Last Tuesday at our Gospel Reflection Group we were having a talk about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. I raised the question of ‘Why did he do it?’ and “Surely he must have known that by going into the Temple and wrecking everything, he would have provoked the authorities to do something against him. Was this Jesus’ plan? To provoke the authorities to act?” Some members of the group responded with ‘But this was God’s plan, that he should be crucified to save us. He must have known that this was what he was doing.’
So here is a question and a statement: each one has behind it a way of thinking about Jesus that is different and which I think serve different purposes. I would like to explore these a bit.
The statement’s starting point is faith in Jesus as God’s Son and Saviour. It then says ‘Because this is the case, then the attributes that belong to God, like knowing what will happen, having power over life and death (including his own) are all part of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.’ Just as the prophet Isaiah was speaking about Jesus when he said ‘Behold a young woman will conceive and bear a son and call him ‘God-is-with-us’, so Jesus knew his destiny and what would happen because he was God’s Son.
There is plenty of evidence in the Bible for this. As Peter says in his Speech in Acts Ch. 2: “This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.“ And St. Paul says of Jesus in Second Corinthians “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. “ And in St. John we read Jesus saying ‘No one takes my life from me: I lay it down and I take it up again, and I give life to anyone I choose.’ Who Jesus is for us is Christ; the Son of God; Lord, the One whom God raised from the dead. We know Jesus in these relationships to us, even though he was once ‘just a man’ as the song from Jesus Christ Superstar goes. For the sake of affirming that ‘Jesus is Lord’ the statements about what Jesus ‘would have known as God’s Son’ serve very well.
But for other purposes, I find them a bit alienating. There are two things I would like to say that make the first question ‘What on earth was he trying to do!!’ worth asking.
The first thing that I want to reflect on is this. When Isaiah said ‘A young woman shall bear a Son and call him ‘God-is-with-us’, he was talking about the son to be born to King Ahaz in the 730s BCE. Isaiah goes on to say that before the boy is very old, the kings who are threatening Israel will be gone. It is clear enough. But after Easter, when the disciples had come to believe in Jesus as God’s Son: the incarnation of the Word made Flesh, then, on reflection, it made sense to see the idea of ‘God-with-us’ as applying to Jesus: especially given the potentially dangerous (out of wedlock) conditions of his birth. This is what is happening all the time after Easter. The early Church is reflecting on the events which it experienced in the light of the Scriptures, trying to make sense of them. They do. Instead of Good Friday’s being a horrible set back for all the hopes of the people who believed in Jesus before then, Good Friday becomes, by the time John’s Gospel is written, a sign of the Glory of God and a judgement on the people who did it to him, not a judgement of them upon him!
This process can be seen in operation too in the story of the road to Emmaus. The structure of the story is just like our Eucharist. That’s the first thing. We have the ministry of the ‘Word’ and then ‘The Breaking of the Bread’. So in reading this story we know that we are not just hearing a ‘story about what happened’ but a story about how these two, Clopas and his companion come to understand the events of Easter in church: Just as we do!
Clopas and his companion are running away from the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion and their own disappointment (like us!). But they meet Jesus (though do not yet fully know him) and He unpacks the Bible for them to help them understand what had happened. That is exactly what the early Church did, and it is exactly what we do. In the light of the events of our lives we break open the Scriptures in the hope of finding their guidance and knowledge and encouragement for our journey ‘to Emmaus and back to Jerusalem.’ This story makes us contemporaries of Clopas and the early Church because in trying to understand Jesus and Easter, we do exactly the same thin as they did: in the presence of the risen Christ, reflect on the Scriptures. But then the second part of their ‘church’ happens. The early Church recognised the presence of the risen Christ as they met to break bread together: as they forgave one another, as they bore one another’s burdens, and they celebrated and suffered together around the Eucharist in faithfulness to Jesus’ command, He was there with them. This was the experience of Clopas and his companion exactly this is exactly our experience.
We are not separated from these early times but joined to them because we do the same kind of things and have the same experiences as they had. Like them, our life in faith is lived forwards (by faith!) and understood backwards: just like the life of the first Christians. This story, which is set on one day, describes the process which happened over many years and is exactly what we do in Church each Sunday.
Second I want to ask ‘As a disciple of Jesus, what kind of a person am I following? If the contours of my faith are only centred on acclamations like ‘Jesus is Lord!’, then I have no idea what kind of a Lord Jesus is. It means that the stories about how Jesus behaved in the Gospels are not important in giving me an insight into whom I follow, because all I have to know is ‘Jesus is my personal lord and Saviour.’ That is certainly something, and important. But how he is my ‘Lord’ depends upon my knowing something about how Jesus behaved. There has to be a trustworthy connection between the Jesus depicted in the Gospels, and the kind of Saviour I have. This is John’s promise to us in his Gospel. The presence of the Spirit will teach us everything about Jesus, and how to apply the ‘Spirit of Jesus’ to our situations.
So, in asking the question ‘What was Jesus trying to do by riding into Jerusalem on a Donkey?’ I am trying to understand what claims he was making, and why the Romans thought him so dangerous as to execute him by crucifixion, I will have a feel for ‘what kind of a person he was/is’ and so I can get a feel for what kind of a disciple I should be to follow him. The same goes for his healing touch, and confrontation with hypocritical religion.
There is a lot more to be said, but no space here.