April: Are we willing to follow Jesus?
Lent 6, Palm Sunday 2 April 2023
Psalm 118: 1-2, 19- 29, Matthew 21: 1-11
‘Cheering the humble donkey rider’
Today, we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day the proper Lenten journey ends, and the day we inaugurate Holy Week. But some will observe today as Passion Sunday, when people will hear the entire Passion narrative of the persecution and death of Jesus at Golgotha as a prelude to the observance of Holy Week.
Whether we decide to acknowledge Palm Sunday as a celebration of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, or name it Passion Sunday and use it to reflect on the passion narratives, we need to hold the tension between the joyous celebration of proclaiming Jesus as the king and the final days of suffering and execution of Jesus, the suffering servant before we finally celebrate the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday.
So let us use Palm Sunday to focus on the completion of our long Lenten journey during which we reflected on Jesus being the eternal life (Lent 2), the living water (Lent 3), the life (Lent 4) and the resurrection and life (Lent 5) as we join in spirit with the crowds who cheered for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus carefully prepared his final journey to Jerusalem. He sent his disciples into the village to bring a donkey and a colt to him. His idea of entering Jerusalem was that it was to be similar to the coming of the ruler of God’s people in the prophecy of Zechariah (9: 9). The gospel writer Matthew viewed this as the fulfilment of the prophecy.
The crowds spread their cloaks, and some put branches on the road and shouted ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, the king they proclaimed him to be. On a donkey without a proper saddle, Jesus was not a warrior king but a humble and meek servant willing to encounter his fate.
One of the readings set for Palm Sunday, Psalm 118, proclaims a joyous entry into the Temple which becomes a great reference point for the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Psalm 118 also gives a perfect balance between the concepts of Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday as it begins with great joy praising the steadfast love of God, while foreshadowing the rejection which will lead to the persecution and death of Jesus.
In 2000, more than 250,000 people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. People from all walks of life woke up early in the morning and joined in the remarkable act of strength, which led to a roll-on effect around the country for reconciliation. Reconciliation Australia was established to continue a formal process of making Australia a more just, equitable and reconciled nation. To this day, walking on the bridge along with 250,000 other Australians is the highest moment of my civic involvement in the country.
On Palm Sunday, as we celebrate Jesus riding on a donkey entering Jerusalem, let us ask ourselves, ‘Are we willing to follow him?’
Holy Week 3 April – 8 April 2023
Holy Week is a time when the church lives out the events of Jesus’ passion. We remind ourselves of what happened to Jesus in his final days, and as we reflect on the sequence of Holy Week, we become part of the story and let the story become part of us.
“In Holy Week, the ‘old story’ becomes an ever-new story as we experience once again what it means to be a community whose very life and identity derive from this week’s journey to the cross.” ( G. O’Day, On Holy Week ).
Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday)
Exodus 12: 1-4, 11-14, Ps 116: 1-2, 12-19, 1Cor 11: 23-26. John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
The texts for Maundy Thursday focus on three communal celebrations: the Passover meal, the Eucharistic meal and the foot washing.
As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we re-enact the last meal Jesus had with his disciples as a Passover meal.
The Passover meal is a poignant reminder of God’s saving acts in Exodus 12, which encourages us to have confidence in God’s future.
Foot washing is an act of hospitality, and Jesus performed it as an act of service when he washed the disciple’s feet. And this powerful act of foot washing set the tone for the new commandment: ‘Love one another, as I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Isaiah 52: 12- 53:12, Psalm 22, Heb 10: 16-25, John 18: 1-19: 42
Good Friday is the darkest day in the Christian calendar. On this day, we ponder on the suffering and death of Jesus and let Good Friday help us to recognise the reality of suffering and death and allow us to face them in faith. The execution of an innocent man in the Servant Song in Isaiah 52 mirrors Jesus, who is betrayed, denied, scorned and condemned and suffers indignities and punishment for our transgressions.
The Good Friday reading from John, the fourth gospel, is a witness, a deeply personal account that invites us to meditate on Jesus on the cross just as the gospel writer witnessed,
So, here at Golgotha, the unbearable place of execution:
Like John, we watch Jesus on the cross, the Son of Man, sent by God to be one of us, who told us the truth of what matters the most, and revealed the love of God so that we too can break walls and rules that judge and discriminate against others.
Watching Jesus on the cross, we also see the Son of God, who has a deep communion with his Father and lives a life of love.
Easter Sunday 9 April
Acts 10: 34- 43 Ps 118: 1-2, 14- 24, Col 3: 1-4, John 20: 1-18
Peek-a-boo! We are found in the Risen Lord!
Although there are little variations of the Easter account in the four gospels, they have consensus that women went to the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week and found it empty.
I wonder, has anyone ever asked what would have happened if no women had gone to the tomb on the first day of the week?
