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What if Jesus Hadn't
Palm Sunday, March 28, 1999

ISAIAH 50:4-9a

What if Jesus hadn't died? While I was in Palo Alto, we had two pulpit exchanges with a Jewish congregation. Many from both congregations attended both services. They served us dinner on Friday evening, and we hosted them on Sunday to an old-fashioned Methodist potluck! The topic of the first exchange was "Jesus." At their Friday evening Sabbath service, I shared some of the history of Christian beliefs about Jesus, emphasizing how there are differences among Christians. They were very interested for they had assumed that all Christians believe the same thing, as we assume all Jews are alike! At our Sunday morning worship service, the cantor told us how Jews understand Jesus. Of course he was asked, "Why don't Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah?" His answer was brief and simple, "Because he died."

What if Jesus hadn't died? Jesus came to usher in the kingdom of God. "The kingdom is near," he preached. What if the people had rallied around him, believed his message, and followed him? What if the disciples had stood by Jesus when he was arrested? What might Pontius Pilate have done if twelve stood there with Jesus, or if all the women and others in his company had stood by him? What if the Palm Sunday throngs who shouted "Hosanna!" on Sunday had stood by him on Friday? I can't help but also wonder about the 5,000 back in Galilee. Jesus miraculously fed them with two loaves and five fish. They were so impressed they wanted to make him their king. They were ready to crown him. Jesus doubted their sincerity; he accused them of looking for free lunches. Jesus must have been right, for where were the 5,000 when he rode into Jerusalem and was killed? What might Caiaphas, the high Priest and his council, the Sanhedrin, have done if 5,000 had followed Jesus into Jerusalem? How different it might have been!

Eugene Peterson, translator of the New Testament and Psalms into the popular version, The Message, described his first convert in The Christian Century magazine last September. Let me read a few excerpts.

Garrison, the school bully, took me on as his project for the year...I had been taught in Sunday school not to fight and so had never learned to use my fists...Most afternoons after school he would catch me and beat me up. He also found out that I was a Christian and taunted me with "Jesus-sissy."

I tried finding alternate ways home by making detours through alleys, but he stalked me and always found me. I arrived home every afternoon, bruised and humiliated. My mother told me that this had always been the way of Christians in the world and that I had better get used to it. I was also supposed to pray for him.

...And then something unexpected happened. I was with my neighborhood friends, seven or eight of them, when Garrison caught up with us and started in on me, jabbing and taunting, working himself up to the main event. That's when it happened--something totally uncalculated, totally out of character. Something snapped in me. The Bible verses disappeared from my consciousness and I grabbed Garrison. To my surprise, and his, I realized that I was stronger than he. I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. I couldn't believe it--he was helpless under me. It was too good to be true. I hit him in the face with my fists. It felt good and I hit him again--blood spurted from his nose, a lovely crimson on the snow. By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on.

...I said to Garrison, "Say Uncle." He wouldn't say it. I hit him again...And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said, "Say, 'I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.'" And he said it. Garrison was my first convert.

What I wonder is, what if Eugene's friends had stood up for him? Surely there is strength in numbers. Couldn't seven or eight boys handle Garrison? Why did they abandon Eugene to take all those beatings?

On my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, most of the pilgrims were from Palo Alto Church. We were a bus load. On Saturday evening, the guide told us that on Sunday morning at 8:00, sirens would sound all over Israel to call the nation to a moment of silence to remember the six million victims of the holocaust. We decided to hold a Communion service on the shore of Galilee at the spot where it is believed the resurrected Christ appeared, called to his disciples who were fishing, prepared breakfast for them, and while they ate, Jesus asked Peter, "Do you love me?" We arrived there early. I told the group we would begin the Communion service, and would stop whatever we were doing when we heard the sirens, and that we also would observe the time of silence to remember the six million who died such horrible, inhumane deaths at the hands of the Nazis. It was a beautiful morning, warm, the sun was shining, the lake was calm. We began the service. Just as we finished praying the Prayer of Confession, confessing our sins, the sirens blew. What a poignant moment!

On behalf of the world who did nothing when Hitler marched into Germany's neighboring countries, we confessed our sins. On behalf of the world who did nothing when Jews all over Europe were rounded up like cattle, herded onto trains, unloaded into concentration camps where they were experimented upon and then gassed, their bodies thrown into trenches; on behalf of the world who did nothing, we confessed our sins. How different it might have been if the disciples and the 5,000 had stood with Jesus! How different it might have been if civilized nations, Christianized nations, had stood together in opposition to Hitler.

Now the same thing is happening. The world did nothing when the Serbs slaughtered Bosnians, ethnic cleansing it is called. Now it is Kosovo. I'm not necessarily advocating military action, but I do believe we must stand up for those who are being slaughtered. The parallels are striking. The isolationists are at it again, as they were prior to World War II. "Mind our own business," they say. I imagine the 5,000 told one another, "We need to mind our own business." I imagine those who waved the palms and shouted, "Hosanna!" felt it wasn't their business to interfere.

Military action is not necessarily the only option. Jesus, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated nonviolent resistance. Jesus disappointed the populace because he was not the kind of Messiah they wanted. They wanted a military hero who would lead the Zealots into war against Rome. They wanted a liberator, not a messiah like Isaiah described in Isaiah 50:6, "I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting." When Jesus was arrested and abused by the soldiers, Jesus did not fight back. He did not resist. He suffered, he suffered the pain and the humiliation. "Not much of a Messiah," the leaders and the populace concluded.

What if Jesus hadn't suffered? What if Jesus had fought back? What if Jesus had used his power to defend himself? Isaiah described the kind of Messiah it takes to save us, which Christians believe Jesus fulfilled and exemplifies. The kind of power which the world emulates uses force to get its way. Power which intimidates, threatens, and forces obedience and acquiescence might change outward behavior, but it does not change the heart. Parents who use punishment, spankings, and threats may achieve short-term results, but rarely do they achieve long-term cooperation, respect, and support. Love, cooperation, friendship, loyalty cannot be earned by the force of power.

Philip Yancey writes, "Power, no matter how well-intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. In a point of convergence on a hill called Calvary, God renounced the one for the sake of the other." Jesus chose suffering over power, because suffering love will win in the long-term. "From cover to cover, the Bible tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get his family back." (Yancey) To get his family back requires, not what the world calls power, but suffering love. Marilyn Andered wrote in Good News,

Jesus suffered so we might be comforted. Jesus was rejected so we would be accepted. Jesus was forsaken so we would never be abandoned. Jesus carried a heavy cross so our load would be lightened. Jesus emptied himself so we could be full. Jesus was buried in a borrowed grave so we could go to a place prepared for us. Jesus rose from the dead so we might have eternal life. Now that's power!

What if Jesus hadn't suffered and died? But, he did suffer, and he did die. Through his suffering and his death, we are reconciled with God. We enter into relationship with God. We receive salvation. And, we find our calling--to stand together with Jesus who stands with those who are hurt, mistreated, victimized, and killed; to stand together with Jesus against bullies and tyrants.

© 1999 Douglas I. Norris