Sermon for Palm Sunday
In his book Faith Within Reason, the Jesuit theologian Herbert McCabe wrote, “If you do not love, you will not be alive; if you love effectively, you will be killed.” That’s an extraordinary statement, isn’t it? “If you do not love, you will not be alive; if you love effectively, you will be killed.”
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McCabe clearly had Jesus in view when he wrote this, but also all the people—hundreds of thousands over the centuries—who in following Jesus have tried to love effectively, and have ended up being killed by people, groups, societies that couldn’t quite stand that kind of love. I’ve recently been reading a collection of sermons and other writings by Martin Luther King, Jr., and it is abundantly clear that he knew how costly was his own practice of effective loving. As early as 1958, he wrote and spoke of that risk; bomb threats, endless harassing and obscene phone calls, an actual bombing of his own home. But he also wrote of a pivotal experience of the presence of God in the midst of all of the fear and threats. “At that moment,” King wrote,
I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. (Stride Toward Freedom)
And that “anything,” King knew, included death. It would be another 10 years before he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, but over that decade he was well aware of the risk. And yet he kept saying to the community, “If one day you find me sprawled out dead, I do not want you to retaliate with a single act of violence. I urge you to continue protesting with the same dignity and discipline you have shown so far.” (Stride Toward Freedom) “If you do not love, you will not be alive; if you love effectively, you will be killed.”
Think of Jesus as being the one who loved most effectively—whose entire life was an expression and outpouring of love. But don’t think of this love as being anything like gathering people around a campfire, holding hands and singing praise songs about a gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Oh, Jesus could be gentle; we see it again and again in the gospel accounts, as he draws the children close or touches the broken and sick bodies of people who came to him for help or offered a new beginning to the woman caught in adultery. But his love could also be fierce and challenging and, for some at least, hard to take. If you love that effectively, they might just kill you for it.
Many had dreams that more than being just a compelling teacher and a healer, Jesus would turn out to be the one who would bring people together in an uprising against the Roman Empire; against Pilate, and against those soldiers who marched in their streets and took their food. That’s what a messiah was to do; free Israel, free Jerusalem, and start the promised Kingdom right then and there. Was Jesus the one? They hoped so… oh they hoped so.
It wasn’t hard to dream those kinds of dreams, because they had this story from their own history in which something not unlike that had happened. It was about 180 years earlier that a man named Judah Maccabee had led a Jewish rebellion that threw off another empire; the Seleucid Empire of Antiochus Epiphanes It shouldn’t have worked; it shouldn’t have been successful, for that Empire was far more powerful than Judah and his army. But they won; they reclaimed Jerusalem and cleansed the temple and were a nation again.
It only lasted 100 years, and then in marched the Romans to rule the land. But they remembered; once before with God’s help we threw off an empire. It can—it will, it must—happen again. God will send us Messiah!
Do you know what those Maccabean rebels did as they marched into Jerusalem to reclaim their holy city? They waved palm branches. Think about that. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem with his followers, what did the people greet him with? Palm branches. And they shouted “hosanna”, which means “save us.” Any more clear indication as to who and what they thought they were dealing with?
The disciples may have known differently, as they’d heard all of his teachings. They’d heard him say that the Kingdom of God was among them already, and they’d also heard him warn them that Jerusalem and its temple would soon fall. They’d listened as he warned against fighting the Romans in any rebel way, because it would just come back at them, and hard; “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Mt 26:52) Turn the other cheek, he’d said. Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you. He modeled servanthood, and on his last night with them he’d washed their feet, told them to do the same for one another, and he’d claimed them as his friends.
When they marked their Passover dinner together—the great story-meal of Judaism—Jesus took the Passover bread and wine and spun them in a whole new way. This is my body, he’d said, and this is my blood. The ancient symbols of an ancient meal, now re-narrated for a new movement and a new reality. Never had they heard such a teaching … and they didn’t have a clue as to what he was talking about.
Because they still didn’t get it; not yet. After the meal it was out to the garden of Gethsemane, in the dark of night, where he said he needed to go to pray. It was dangerous to be out so late, doubly dangerous in the pitch darkness of a garden. He told them to wait, and he went deeper into the darkness and prayed an agonizing prayer, because he knew that the time had come; his life of loving effectively—fully, completely—was about to come to its end; they were going to kill him, and he knew it. Meanwhile the disciples? Fast asleep. Luke says that they fell asleep “because of grief”, which probably means that they were so emotionally exhausted from all that he’d said and all that they’d begun to understand, they just collapsed.
In his song, “Stay Awake,” Steve Bell more or less nails what Luke is suggesting:
It’s not like we didn’t expect it
But something has changed
There’s an agony in all His expression
There’s an urgency and a dread in His wake
So what’s this density in my head
Somehow I can’t stay awake
They just couldn’t do it; couldn’t manage to push through. When the soldiers arrived to arrest him, their lack of understanding came through in two ways. Firstly, one of them drew a sword and lashed out against the High Priest’s servant. According to John’s account, it was Peter himself who was carrying a sword that night; Peter himself who reacted in violence. Was anyone closer to Jesus than Simon Peter? Anyone who should have learned enough to know better than to carry a sword? Maybe even Peter was still hoping that Jesus would suddenly become the revolutionary warrior Messiah so many had been waiting for. Must have been kind of heart-breaking for Jesus to see how little those friends and followers actually understood.
And then they fled into the dark of the night, scattering like scared rabbits to save their own skins. They’d vowed to stand firm, Peter in particular. But they couldn’t, at least not yet. They would eventually stand firm, but that’s another chapter in the story. We’ll get there.
For now just Herbert McCabe’s words sink in, unsettle, rattle, inspire, or maybe wake you up: “If you do not love, you will not be alive; if you love effectively, you will be killed.” Pray we never have to face anything close to what Martin Luther King faced, but know that the life and person of Jesus still calls us to cut against the grain in so many ways. It just does.