In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb while it was still dark, an important symbol in John’s account of the Easter event. We read in the previous chapter that Mary Magdalene was there at the site of the crucifixion (Jn19: 25). It must have been unbearable, for her and the others, to watch someone they loved nailed on the cross, slowly dying. She was a witness to the death of Jesus. So she is now here to wail and embalm Jesus’ body, as was customary for the Jewish people.
Mary didn’t expect anything but to find the dead body in the tomb. But instead, she saw the stone was rolled away. Her immediate conclusion was that someone must have taken the body of her Lord.
For three days, no one remembered or recollected what was said in the Scripture or what Jesus himself had said earlier while he was with the disciples and the crowds.
Hearing Mary’s report, Simon and other disciples rushed to the tomb and found the same thing. Simon went into the tomb and saw the linen wrappings lying there. This was not like the dead man walking out of the grave as described in an earlier chapter about Lazarus who came out, needing someone to unbind the cloths which were wrapped around his body and face.
However, the empty tomb itself wasn’t enough to bring joy on Easter morning until Mary met the risen Lord in the garden after Simon and the other disciple returned to their home.
But the grief-stricken Mary was still there, weeping and longing. And there she met the risen Lord who she first thought was a gardener. But when he called her name, she immediately recognised it was her teacher, Rabboni.
This reminds us of the relationship between the sheep and shepherds when Jesus said, ‘The sheep know the voice of their shepherd.’(Jn 10:4), and also in the Old Testament, the voice of God saying. “Do not be afraid; I have called you by your name; you are mine (Isaiah 43:1 ).
It is a survival instinct for newborn animals to learn to recognise their mother’s voice. Mary recognised the voice of Jesus because Jesus accepted her for who she was instead of how others regarded her.
A Korean Poet, Kim Chun Soo, has put this in his poem, The Flower; 꽃
“Before I called her name, she was nothing more than a gesture. She came to me when I called her name and became a flower.” 내가 그의 이름을 불러주기 전에는
그는 다만 하나의 몸짓에 지나지 않았다.내가 그의 이름을 불러주었을 때,그는 나에게로 와서 꽃이 되었다.
Although the gospel writer pressed on to the next point with Jesus stopping Mary from holding onto him, we need to stay a little longer on this most beautiful encounter between Mary and the Risen Lord Jesus.
Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord prefigures the holiest mysterious experience of a personal encounter open to all who love Jesus.
On this Easter, our encounter with the risen Lord makes us say, ‘I have seen the Lord’, ‘We have seen the Lord’, ‘And all will see the Lord!’.
Second Sunday of Easter , 16 April 2023
Acts 2: 1-4a, 22- 32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1: 3- 9, John 20: 19- 31
Today is the second Sunday of Easter, sometimes called “Low Sunday”, but the gospel reading brings us back to the first day of Easter. The gospel of John’s account of the disciples’ “Easter experience” provides us with continuity between the Risen Lord and the emerging church and the implication for the human community.
There is no mention of what has been shared among the disciples between Good Friday and Easter morning.
In John’s gospel, the disciples hid in fear of the Jewish leaders who plotted to kill Jesus, for they might persecute his followers as well because Jesus had said earlier: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you”. (John 15:20)
Earlier that day, Mary had told them that the tomb was empty, so Simon and the other disciple ran to the tomb and checked that this was so. Afterwards, Mary Magdalene returned and announced to them, “I have seen the Lord.”(vs 18) She also told them what Jesus had said to her. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (vs 17)
It was the evening of that day; Jesus appeared to the disciples in a locked room and greeted them, “Peace be with you”, and showed them his hands and side as proof that he was their Lord who had been nailed on the cross.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Then again, he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ Jesus did not waste any time but commissioned them, breathed on them the Holy Spirit, and gave them the message. Jesus turned the fear-stricken disciples into the seed for the emerging church with these essential elements: disciples, mission, Holy Spirit and the message of forgiveness.
Since Thomas wasn’t there when the Risen Lord appeared to the disciples on the evening of the first day of the week, his reaction was quite reasonable and also important for those who also hadn’t physically met the risen Lord.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in Jesus’ side, I will not believe.”
Thomas represents us here in our doubting, as we tend to doubt anything and everything in our world, looking for evidence-based truth, whether it is for buying a car or talking about faith.
Jesus didn’t rebuke Thomas but invited him put his finger on his hands, put it in his side, and said, “Do not doubt but believe”. This response of Jesus gives a blessing to all who come to believe Jesus without meeting him in the flesh.
The Easter experience of the disciples set a framework for the emerging church, and the experience of Thomas established a new reality for those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Aren’t we so thankful, for we are blessed, for we believe without seeing?
Third Sunday of Easter, 23 April 2023
Acts 2: 1-4a, 36- 41, Psalm 16L 1-4, 12- 19, 1 Peter 1: 17- 23. Luke 24: 13- 35
“On the road….”
