A Triumphal Entry of a Different Kind

Palm Sunday | A Triumphal Entry of a Different Kind

On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a humble donkey instead of a military war horse.   As Jesus wept over Jerusalem in his day, he weeps over our country today, which feels like a battlefield with all of the lives claimed by gun violence.  Jesus pleads that we would know the things that make for peace, so let us pledge to reject the violent ways of our world and resolve to be peacemakers in all of our relationships.

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Matthew 21:1-11


Yesterday I visited the Antietam Civil War battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.   My friend and former colleague at Bluffton University, Perry Bush, is a history professor there, and he was bringing a group of students to Antietam, so it was a good day for me to go and join them.

Just before I got to the visitor’s center,  I stopped for a little break at a local convenience store.  I grabbed a donut and when I went up to the counter to pay for it, the woman at the register said “Mennonite.”

I wasn’t sure if she was calling me Mennonite or if it was the donut, and before I could say anything, she said “those donuts are made fresh every day by Mennonites”.   Of course I would have been flattered if she thought I looked like a Mennonite! But after all these years of being one, I guess I still don’t look like one!

On to Antietam.  The first thing I learned from the ranger at the visitor center was that ground zero of the battle of Antietam was a little white church called the Dunker church, part of the German Baptist Brethren denomination, which later became known as the Church of the Brethren.

The Dunkers and the Church of the Brethren are part of our Anabaptist tradition.  They practiced believer’s baptism, hence the name “Dunkers”, maybe they dunked their donuts as well, and they were also pacifists.

So it’s ironic that while they didn’t send their young men to fight in the Civil War, one of the bloodiest battles took place at the location of one of their churches.

And bloody it was.  At Antietam, between the Union and Confederates, 23,000 soldiers lost their lives in one day, which is more casualties in one day that in any other battle in American history.

At Antietam, troops of both sides lined up in parallel rows on opposites of a cornfield, and each side advanced toward the other side, setting up a collision course that would lead to thousands losing their lives.

It’s very sobering to visit battlefields, but I think it’s important to learn about our country’s history, as painful as it can be.  It’s hard to glorify and glamourize war when you stop and think about the magnitude of the human suffering that it causes.

As I stood up on one of the hills at Antietam, and looked down on the Sunken Road where a lot of the fighting took place, I thought to myself, “Jesus must have been weeping over Antietam that day”.

And I thought of Jesus as he was mounted on a colt or donkey on the Mount of Olives, looking down on the city of Jerusalem,

And as our story says, he begins to weep.  Here he is caught up with emotion, like we saw him last Sunday weeping over the death of his good friend Lazarus.  And here Jesus cries out,

“O Jerusalem, if you would have only known the things that make for peace!”     But now the things that make for peace are hidden from your eyes!

It grieved Jesus to know that many of his own people had rejected his message of the Kingdom of God rooted in peace and forgiveness and love, and instead chose to side with the Kingdom of the Roman empire, which operated with violence, retaliation, and intimidation,.

Many of Jesus’ people were hoping for a Messiah who was like a military leader,  like Simon the Maccabee a generation before, who had mounted his stallion and driven Israel’s enemies out of Jerusalem by force in the Maccabean revolt.

After that victory in Israel’s history, people lined the streets and waved palm branches as Simon rode by.

And here we see them waving palm branches again, hoping that Jesus will be the kind of King who will give them a decisive victory over the Romans and free them from their oppression.

There are lots of people waving palm branches, because it’s the holy week of Passover, when the Jewish people flock to Jerusalem to celebrate their exodus from the Egyptian empire.

And to prevent the Jews from getting any idea of rioting, each year at Passover, Pilate, the Roman governor, led a procession to Jerusalem from the Roman capital of Caesarea, which was west of Jerusalem.  Pilate rode in on his horse and was flanked by cavalry and other soldiers.

At the same time, Jesus is entering the city from the east in a type of “counter procession”.  Pilate is on a war horse, and Jesus is on a donkey.

Theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it this way: “Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion.”

So these two kingdoms with two different set of values are on a collision course.  Now unlike what happened at Antietam, an all-out war didn’t take place that day, but it was the beginning of the end for Jesus’ earthly life, as he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a painful and humiliating death on the cross.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem wasn’t the kind of triumphal entry that most people expected or hoped for.  It was a different kind of entrance.

In fact, by many of the world’s standards, Jesus didn’t triumph at all.  He was about to go through immeasurable suffering, and carry the very cross that he would be crucified on.

Many of his own people, whom he came to save, turned against him.  In fact, most of his closest followers abandoned him when the going got rough.

But lest we get too hard on them, we need to ask, “What would we have done if we were there with Jesus?”  Would we have embraced his way of peace, and servanthood, sacrificial love, and love for enemies that was so countercultural and costly?

Or would we have betrayed him like Judas, or denied him like Peter?

2000 years later, we are faced with the same challenge and the same questions.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated continues to collide with the values of the Kingdoms of this world.

