A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
April 11, 2019
Only a few events of Jesus’ life are recorded by all four Gospels. The events that they do all mention likely were considered by his early disciples as most essential to his mission. They are: 1. Baptism. 2. Feeding the five thousand. 3. Triumphal entry. 4. Expulsion of moneychangers from the Temple. 5. Last Supper. 6. Trial and crucifixion. 7. Resurrection. The final five events on this list occur within the span of a single week.
It would be worthwhile to consider the significance of each of these seven events. Today I invite us to focus especially on one, because we will celebrate it this coming Sunday: Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. What does that event mean for us today?
Jesus’ followers expected him to ignite a revolution against the hated occupation of their land by Rome. As late as the moment of his ascension his closest disciples thought that restoration of Israel’s independence was his ultimate aim. (Acts 1:6) When they lauded him as their king on Palm Sunday, his followers meant it literally. Israel needed a king that was not a vassal of Rome, like their current king was; they hailed Jesus as that new king.
Perhaps a major reason all four Gospel writers recorded the triumphal entry was to underscore how mistaken his followers were about his mission. That is a theme that pops up throughout their accounts, and it reaches its apex on Palm Sunday. Even though they are utterly right in lauding Jesus, his followers are utterly wrong in their expectations of him. Yet even though their misunderstanding is monumental, Jesus does not chastise them or dismiss them. We can find great solace in knowing that the same holds true for us.
This Sunday many of us will re-enact the Palm Sunday parade in some form. I preached at one of our congregations one Palm Sunday that brought a real donkey to church, which we followed on parade through their neighborhood. I loved the way they went public with their witness.
Yet I wonder whether our Palm Sunday fanfare may miss the point just as much as his followers do on that day he enters Jerusalem. We celebrate, but Jesus weeps. (Luke 19:41-44) He knows that his support is fickle, no matter its current boisterous enthusiasm. Within a few short days, his boosters will vanish. Jesus knows that even while they proclaim him king.
Enthusiasm for Jesus does not last long for Palm Sunday’s crowd. Despite its auspicious beginnings with the Triumphal Entry parade, Jesus’ final week is marked by a stream of defection by his followers. What Jesus needs is not enthusiasm, but loyalty.
The Palm Sunday crowd was excited about what they thought Jesus could do for them, rather than committed to doing what he called them to do for the sake of others. They wanted a king who would serve their interests, but he was all about setting aside all interests, whether theirs or his own.
Like the original Palm Sunday crowd, we are prone to praise Jesus for what we hope he will do for us. We pronounce him “Blessed” because we are looking for a blessing ourselves. We betray our self-interest when we choose to attend Sunday morning worship for the sake of what we get out of it. The point of worship is not to help us feel better, but to motivate and equip us to join Jesus in his journey of laying down his life for the sake of others.
Yet as mixed as our motives may be, Jesus welcomes us to call on him, just as he welcomed the Hosannas and Hallelujahs on Palm Sunday. He doesn’t give up on us for having mixed motives, any more than he gave up on the Twelve, who formed the core of the Palm Sunday parade.
And meeting our true needs is actually his joy, something underscored by the one story all four gospels share from the period between Jesus’ baptism and his final week: feeding the five thousand. Not healing, not exorcism, not even a teaching, but feeding. Apparently this miracle stood out among the apostles as his most significant. It captures something essential to Jesus’ ministry. He feeds those who hunger, both bodily and spiritually. We can bear good fruit only if we are well fed. (John 15:1-16) Everything about the final week of Jesus’ life is given in order to feed us, something we tangibly embrace whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table.
Hungry for Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister