Originally published as a reflection in the MCC North London newsletter, 25th March 2010
As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven! – Luke 19:37-38
Throughout Lent we have been looking at what it means to follow Jesus and asking, what are we prepared to do for him? This week, as we head into Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we have the opportunity to follow Jesus in triumph in his final entry into Jerusalem.
This was the pinnacle of Jesus’ ministry, the paradoxical moment at which his followers were rejoicing in his arrival and he was beginning to prepare for his betrayal and violent departure. To follow him at this moment, to be walking with him as his followers were spreading their cloaks out for him in the road, waving palms, shouting and praising God, must have been the most incredible privilege. For a group of poor men from small towns outside Jerusalem to be greeted like that in the holy city itself, I can’t imagine how that must have felt.
It would have been a moment when it was easy to follow Jesus, when there was reflected glory to bathe in, when the disciples felt like the most important men in the world. All Jesus’ followers in the city – men, women and children, from all social classes – at that moment really committed to Jesus. They were a strong group with faith; strong enough to put the wind up the Pharisees.
And so it was the turning point in the Pharisees’ attitude to Jesus. They realised that he had a strong and loyal band of followers; they were scared that he threatened their monopoly on religious teaching in the city, they were scared of losing their power and influence in Jewish society. This was the moment when a group of Pharisees decided it was time to approach Herod and Pilate and tell them that Jesus was leading a band of rebels, that he threatened the stability of Roman rule in Palestine and that their only option was to arrest him as a dangerous revolutionary.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Pharisees really believed that Jesus was dangerous, and I know his teachings were revolutionary. We are blessed that they did not succeed in stifling Jesus’ message, nor in halting the spread of his name across the empire, but for a time it must have looked like they had succeeded.
In one short week, Jesus went from entering Jerusalem in triumph to being arrested, sentenced and publicly executed. In one short week, the followers who were so committed to him on Sunday had disappeared by Friday. They were prepared to follow him in times of joy, but were too scared to stand beside him and share the burden of his punishment. Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, many more withdrew and pretended he had never been their leader. People felt let down, they couldn’t see past the arrest and execution to realise that Jesus was still the Messiah and their saviour. Jesus knew this, and knew that he was alone on his final walk that Friday, There were people following, and mourning, but they no longer felt like his disciples – his pupils – they were weeping for their loss, for their mistaken faith in a man who was fallible. ‘Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.”‘ (Luke 30:28), he was reminding them that it was not his frailty that had led to this moment, but humanity’s dark and selfish heart.
I wonder how many people truly heard that message? I believe Simon of Cyrene understood, when he carried the cross for Jesus. I believe that the women who stood at the foot of the cross understood. Eventually, I know that the disciples came to understand, but they had to see the resurrected Christ first.
So when we get into Palm Sunday, remember that Jesus had this wonderful moment of triumph and glory. Remember that it is wonderful to follow Jesus when life is going well. But also take some time to think about what it means to follow Jesus when times are hard. Could we take up his cross? Could we still have faith as we watched him die? I pray that I could, and I pray that I will find the strength in times of darkness in my own life to have the strength of Simon and Mary, a faith that doesn’t weaken when this world is cruel and cold.
Jerusalem today (taken December 2008)