Nearly every year around Palm Sunday, I encounter rumblings about the structure of the liturgy. In particular, it’s about the gospel readings. We begin the morning taking palms and blessing them and hearing about the triumphal entry of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. A ruler with any clout, of course, would be riding in a chariot. The people lay their garments and palm branches before him, and they begin shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” For the grumblers, this part is fine. In fact, this is the preferred gospel of the day; it is “Palm Sunday” after all.
It’s the next bit that gets questioned: the reading of the Passion narrative. And if we want to put a fine point on it, it’s the congregation’s part in the reading of the Passion. It seems people are happy to play the role of the assembled crowd while waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” But when they take the role of the crowd shouting, “Crucify him!” they want no part in it. I’ve had parishioners tell me they just don’t say anything at that point. That they wouldn’t have been shouting out with the crowd on that fateful day a couple thousand years ago anyway. And I suspect many of us believe the same thing, that if we had been there, we wouldn’t have been shouting “Crucify him!” along with the others.
The first thing we have to ask is where are Jesus’ followers and friends? We didn’t read Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial this morning. In Luke, Jesus says, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Simon Peter responds, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” And that’s when Jesus tells Peter—this one on whom Jesus intends to build his church—that he would deny him three times that very night. We know how this plays out. Peter, when faced with the very real possibility of prison or death, denies even knowing Jesus. “I don’t know what you are talking about!” he shouts by the fire when someone says he must be with Jesus. The other disciples, the ones who’ve followed Jesus and listened to his teachings and ate meals with him for three years, never even get mentioned again.
Then there’s this crowd of people gathering outside Pilate’s palace. Pilate questions Jesus and finds him innocent, so he attempts to release him—there was a custom during the Passover of releasing a prisoner. The crowd demands Barabbas—a man accused of plotting an insurrection and attempting to overthrow the government—rather than Jesus. They prefer a known criminal go free rather than Jesus who preached a message of love.
If you’ve ever been at a sporting event when the crowd starts cheering, you know how simple it is to get caught up in it all. From the more pedestrian, like participating in the “Wave,” to the more intense, proclaiming derogatory statements about the opponents. Or maybe you’ve seen it on a playground, when a group picks on a lone kid with a stutter. Or how we label people and deride them. We see it playing out on an international stage. By demonizing the Ukrainian people, Putin and his cronies are able to get their soldiers to join them in engaging in war crimes, firing missiles on a train station filled with fleeing refugees, or a maternity hospital, or a theater having the word “CHILDREN” written in Russian with letters large enough to be seen by satellite.
But, we say, we’re not a part of those crowds. We’re not doing those things. Nor, friends, are we doing much to stop them. The past two weeks we’ve been more dialed in on “the Slap” at the Academy Awards, than on Putin’s war against Ukraine. (And notice that even with that incident by Will Smith against Chris Rock, the people there didn’t do anything in that instant to respond to the violence.) We see graphic photos and videos of unimaginable pain from Ukraine, but then quickly change the channel or scroll past. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I’m not reaching out to our legislators asking them to intervene. I’m not rising up to oppose the indiscriminate hate hurled at an innocent people.
In my life I’ve also been in the presence of people making jokes about others based on their identity, their ethnicity, their gender, and I’ve said nothing. Would I have shouted “Crucify him!” with the crowd? If I didn’t know Jesus at all, I’d likely just go along with everyone else—I’d follow along just as people in crowds have done for millennia. If I had been one of Jesus’ followers, I’d probably talk a good game like Peter, but then in the actual moment worry about saving my own skin. I suspect by the time Pilate had made his appearance, I’d have been hiding back at home.
But notice what Jesus says when he’s there at Golgotha. After he’s been beaten and spat upon and endured insults hurled at him and given the death penalty even though he’s completely innocent, he says, “Father, forgive them for the do not know what they are doing.” Forgive them, because they’re giving in to the power of the crowd. Forgive them for denying they even knew me. Forgive them for deserting and running scared. Forgive them.
It was Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama working to provide justice for prisoners in this country, who said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have done.” Each of us is better than our lowest moments. Each of us is greater than the actions we most regret in our lives. Jesus looks at the crowd, at his missing disciples, at us in all of our humanness. He sees the moments when we rise up with the crowd to shout out against another, or the times when we don’t do anything to stop the violence. He sees all of it and offers love. I see what you’ve done, and I know you weren’t in your right mind. I know where you’ve been, and I do not condemn you. I forgive you, because you didn’t know what you were doing.
Each of us is more than the worst thing we have done. Jesus sees us in all of our humanness, and offers us forgiveness. If we only shouted our Hosannas on this day, we might not come to see the depth of his love. If we didn’t also take our part in the Passion, we might wrongly believe that we’ve done things that can never be forgiven. That we’re beyond Jesus’ forgiveness. Friends, it is only when we join in the madness of the crowd, that we can fully see the depth of Jesus’ mercy. That Jesus knows exactly who we are and offers compassion. That we are truly beloved. I pray that as we walk with Jesus this Holy Week, we might know that love and forgiveness and grace more fully.