe closed I have an excuse to write one without being invited to preach. Actually I planned to write five sermons for Monday to Friday of Holy Week. In 1992 I was ordained into the Church of Ireland, which is part of the Anglican Communion. There is a tradition in the Church of Ireland, at least among the larger urban churches, to have a guest preacher preach five inter-connected sermons for evening services on Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. Saturday was a day off for the church and it might seem odd in a time of closed churches that some people were very concerned that the church was closed on one of the eight days from Palm Sunday to Easter Day. The standard answer was that Jesus was dead and buried in a sealed tomb and the church would open again on Sunday when he rose from the dead.
It was not having too much time on my hands that led me to want to write these five sermons. I no longer work as a priest and I am a key worker, so I lack the extra time to be filled experience of most people around the world where lockdowns are in place. Nor I am writing these sermons because I am getting nostalgic for my old job. Actually it was inspired by my time as a priest of the Church in Wales, which is a much more Catholic part of the Anglican World. Fellow priests were surprised when I told them of the practice of a Holy Week preaching festival and the closed churches on Saturday. Yet my grounding in a more Protestant and more preaching oriented church put me in a good stead. I was quite popular as a preacher and given what was the height of praise from a Church in Wales parishoner, "We've heard good things about. Apparently you can say something good in a short period of time." The inspiration for a Holy Week series of sermons was something said to me in a church I helped out in while working as an academic. I only preached in that church once or twice a month and in two successive Sundays I had managed to squeeze a response to a natural disaster in a far away country into one of the scriptural readings of the day. A parishoner came up as soon as the service was over and said, "You can always say something to fit what's going on in the world." That has always struck and came back to me as I find myself as one of the few people permitted to use public transport. The disaster is in far away countries, but also close to home, so much so that most are confined to their homes. Fifteen years after that praise was given and ten years since I last wrote a sermon do I still have the talent? So I decided to respond to praise given in a Catholic parish in the Church in Wales and apply it to a very Protestant tradition from the Church of Ireland to try to work out what is going in the light of the story of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. It was not originally my intention to include a Palm Sunday sermon, but it helps to set the scene by the contrast it offers to Holy Week.
One of the values of the Holy Week preaching tradition in the Church of Ireland is that it got over the problem that if you only attend Church on a Sunday you move from the celebration of Jesus being welcomed in triumph to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to Jesus triumphing over death on Easter Day. Of course everyone attending those services knows of the conflict, trial, and death of Jesus that happens in between, but the Holy Week sermons gave a way to reinforce that message. By the time it came to talking about how Jesus was sent to trial because the Roman governor caved in to the crowd many preachers would preach about the fickle nature of humanity. The crowd celebrated on Palm Sunday and a few days later bayed for Jesus' blood. I often preached instead on the two crowds.
In the Holy Week sermons I will focus on the story of Jesus' last week through the narrative recounted in the Gospel According to Matthew. The account of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and being greeted by adoring crowds waving palm leaves has two major differences in Matthew to other New Testament versions of the story. Only Matthew has Jesus riding in on both a donkey and its colt. It brings up an amusing image of a circus star with one foot on the back of each donkey, but we'll assume that Jesus rode the donkey and the colt walked alongside its parent. The other and much more important difference is who the crowd is and it from this that there is the idea of the two crowds. Matthew's version of the story ends with the people asking "Who is he?" to which the crowd answer "This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee." So the indication is that the people represent the Jerusalem locals and the crowd consists of the Galilean pilgrims who have walked with Jesus to Jerusalem, as walking in a large group was important for Galileans who had to walk for a long time through hostile Samaria in order to reach Jerusalem.
In a time of COVID-19 the celebrations of Palm Sunday can be seen as a reminder of what we knew in the past and what we hope Christians will be able to return in 2021. But I prefer to focus again on those two crowds. We constantly have two crowds during this health crisis. Those who devour the news and ask "What is COVID-19?" and those who answer confidently about what COVID-19 is and prophecy what the future holds. By the middle of the events we celebrate in Holy Week it is clear that the Jerusalem people did not share the confidence of the Galilean crowd about who and what Jesus was. Of course if they and the religious authorities had acceptted the opinion of the crowd there would be no crucifixion and resurrection. Instead Holy Week, especially in Matthew, is a week of conflict between the Galilean prophet and the religious elite in Jerusalem. The narrative only makes sense as a story if there is a conflict between the two crowds.
That is the sort of situation we find ourselves in now. We need the two crowds in the midst of a health crisis of a severity that most have never lived through before. Those who give confident and optimistic prophecies that the crisis will pass and churches will be open next Palm Sunday are necessary to give hope for the future. But we also need the other crowd to keep asking the questions. They might begin with "What is COVID-19?" but will continue with "How does it spread?", "Can the lockdown end yet?" and "Why are neighbouring countries affected in very different ways?" Seeking to silence one crowd to unite in one voice spoils the story and risks the narrative being taken over by what some want to say rather than what we all need to hear.
"Praise to the questioning crowd. God bless those who ask questions in the name of all people."
Of course, stay off that donkey unless you have an essential reason to travel.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved.