Baccalaureate Speaker: ‘Whose Way, Truth, Life Do We Follow?’
TWO CHOICES ON A PALM SUNDAY COMMENCEMENT
Rev. Noriel C. Capulong, Senior Pastor, Silliman University Church
(Message delivered to the graduating class during the Baccalaureate Service held March 25, 2018, Silliman University Church)
Today is Palm Sunday. But today also is our university Baccalaureate Sunday and this afternoon is your graduation itself. This is the day on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey signaling the week of the Passion of Christ. May be we can also say that in a way, this is Jesus’ own graduation march or a commencement, the start of the final week of his life. Ironically, his is a commencement entrance that actually ended his own life.
This day has been described by Christians for generations as the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” But, have you ever asked yourself, “If this was a triumphal entry, then why did they crucify Jesus at the end of the week?”
So, we have a problem today that we need to address. Your baccalaureate and commencement day which is supposed to celebrate the successful completion of your formal college studies in different disciplines falls on a day that eventually points not to the successful completion of the life mission of Jesus but to the tragic end that awaits him a few days later. If this is such a glorious Sunday for all Christians why then would we see Jesus being betrayed by one of his own disciples, arrested , accused by a coalition of religious leaders, denied three times by his closest associate, tried by the Roman governor, and sentenced to die the death of a common criminal—death by crucifixion. Instead of a triumphal entry of the Lord this is more of a tragic entry itself.
Actually, Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not the only procession the city saw on that day. They also witnessed the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, lead a procession of Roman cavalry and centurions into the city of Jerusalem entering from the western side of the city, the opposite side from which Jesus enters. (The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, p.1)
Imagine the spectacle of this other entry. Pontius Pilate leading his Roman soldiers on horseback and on foot, all clad in leather armor, with deadly, shining swords in their scabbards. On their heads are hammered helmets gleaming in the bright sunlight, and in their hands, each centurion carried a spear. Drummers beat out the cadence of the march for this was no ordinary entry into Jerusalem.
Actually, it was standard practice for the Roman governor of a foreign territory to be in its capital for religious celebrations and it was the beginning of Passover, a strange Jewish festival that the Romans just allowed, even if they may be aware that this festival celebrated the liberation of the Jews from another empire, that of Egypt.
So, Pilate had to be in Jerusalem. Later he will preside over the trial of Jesus. Before this, Pilate had been busy putting down all the uprisings that had been taking place in various parts of the territory. He just recently put down rebellions in Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee and Emmaus . In those rebellions he had crucified over 2,000 Jews who were accused of being part of the rebellion. The Romans had made their intolerance for rebellions well-known. And so on this occasion, Pilate entered Jerusalem, the capital of the Jews with a contingent of Rome’s finest from his headquarters in Caesarea-by-the-Sea.
This sight alone and the thought it evokes was meant to remind the Jews of what would happen if ever there was a wide-scale uprising. And, it was meant to intimidate the citizens of Jerusalem, who might think twice about joining such a rebellion for it will surely be crushed.
We can say that this was a day of two processions, so let’s get back to Jesus and his entry into Jerusalem. If Pilate’s procession was meant as a show of military might and strength, Jesus’ procession was meant to show the opposite. Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus’s own words, as he instructs his disciples to go in to the city and find a donkey tied up. They are to ask the owner if they may use the donkey, and they are to say that “the Lord needs them.”
Then, Jesus quotes from Zechariah 9:9, “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ In other words, Jesus’ quote from the prophet Zechariah reminded those who heard him of the entire passage. The message they heard was, “God will send a king and deliver the nation from the oppressor”—in this case, Rome! But, the king they seek will come to them humbly, not on a mighty war horse, but on a slow-moving donkey, the symbol of a king who comes in peace and humility, according to Zechariah.
The two processions could not be more different in the messages they convey. Pilate, leading his Roman centurions, asserts the power and might of the empire of Rome which crushes all who oppose it. Jesus, riding on a young donkey, embodies the peace and tranquility of God’s shalom.
Those who watch that day will make a choice. They will either serve the god of this world, the god of might, success and power; or they will choose to serve the king of a very different kind of kingdom, the kingdom of God where love instead of might will prevail.
For, you see, Pilate was serving a Son of God, too. The late emperor Augustus, who ruled from 31 BC to 14 AD, was said to have been fathered by the god, Apollo, and conceived by his mother, Atia. Inscriptions referred to him as “son of God,” “lord,” and even, “savior.” After his death, the legend had it that he was seen ascending into heaven, to take his place among the gods. Until later in the first century the emperors would demand to not only be addressed as “God,” but to be worshipped as God also.
A contrast between kings and kingdoms was on display that day in Rome. And, although many of the common people thought they sided with Jesus, they did so for the same reasons the others sided with Rome. They thought Jesus could do for them what Rome had done for their rulers—make their lives better, deliver them from the oppressive system under which they lived and worked, and turn the tables on the Romans.
That’s why the crowd turns on Jesus by the end of the week. They don’t think he’s going to do any of those things. So, when Jesus is brought by Pilate before the angry mobs, they just want to be rid of him. Jesus, in their minds, never did what they wanted him to do. He never defeated the Romans, he never dissolved the unfair tax system, he never gave the common people freedom from colonial oppression. In truth, he never would.
But for one moment, here is a question you can reflect on, “If you had seen both processions passing by, which would you choose to follow?” As graduates of a university professing one Lord who is the way, the truth and the life, we have to make a clear choice, whose way, whose truth, whose life do we follow, emulate and obey? Which model of life and values would be our source of inspiration and emulation? Will it be a life that is mainly to be obsessed with power, success and might? Or will it be a life devoted to using your gifts, your talents for the service of the people for whom God cares so much?
Will it be a life of constant striving to acquire and possess, or will it be a life of offering yourself to serve and witness to the higher values and life purpose to which Jesus is calling us? Because this is the choice we make each day. To choose power and might over love and service. To choose “the way things are done today” over “the way God intends them to be.” Two processions. Two theologies. Two choices. Which would you choose? What kind of a king in your life do you expect to rule over you? And so, my dear ones, when you leave the halls of Silliman, roam the world o’er near or far, may the truth and faith she taught you be always your guiding star, the truth that sets you free, the faith that redeems us all, now and always. God bless you all. Amen.