This week, the third Sunday of Easter, we look at the Easter experience recorded in the gospel of Luke, which is the most extended single post-resurrection narrative in the gospels; it raises a question for us ‘What is the Easter message and what are we to do with it?’
Two disillusioned and disheartened men were walking to Emmaus, 11 kilometres from Jerusalem, on the afternoon of Jesus’ resurrection. We read in verse 33 that these two men are the followers of Jesus who went back to the disciples and the other companions to share what had happened to them on the road to Emmaus.
The experience of two men on the road to Emmaus has exciting elements as it is the most extended single post-resurrection narrative in the gospel.
The risen Jesus made himself a companion to the men. On the road trip, Jesus initiated a conversation with them. “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” (Vs 17). Cleopas, one of them, was surprised that Jesus did not know what had happened in Jerusalem in the last few days. When Jesus pushed them to tell more, they told him, starting with where Jesus came from: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’(vs19), who he was: ‘the Prophet’( vs 19), what he did: ‘Mighty in deed and words’ (vs 19 ) and that he was condemned to death and crucified by the chief priests and leaders ( vs 20). And they also mentioned what they had hoped from him, someone to redeem Israel, (vs 21). Their dreams and hopes had been shattered by the death of Jesus three days ago. They also recounted what had happened that morning, the women, the angels, and the other disciples at the empty tomb.
Upon hearing all this, Jesus interpreted for them the meaning of the scripture in reference to his suffering, death and resurrection. But their eyes were still kept from recognising him.
It was not until Jesus took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them that they did recognise him. Suddenly their eyes were opened, and they recognised him and realised that their hearts had burned within them when Jesus explained the scripture.
The two men in this story turned around and went back to Jerusalem that same hour, without delay, and shared all about what had happened to them on the road to Emmaus, with the eleven disciples and other companions. And they confessed their experience of recognition of the risen Jesus.
Walking is an excellent way of reflection, especially walking with someone else. People often find companions while walking, especially when they are prepared to share and receive the hospitality of each other.
On the way to Emmaus, two disciples met the risen Lord as a companion for their destination and on their journey toward a new life and kingdom.
In the light of Easter, we can understand fully what the scripture means and be able to interpret the long story of God’s plan for salvation. In the breaking of bread, we too, will recognise Jesus, who fed the multitude with blessing (9:16), the last supper when he revealed that the bread was his body which would be given for them, and the cup as the new covenant in his blood. ( 22: 20 ) And we might ask ourselves, in this Easter season, which road are we walking on, and who is our companion?
Fourth Sunday of Easter, 30 April 2023
Acts 2: 42- 47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2L 19- 25, John 10: 1-10
Today’s gospel reading from John chapter 10 will be better understood if we know what happened in the previous chapter.
A division was instigated by the Pharisees who did not accept and approve of Jesus’ actions.
They claimed that they were the disciples of Moses, for they knew that God had spoken to Moses but did not know where Jesus came from. (9:29). So they drove out the man who had been blind because he gave his witness to Jesus as the one from God who had opened the eyes of a person born blind.
Jesus was highly critical of the religious leaders of his day, articulating his opinion in a pastoral parable. He used the familiar ancient image of the relationship between sheep and shepherd, focusing on the character of a true shepherd of God.
The ancient Israel people saw themselves as a flock of God and God as their shepherd, which we read about in today’s psalm “ The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”(Ps 23).
Jesus regarded the Pharisees, who exercised leadership as shepherds in the community in God’s name, as thieves and bandits. A simple distinction Jesus made here is that the one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep, but the thief and the bandit do not enter by the gate but by climbing in another way.
Also, the credential for the shepherd is that the gatekeeper will open the gate for him, and the sheep will hear his voice and follow him.
Since we read this text from the gospel of John in light of the Easter event, we are reminded of the story of Mary at the tomb. When she heard her name spoken by the man she thought was a gardener by the grave, she immediately recognised that he was Jesus, her “Rabbouni” (teacher John 20: 16), just as a sheep recognises the voice of its shepherd and follows him.
Because people didn’t understand, Jesus said with great emphasis: “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (vs 9)
Jesus now refers to himself as a gate, a doorway to enable sheep to find safety and security. In other words, he is more than a guide showing people how to be saved, he himself is the salvation in which people find safety and life in abundance.
This passage from the gospel of John also provides a critical message for us today, where religious leaders, in the name of God, may restrict and exploit people with rules and regulations.
As we read this text after the Easter event, we can be more acutely aware of the role of the shepherd, who not only came to take the sheep to a safe place but also to be sacrificed so that the wayward sheep were able to return.
The relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is born out of experience. How would you develop your relationship with Jesus?
Myung Hwa Park is a former Moderator of NSW and ACT Synod