I wonder whether you have ever walked, or marched, or cart-wheeled, or sambad, in any kind of procession. My very earliest memory of all is of watching my father march with the band at a naval base – I was about two years old. I can remember the beating of the drum and the sound of the band and the precise steps of the marchers… I can remember going on a student march in Oxford, protesting against something, but I can’t quite recall what. I have friends who went recently to London to march about Brexit. In my time as a minister in Salford, people told me about the ‘Whit Walks’ – where all the churches paraded round the neighbourhood; with bands and banners, with rose queens and Boys Brigade bands, all the Sunday schools in friendly competition and hymns sung while walking in new white clothes for the holiday – it was the highlight of the year. I have friends in Brazil who post photos of Mardi Gras parades, with lots of colour and music and celebration… On our British streets there are memories of marches as varied as the famous Jarrow March in the 1930s, the now regular Gay Pride marches in our big cities, and last week in Taunton I was just telling some friends what a quiet place Taunton is when we came across the Extinction Rebellion march…
In the days just before Passover in Jerusalem in the year that Jesus was crucified there were two marches into the city. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most holy time of the Jewish year. And it has now become the most Holy Week of the Christian year.
One of the processions was an imperial one. From the West, Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria entered the city at the head of a great column of imperial soliders. There were calvary and foot soldiers. There was armour and leather, with great golden eagles mounted on poles and the sun shining on metal and the gold. There was the sound of marching, the beat of drums and the music of horns. The ground trembled under the regular marching beat of the imperial army, and it must have been terrifying to behold – as it was meant to be. The power of Rome was coming to the city because it was a festival time, and the Romans knew that Jews celebrating the story of their delivery from one oppressor in Egypt might be stirred to think that they could rise up and shake off another great power, the occupying power of Rome. So, the Roman garrison that was normally stationed by the sea at Caesarea moved, for the festival of Passover, right into the dust and the smell of discontent that was Jerusalem. No doubt the soldiers would have much preferred to stay by the seaside, but the Roman Empire knew how to control a restless people and how to hold on to power. So, in this week of all weeks, they entered the city in a great procession – from the West – to show the people who was really in control and whose power was greatest.
But this procession was not just about raw military power – it was also about theology. The emperor was not just an emperor, he was also the Son of God. The great emperor Augustus was considered to be the son of Apollo and he was called ‘son of God’, ‘Lord’ and ‘Saviour’. The Emperor of this period, Tiberius, had these titles too. This was the procession that came from the West – a procession that expressed the power and ideology of the ruling culture, the power that dominated the known world, the one that made slaves of all it conquered, that took land for its own, that regarded almost every human life as cheap.
But from the East, from the Mount of Olives, came another procession, the one you and I remember today. It was quite a different procession from the Roman imperial one. There were no great war horses and chariots, no drums or horns, no glinting armour and thudding hooves on shaking ground. There was a donkey. There were peasants. There were children. There was no military music, but just the singing of children and the shouting of Hosannas. The small intimate band of disciples had come, not from a barracks in Caesarea, but from Galilee – and they were covered in the dust of their journey, hungry from a long walk and dressed in the ordinary clothes of poverty. They walked with a man who proclaimed not the power and majesty of Rome, but the love and sovereignty of God and the liberation of the poor.
We don’t have to think this contrast was a co-incidence. Jesus was not naïve or unknowing. He knew what he was doing and he planned all this, as the Gospel reading makes clear. He knew that Pilate’s procession would absolutely and terrifyingly embody the power and domination and violence of Rome, the power that was ruling the world. Jesus planned something that would represent, instead, an alternative view of the world, an alternative vision that we call the Kingdom of God. The contrast between the Kingdom of God and the world as we know it now is at the heart of the Gospel story – and Jesus, the great story teller and parable speaker – wanted to demonstrate it to all the people and to all the world.
We live now in days when you can divide us up according to whether we are Leave or Remain. There have been other times when we might have been for King or Parliament, or slave owners or anti-slavery. But the story of Palm Sunday opens up a much more fundamental choice. Which procession do we want to be part of?
One of the most powerful forces in the world as we know it now is the power of money, of finance and the lure of riches and the struggle for dominance in economic terms. Jesus says, ‘You cannot serve both God and money.’ Another powerful force is the one that divides us and categorises us by gender or ethnicity or religion – the Kingdom of God welcomes us all. The world is one in which violence erupts among us and is grasped with desperation by those who want to impose their will or view of the world on others. The Kingdom of God is a place where peace reigns. In the world in which we live, the rich think they are the ones who are blessed, but in the Kingdom of God, blessings are poured out on the poor. In the world as we know it sorrow and loss and pain are sometimes left unhealed and untended – in the Kingdom of God those who mourn are comforted. In the Roman world, children were despised weaklings, no use until they could work – but in the Kingdom of God they are the privileged attendants of the one who comes in the name of the Lord. In the Roman Empire, the Son of God was the Emperor – in the Kingdom of God, those who are born of the Holy Spirit becomes sons and daughters of God.
So, the question is, ‘Which procession do you walk with?’ We all live in the Kingdom of this world and we walk, with some of our time, to the sounds of the drums of empire and domination. But Jesus invites us to walk with him, with the donkey and the children, with the poor and the powerless, with the ones who come from the unfashionable place carrying the wounds and scars of a long walk. He does not sing the songs of Empire, but he invites us to cry Hosanna and to welcome the God who ends all empires and who sets free the poor, who sets us free too, to sing with delight in the Kingdom of God. Where will you walk, today, and for the rest of your life? With the forces of domination, wealth and oppression? Or with the children, with the poor, and with the Son of God from Nazareth, who has children as his foot soldiers and a donkey for his steed? Where will you walk?