The good crowd

I was ten years old when my parents shuffled me and my brother into one of the front rows of the main, outdoor theatre in the small, Bavarian town. The crowd pushed and shoved for privileged seating to watch the story of Jesus’s last days acted out daily by the town’s folk every ten years.

In fact, the crowd on the large stage did not appear any different than the tourists who got up very early in the morning for tickets to the Oberammergau Passion play.  

This coming Holy Week is rich with story. And when we read the stories about the last days of Jesus — full of drama, plot, and character — we will naturally identify with elements of the story-telling. Our worship is designed to help us identify, for example, with the crowds.

This morning, we sing “Hosanna” and wave our palm branches identifying with the enthusiastic crowd that first day when Jesus entered the city. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees …” (Matthew 21:8). Some years in Holy Week we dramatized and therefore simplify the trial scenes. We have individuals and groups speaking the various parts of the story. So, for example, ‘the crowd’ is played by the whole congregation who chants those lines together, such as “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:23) and “He deserves death!” (Matthew 26:66).

Undergoing some mysterious metamorphosis sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, the crowd turns to the dark side. In a tradition that goes back centuries, Christians have most often portrayed the Jewish crowd around Jesus during his last days as rabidly and violently against him. We see it in Passion plays, the most famous of which is at Oberammergau in Bavaria. The evil crowd is also central to Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

This over-interpretation has unfortunately led to harmful, anti-semitic justification against the Jewish people throughout the dark side of Christian history.

It may be easy to identify with these ‘bad’ crowds more than anyone else in the stories. Through the journey of Lent, we have struggled with the shadow self of our own lives, carrying our own cross so to speak, alongside Jesus. We have confessed our sin. Indeed, at the climax of Christ’s Passion, we pound nails into the cross on Good Friday. We so readily identify with the crowds, even saying that ‘we’ have crucified Jesus by our sin. It is little wonder why we come to these rather negative views, from Scripture.

What these portrayals fail to address, however, is this: Why, if the Jewish crowd was so against Jesus, was it necessary to arrest him in the darkness of night with the help of a traitor from among Jesus’s followers? Why not arrest him in broad daylight? And why do they need Judas?

What we discover is a positive, more balanced approach to the identity of the crowd. First we need to understand why the high-priestly authorities wanted to do away with Jesus.

“[The chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him …” (Matthew 21:46).

If the chief priests and Pharisees let him go on like this, everyone would believe in him, and the Romans would then intervene and execute them (John 11:48). Moreover, the authorities were not just afraid of the Roman Emperor, who was the recipient of Judean tax money and demanded political allegiance from those put in a position of power by the Emperor to keep the Pax Romana in the region. Insurrection in Judea would not be tolerated by Rome.

“… but they feared the crowds …”

Pilate and the high-priests also felt threatened by the whole crowd of people who, if they didn’t do something about Jesus, would eventually turn on them, which in 70AD (around the time most of the Gospels were written), did in fact happen. (1)

The Gospels reveal a clear disconnect between the high-priestly authorities who wish to execute Jesus, and the “whole crowd” who are “spellbound by his teachings” (Mark 11:18) and who “regarded him as a prophet” (Matthew 21:46).

This favourable support of Jesus by the predominantly Jewish crowd does not stop after the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday. It continues throughout the days leading to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem.

The crowds aren’t perfect, to be sure. Their motivations for supporting Jesus may very well have missed the mark, especially those who still sought in Jesus a violent solution to the end of Roman rule in Judea.

Yet, they are captivated by his teachings. There is some good, therein. The ‘whole crowd’ can be personified by each of us. Which part of ourselves identifies with the crowd that is for the most part good and supportive of Jesus, even during his last days on earth?

I ask this question, especially in the midst of the most penitential season of the church year. I ask this question, and make this point as a spiritual antidote to what can easily, and so often does, slide into self-hatred on account of all our sinfulness.

We must remember we live in Christ Jesus, and the living Christ lives in us through the Holy Spirit. There is some good therein. We don’t need to be so hard on ourselves.

“The secret of life,” say the American Indigenous people, “is in the shadows and not in the open sun; to see anything at all, you must look deeply into the shadow of a living thing.” (2)

We may begin Lent and Holy Week — indeed our Christian pilgrimage on earth — by confronting our shadow self. It’s important to do so. But by the end of Holy Week we cannot avoid the open sun and see the empty tomb. The ending is always as it was in the beginning when God created everything and everyone, and said that it was good. “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

 
1 — Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), esp. p.87-91

2 — cited in Joyce Rupp, “Walk In A Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino” (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), p.161

Easter: Jesus on the loose, now!

A mother was putting her young, eight-year-old girl to bed one night. The girl, accustomed to saying her prayers as part of her bedtime ritual, said to her Mom:

“I want to die so I can see Jesus.”

