By Ellen Sims
Texts: Luke 19: 28-48; Luke 22: 39-54
Holy Week pivots on the mood swings of a mob.
The needful multitudes who appealed to Jesus for wisdom and healing . . .
became the triumphal crowd who cheered his entrance to the capital city . . .
became the angry mob who jeered and shouted “Crucify him.”
In the span of a week, adoring followers became the blood thirsty mob.
That terrifies me. Not only because violence ended the life of Jesus. But mainly because the contagion of violence happens still. I suspect this reality underlies the popularity of zombie movies. Violence infects and spreads in a crowd just that way, turning us all into the deadly dead.
In holy week we recognize how Jesus resisted group pressure—from his disciples, from the crowd, from the authorities. He never succumbed to or fed their dependence on violent solutions. He did not yield to the temptation of might. Not in word or deed. (And I’m prepared to argue why overturning the money changers’ tables in the Temple was not a violent act.) He did not resort to violence even when, as an innocent man, he was attacked, arrested, mocked, degraded, tortured to death. The mob could kill him but not his spirit of peace. Which indeed lives on.
Holy Week exposes so clearly the archetypal mob. It’s a group that begins by feeling aggrieved and persecuted. (Some mobs are comprised of true victims; some are folks who’ve succumbed to a victim mentality at the expense of real victims.) This archetypal mob then fixates on a hero to champion and an anti-hero to scapegoat. The hero may or may not intentionally play to the crowd’s fears, may or may not aspire to be the crowd’s king. But a violent energy can grow and soon is impervious to reason.
I want to bracket the next moment to speak to our children: Sometimes people will do something in a group that they would never do by themselves. Sometimes we can be braver and kinder in a group—and that is one reason we come together as a church. But sometimes people get meaner when they are in a group. One person in the group is mean. And that leads others to meanness. Then it’s hard to be the only one who says, “No, I’m not going to do that. It’s unkind.” But there are times you will have to do that. And later you will be glad you did not follow the crowd. Already there have been times when you made the hard choice of not going along with a group doing something you knew was wrong. That is hard. I’m sorry it is hard. But you did the right thing by choosing God’s way of love and kindess. We are proud of you.
Adults, we fall into this Group Trap, too. The crowd-turned-mob in Jesus’s Jerusalem has been seen in other places and times. Each time people later look back on that historic hinge moment, mystified. “How is it possible,” people in the late 20th century asked, “that the German people permitted Hitler’s rise to power and condoned genocide?” “How is it possible,” some wonder today, “that fellow citizens are captivated by bombastic belligerence and think bullying is a sign of leadership?”
God help us.
God help us look to Jesus.
Jesus offered a foretaste of what this world can be like if God’s ways hold sway. But that upside down kingdom of God in which the meek inherit the earth is hard to fathom much less put into practice. So the crowd cheered Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as if they were at a coronation. They were supporting Jesus for the wrong reason. And when the authorities arrested him and the crowd’s dream for a military/political/religious coupe was squashed, they denied him en masse the way Peter would deny him as an individual.
We’ll say more about that part of the story at our Good Friday service. Today we’re left to ponder the way Jesus avoided group think and inoculated himself against using its resulting violence.
Look at today’s fourth and final Gospel passage again. Luke tells us that, “as was his custom,” Jesus withdrew to pray. Prayer and meditation open our hearts and wire our brains for compassionate responses to life’s provocations. Nonviolent words and ways must be practiced. Otherwise, our reptilian brains automatically react with flight or fight impulses. Just as the participants in the heroic lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 underwent careful training to be able to withstand verbal and physical assaults without retaliation, so we, people of Christ’s peace, need regular practice in peace that begins by strengthening our inner resources. We need to so cultivate an inner peace that we can tap into that source of calm in emergencies. As Jesus did.
Let’s pause now for peace practice with a visualization based on the story of Jesus’s prayer in the garden and subsequent arrest:
Imagine a scenario in which someone is provoking you to an angry outburst that could only worsen a situation. You may want to close your eyes. Picture an angry person, but don’t recall an actual painful experience of conflict or an extreme example of conflict. What emotions do you feel as you imagine an angry person standing before you? What physical sensations? Even if the situation is not physically threatening, you might react by breathing faster. Muscles tightening. Throat constricting. Heart pounding. Hands clinching. Now try to move mentally from the angry face in front of you into a calm space where only God’s peace can enter. Outside this safe space between you and the angry person is a sword that you might pick up, a sword like the one Jesus’s disciple used to try to prevent Jesus’ arrest. But there is also nearby a cup, a cup of compassion and self-giving, a cup Jesus prayed would not be necessary.
In a moment we will take time to breathe deeply, calmly as we imagine choosing the cup, not the sword, that stands between you and the angry friend outside this space of calm. And as we “drink in” calming breaths, try to find one small ounce of compassion for the person standing just outside this calm center. Try to imagine that a calmer you could reduce the anger. (PAUSE FOR SILENCE) Open your eyes.
This way is not easy. We get so much practice in a culture that applauds angry retorts as if nasty comebacks are an art form. Even Jesus’s disciples reacted instinctively with violence—one drawing the sword. Jesus not only refused to do violence. He healed the enemy. “No more of this!” he commanded. Did all violence cease? Of course not. The authorities took him from the prayer garden to try, torture, and kill Jesus. Violence and more violence.
But imagine how many would have died that night in the prayer garden and later in the streets of Jerusalem if Jesus and the disciples had fought against the arresting party.
Think of a world in which all lived Christ’s peace. This is the vision Jesus died for. This is the vision you and I can live for.
Jesus, your last miracle was to heal a man among those who came to arrest you. Reach out to us and heal us of our violence. AMEN