Not Crowded Out

Reflection for Palm Sunday

It’s been a quite while since most of us have been part of any crowd. Certainly the largest gatherings that I’ve been part of, in the past year, would be the congregations here at All Saints’ and on Christmas Day – with around 100 people. Not exactly huge then!

But we’ve been reminded recently of the power, and unpredictability, of ‘the crowd’.
The recent vigil on Clapham Common, in response to the murder of Sarah Everard was described as “initially sombre with most people speaking in hushed tones or quietly reflecting.”
But then, first some speakers hijacked the event for their own agenda and, after dark, the sheer numbers present gave to many of those gathered a sense of strength and a determination not to be shepherded by the police or local councillors urging them to disperse. There IS strength in numbers, and sometimes a general feeling of dissatisfaction can gain powerful momentum and focus.

That’s been very evident in the protests in Bristol over the past week – demanding the right to protest, and causing a significant amount of damage in the process.
I don’t want to get into the rights or wrongs of either protests – what I’m interested in is the way that gathering in large numbers can somehow heighten the emotions of all those present, and the way that the mood of the whole crowd can be swayed – very powerfully and very quickly – by even a small number of determined voices.

It only takes one determined heckler in the room, to give any stand-up comedian a seriously bad day.

The crowds who welcomed Jesus were quite a mixture.
There were those who’d been following him – drawn by the things he’d been saying and doing; or by the stories told about this man who appeared, only recently, to have raised Lazarus from the dead.
There were also, no doubt, those who were drawn by the crowd itself – who just wanted to know what was going on: caught up in the excitement without really knowing what it’s about.
And there were those who knew plenty – who saw in Jesus a man whose claims were quite possibly blasphemous, and who very likely represented a threat to their own authority. They were there to see for themselves just what that threat looked like, in person.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowd welcomes him – full of anticipation and rejoicing. They had no red carpet to roll out for him – but the cloaks that some laid down were expensive things: an extravagant gesture –echoed by those who laid down the leafy palm branches to soften the way.
And the shouts of welcome were for a king – who comes in the name of God.

Clearly, that was too much for the Pharisees, keeping careful watch from within the crowd.

And, in Matthew’s version of this event, they demand that Jesus should “order his disciples to stop”. Jesus refuses, claiming that even if the crowd were silenced, the stones around them would cry out instead. The power of this moment cannot be stopped.

But, as with any demonstration or gathering, the mood can change very quickly. And within a matter of days, those scheming for Jesus’ downfall will have sown enough doubt in the hearts and minds of those around them, to turn the cheering crowds into the baying mob – demanding Jesus’ execution.
Again, the shifting emotions are somehow intensified by the sheer numbers in the crowds; and no pleading for calm or reason, even from the Roman Governor himself, will be heard by them.
And with that shift of mood, Jesus’s fate is sealed.

Interesting to note then, how Jesus handles all this.
By now surely Jesus IS aware what his role must be – he has already been preparing his disciples for the time when he will no longer be with them: reluctant though THEY may have been to hear what he was telling them.

Jesus neither hide as away from the crowds,
nor seeks to change them –
he makes no attempt to silence the excited shouts of welcome, nor to counter the savage demands for his death.

Instead, it seems, he works with the crowds – accepting, and even encouraging, the intensity of their emotions – but subtly reinterpreting those things.
Yes he IS a king – but not quite in the sense that they had imagined. Yes he MUST die, but not because he claimed to be God, but because he IS God – determined to reveal the depth of his love for those same crowds, and for all people.
I wonder if there’s something in that for us to take on board, as we react to the people around us,
and the crowds who gather around the causes of today.

When Paul urges the Philippians, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” – it is a call for obedience, for control over their own emotions.

Not much is new in any generation – but old emotions can still run high. And perhaps the example of Jesus should encourage us not to try to shut down the voices of today’s crowds, as the Pharisees did –
not to seek to change the story, as Pontius Pilate did,
but to try and sense the mood of the people – what is driving people to gather and protest – and to reinterpret those things:
to help give meaning to the today’s events within the context of God’s unfolding story across the ages.

All humanity and all eternity is held in tension within the mysterious figure who rides into Jerusalem – to be welcomed, rejected, crucified and to rise again.
We have quite a week ahead of us – go with the crowds, but keep your eyes on him.