Taken aback, the mother realized in that moment that everything her daughter had heard to that point about Jesus was about eternal life — how Jesus came to earth to save us from our sins so that after we die we will go to heaven. 

No wonder the girl, who had faith, thought that the only way to see Jesus was to die first.

Quick thinking, the mother put her hand in her child’s, looked her in the eye and said, “Jesus is alive. Jesus lives in you and in me. If you want to see Jesus, look for him in the people you meet in the church, in your school and wherever we go. If you want to see Jesus, sweet child, just open your eyes. And live your life!”

Jesus is alive, today. Right now. That is the message of Easter. And the foundation of our faith as Christians.
A few weeks ago the Jewish Rabbi who met with our confirmation class answered a question about who he thought Jesus was. His answer made me think. He said, “Jesus was and is a very important and significant person for Christians.”

I wondered if someone asked me, “Who is Jesus?”, what would I say? I think my first response would be: “Jesus is alive.” Not dead. Not just a great teacher who walked the earth over two thousand years ago and died a criminal on a cross outside Jerusalem. Not just a healer of the sick and prophet who spoke God’s good news to the people of his time. All those things, yes. But more. So much more.

You notice the traditional Easter acclamation is NOT: “Alleluia! Christ was risen! He was risen indeed! Allelulia!” He IS risen!

When we come to worship God, we are not just praising a man from the past, studying an important historical figure, or reading a great story from history. We are not just about being a bunch of ‘talking heads’ who like to debate religion, theology and doctrine, but go on living as if nothing really needs to change in our lives in this world, today. 

We cannot turn this great story of Jesus’ death and resurrection into a platitude that just makes us feel good on a holiday long weekend in Spring. There’s too much at stake. The Easter proclamation means something for our lives today. Our job is no different from the first disciples who met the risen Jesus.

Jesus, outside the garden tomb, had to shift Mary’s focus away from the past to the future. After calling Mary’s name, Jesus rebuffs Mary’s attempt to ‘hold on’ to Jesus as if he were the same as before he died (John 20:17). In that encounter with Jesus, Mary learns from her Teacher that she is being caught up into a larger drama that includes not only Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also his ascension — and beyond!

In other words, Mary learns that this is not merely a story about the re-union of friends with tears and hugs all around, case solved. It is about ultimate destinies: (1) Jesus’ and Mary’s — and the disciples’ destinies too. The story has not concluded; it is still unfolding. She must relate that to the rest of the disciples. Her story, and Jesus’ story, his experience and hers, cannot be anchored in the past. The story of Jesus, then and now, must move on.

That’s where our sights are focused on Easter morning. Where are we going? Where are you going, in your faith? The promise of new life in Christ Jesus means something special for you, now. It means something very special for the church, today. To live out of the Easter message, we must look forward, to where the risen Jesus awaits our following.

It seems so many people these days are reading Rumi, the great 13th century Sufi poet. Sufi described an image of a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into billions of pieces of glass strewn all across the face of the earth. Everybody took a piece of it, and thought at first they had the Truth — the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.

Let’s imagine that each shard represents a unique reflection of God’s being, God’s will, God’s presence. Let’s imagine that each piece of glass represents one who has faith. Each piece of glass reflects the beauty and light of God’s creation, manifest in the individual person or congregation — however you want to look at it.

God is, over time, restoring all the pieces back into wholeness, into the original mirror. God also seeks our cooperation in mending what has been divided. 

We are like that little girl who wants to see the face of Jesus. And is learning that we don’t have to wait until we die, to experience a fullness of the Lord’s presence. Using the words of the Apostle Paul, We may see as in a mirror dimly while we live on earth (1 Cor 13:12), for sure. But slowly, surely, God is also already at work reflecting the love, the light and presence of the living Christ in each and everyone one of us. Who in gospels was not changed after encountering the Lord?

We are, as Paul also describes, the “Body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27), on earth. The tradition of Christianity since the Resurrection of the Lord has claimed that the church together is the Body of the Living Jesus. We are the living representation of Jesus on earth. As Martin Luther stated, in our baptism we are “little Christs”. 

Jesus is on the loose! Jesus can show up as a cashier in the grocery store, the young man who changes the oil in our car, a coworker in the office, our doctor, a good friend or even our spouse, child or grandchild. You may even find him looking back at you in your bathroom mirror! (2)

Paul concludes, “All of us … are being transformed” (2 Cor 3:18). God is already at work, in the power of the resurrection, healing what has been broken, bringing together what has been divided, restoring to completion a glorious transformation of our very lives. This is our hope. This is our Easter joy.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!


(1) Gregory A. Robbins & Nancy Claire Pittman in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2009, p.377

(2) Sr Bernadette Gautreau, “Jesus is Loose!” in Holy Week Reflections 2016 published by On Eagle’s Wings, p.9