St Bride's: Sermons

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

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21 And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples,

Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me.

And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them.

All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying,

Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.

And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them,

And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon.

And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.

And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.

10 And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this?

11 And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.

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During the course of my rather unusually long career as a university student, I was blessed with many fine teachers. But there was one particular lecturer during my time in Oxford, who really did stand out from the rest.

His subject was Reformation History and as a teacher he was quite simply extraordinary. I would sit on the edge of my seat during his lectures, riveted. He had an amazing ability to bring his subject to life - and, even though I already knew quite a lot about that period of history before attending his sessions, somehow it felt completely new and fresh. It was as if I was experiencing those events for the first time, no longer from the outside as an onlooker, but from the inside as a participant.

As a lecturer, that man was outstanding. As a human being, he was complicated, to say the least. He had a reputation for being embittered and rather vain; he was a notorious misogynist; and even those closest to him would admit that he was not in all respects a pleasant man. He was called Gareth Bennett, and if that name rings a distant bell for those of you whose memories go back thirty years, it is because in December 1987, the year after he taught me, he became embroiled in a scandal which made the national headlines at the time.

Bizarrely enough, the media furore centred on the identity of the anonymous author of the Preface to this book - Crockford's Clerical Directory - because the Preface savaged the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Gary Bennett was widely (and, as it turned out, correctly) believed to have been the author of that Preface. But he denied it. And then, at the height of the speculation about the authorship of the Crockford Preface, Gary Bennett took his own life, and a scurrilous news story turned into a human tragedy. I shall return to that story in a moment.

There were many things that I learned from that brilliant but complex man, and amongst them an insight which, as I shall explain, is of very direct relevance to our understanding of the curious nature of Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week that are about to unfold for us.

And it was this: one aspect of the Reformation that I had always found very puzzling was why it was, particularly on the Continent, that hitherto pious, observant churchgoing people suddenly started smashing up the churches that they had previously looked upon with such reverence. I could understand their desire to remove things from a church because they were deemed inappropriate to Reformation sensibilities - statues, reliquaries, icons, stained glass, etc. But why smash them up?  Why the violence?

What Gareth Bennett enabled me to understand in those Church History lectures all those years ago, was this: during the time leading up to the Reformation most ordinary Christian folk were generally very anxious about the things of God, and the fate of their immortal souls, and many were bordering on the obsessive in their religious observance - which gave the clergy inordinate power and control over their lives - power that could all too easily be abused. When the Reformers started challenging the whole basis of that power and control, the explosion of anger, and consequent destruction of religious artefacts, was in no small measure the reaction of people who were suddenly aware of the appalling possibility that they had been 'had' all along. They had been misled. Which is why their reaction was not one of disappointment; it was one of rage. Hence the sudden transition from enthusiastic adoration, to unbridled violence. And understanding that dramatic shift can also help shed light on the story we shall be re-inhabiting as we travel through Holy Week together.

Today on Palm Sunday, we join the crowds in the rapturous welcome they give to Jesus at his entry into Jerusalem. Rumours of his extraordinary acts of power and miracle-making had already reached them. And in choosing to enter the city riding on an ass, Jesus is making a very bold statement. He is deliberately enacting, and by implication fulfilling, the prophecy of Zechariah about the promised Messiah that is quoted in our Gospel reading:  'Behold, your king comes to you, humble and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.'

Throughout the whole of the rest of his ministry Jesus appears to have walked everywhere; pilgrims going to Jerusalem would traditionally have entered the city on foot. So in choosing to arrive astride an ass, Jesus is doing something overtly symbolic; some might say overtly provocative - because he enters the city not as a pilgrim but as a king. And to a people weary of living under the yoke of Roman oppression, he enters as their liberator; their Saviour: 'Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest!'

But of course, as the crowds are soon to discover, contrary to all their hopes and expectations, Jesus is not going to lead a populist uprising leading to victory over their Roman overlords. Far from it. To those looking on, his triumphal entry resulted, not in glorious victory but in failure and ignominy - culminating in Jesus' brutal and inglorious and humiliating criminal's death.

And when realisation dawns that their hopes have been utterly misplaced, the mood of the crowd shifts accordingly and dramatically. Which is why, before this week is out, the very crowds who today, on Palm Sunday, greet the arrival of Jesus with shouts of 'Hosanna' and proclaim him as their King - will be howling for his blood.

In the words of a hymn we shall be singing in a few moments' time:

Sometimes they strew his way
And his sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King.
Then 'Crucify!'
Is all their breath
And for his death
They thirst and cry.

But in the glorious jumble of paradoxes that is the Christian story, the terrible irony and the terrible tragedy is that, quite unwittingly, those crowds were in fact right all along: Jesus is indeed their Messiah; their Liberator; their Saviour - but the salvation that he brings is of a kind that is far deeper and more profound and more lasting than mere political change; because it entails the transformation and liberation and salvation of the human heart - and far from being evidence of his failure, his crucifixion and death are an essential part of that process. Because Christ had to take to himself the very worst of the violence and destructive power of which human beings are capable, in order to break its power and transform that terrible destructive energy into something quite different.

We are complex, and frail, and fallen human beings. All of us. Like the astonishingly gifted but complex Oxford don, Gareth Bennett, to whom I owe so much, there is some good in the worst of us and some bad in the best of us. Like the crowd who surround Jesus in adulation on this Palm Sunday, but turn against him in violent anger on the day of his crucifixion, we too can be fickle and blind and self-obsessed - all of us.

But in the astonishing and powerful events that are about to unfold for us this coming week - the most profound exploration there can be of the reality of human frailty and the power of divine love - we are invited to embark upon a journey of discovery and transformation. It is a journey that will take us through utter desolation and despair to death and annihilation.

But as you will discover anew this year - if you take the trouble to travel with us - the story does not end there. It did not end there for Jesus; and it need not end there for us either.

So make the journey - and discover that amazing truth anew for yourself.

Amen.

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