In every part of our world, people use the power they have to take advantage of, exploit, and abuse others with less power.

In every part of our world, people use the politics of fear to create enemies who need to be defeated or silenced or intimated by whatever means possible.

But what I want to focus on today is something that is a collision of values that is taking place especially in our own country, the US of A.   And it’s something that we keep seeing the painful results of, virtually every single day.

And I believe that’s something that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is weeping over, like he did when he wept over Jerusalem, and Antietam.

Now what I’m going to talk about is a hot political issue right now, and I try to use discretion when I talk about politics, because I don’t think that the Church should align itself completely with any one political party.

But the gospel of Jesus has political implications, especially when something in society contrary to the way of Jesus infiltrates the Church and becomes an idolatry.

And the issue I’m talking about is related to the picture on the bulletin—Jesus breaks the rifle.  It’s gun violence and the worship of guns that is so prevalent in our country and even in our Christian churches.

The original drawing by Otto Pankok had a rifle, and it was in the aftermath of World War II.  More recently, Kelly Latimore turned the rifle into an AR-15, which seems to be the weapon of choice for mass shootings these days.

You can get a t-shirt with this picture on it at Shane Claiborne’s website.  Of course, it reminds us of the guns into garden tools ministry that he’s part of.

This past week was just a typical week in America, as we had another mass shooting, this time at a Christian school in Nashville.

Unfortunately, it’s become commonplace in a country where there are more guns that people—400 million guns, 330 million people.  The United States has 5% of world’s population but almost half of the world’s guns.

I believe that contrary to what a lot of people think and say, guns don’t make us safer.  Where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths and suicides.

Firearms are now the #1 leading cause of death for American children and teens, recently surpassing car accidents as the #1 cause of death.

Shane Claiborne says in his book Beating Guns: “Imagine if every Christian is America took their commitment to Jesus as seriously as gun owners took take their commitment to the 2nd amendment.” (and many of those guns owners are Christians).

A popular slogan I see a lot is “God, Guns and Country”, or “God, Guns, and insert a former political leader”.   The marriage of God and guns, of the great commandment with the 2nd amendment, is pure idolatry.

I didn’t grow up around guns—we didn’t hunt, we lived in a safe suburb, and no one in my immediate family served in the military.  And being from an urban setting, gun culture isn’t as common as it is in more rural areas.

But this week I read a fascinating testimony in a newsletter from a guy named Benjamin Cremer, who grew up in a church gun culture in Idaho.  And I want to share a bit of it with you.

The title of the newsletter is “The Gun Problem is a Sin Problem”

He starts off by saying that he hears a lot of Christians say that gun violence is  “a sin problem, not a gun problem” and he says

“imagine what our culture must think when it hears the majority of Evangelicals not only oppose common sense gun laws, but even advocate that “more guns” is the needed solution. It is no wonder so much animosity is directed towards Christianity from our culture on this issue.”

Then Cremer talks about his upbringing in Idaho:

The gun was a symbol of pride and independence. The way the 2nd amendment was presented in my social circles, I understood it to be on the same level of sacredness as my Christian faith and patriotism.  The gun was not only presented as a symbol of my patriotism but also my faith.

By the time I received my concealed weapons license as a 19 year old, I understood it as a social rite of passage. I had finally checked one of the central boxes of manhood in my rural Idaho culture. I conceal carried my Glock everywhere, to work, shopping, and even church.  

I left my guns in Idaho when I moved to Kansas City for seminary. It felt like I was leaving part of my identity behind. Yet, something happened I wasn’t expecting. As I studied church history and scripture more closely than I ever had before, the symbolism around guns began to change for me.

I read the nonviolence of early Christian martyrs and their critique of the violence of the empire in shocked awe. I was stunned to see how Emperor Constantine introduced violence into the Christian faith when he made Christianity the official religion of Rome. I then read Isaiah, Micha, Joel, and other prophets like Zechariah, blown away as they prophesied about weapons being hammered into garden implements and nations not training for war anymore when the Messiah came.

The narratives of patriotism, Christianity, and especially masculinity just didn’t seem to fit what I was seeing in Jesus.  He ends by saying:

 I write this to encourage a more thoughtful dialogue around dismantling and reimagining the narratives around guns in cultures like ours. It is an invitation to see how and why guns have become so tied to Christianity in our country.

Cremer’s personal testimony helped me better understand how and why gun culture is so common in Christians and the Church.  And it’s something that we have to call out, just like any other thing that can become a god to us.

On Palm Sunday, as we think about Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey instead of a war horse, and as we live in a country that feels like a battlefield with all of the lives claimed by people using guns to kill their fellow humans, let us remember Jesus the Prince of Peace, weeping over the city he loved pleading that his people would know the things that make for peace, and let us pledge to follow Jesus by rejecting the violent ways of the world around us, and resolving to be peacemakers in all of our relationships.