Expecting Crowds

Who is this Jesus? One of my favorite points of entry into studying Scripture is looking at the different characters of a particular lesson and then seeing which ones resonate with me the most. In this case, you’ve got quite the cast: Jesus, his disciples, the donkey owner… Whatever the story, I’m often most intrigued by the nameless masses. The gospels often call them “the crowds”. Their participation is always more central that their general anonymity might suggest.

Imagine the feeding of the 5000 without the crowds…or the Sermon on the Mount…or the introduction of Zacchaeus…in fact, the crowds often act as a kind of Greek chorus in the life and ministry of Jesus. Even in the final drama of Holy Week, the generic “crowds” go from being the ones who celebrate Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem to those who call for his death just a few days later. There is, in the crowd, a sense of what it means to be human. And there are times when it’s a little too on the nose.

What sets our lesson today apart is that there are two different groups. There is the crowd and there is the city. The crowd spreads their cloaks and palm branches on the road. The crowd surrounds Jesus. The crowd shouts out “Hosanna!” The crowd names him as the prophet. The city, on the other hand, can only manage a question: “Who is this?” The city, in response to the parade, is in turmoil.

So my question today: Are we the crowd? Or are we the city? And which one should we be, anyway?

In our lesson, the city folks are seeing the stir this donkey-riding fellow is causing. They are curious, intrigued by all the excitement, and can only manage a simple question: “Who is this?”

The crowds, on the other hand, are the ones who already know about Jesus and are eager to celebrate him. They are the insiders, the excited ones ready to throw him a party. They elevate him and honor him with a title. And even though Jerusalem is in turmoil, they go with him willingly.

Where do you feel more affinity? Do you see yourself at home in the crowds, or in the city?

For some reason, this question has grabbed my attention today. I think it has a lot to do with the world we find ourselves in, as a church person in an increasingly non-church world. Our cultural landscape is changing dramatically, and we’re not even clear what the new landscape looks like. Some would have us believe that the separation is between those who are religious and those who are secular. That’s not the case at all, however. As a nation, we are no less “Christian” or “religious” than we have been at any time over the last sixty years. What is changing, however, is what “Christian” means.

On the one hand, churches are consolidating. Small churches are eroding as their members leave to join medium-size churches. Meanwhile, medium-size churches are breaking even as they take on these members while others fade out the back door to large churches. And large churches are facing the same reality: while people arrive from other churches, their members are departing for mega-churches. Mega-churches are growing; but almost all of them are centered around a particularly charismatic pastor (almost always the son of a pastor) so that when they retire, die, or fall in disgrace, their church disappears and the whole process starts over again.

On the other hand, the pattern of church attendance is changing rapidly. Even those who consider themselves very active in their congregations are attending less and less. Weekly attendance has become monthly; monthly has become quarterly. As weekends have more and more competition for our time, churches are on the losing end.

And on the other hand (the third hand?), those who might have had only a passing interest in church are now completely disinterested. Whereas in years past people might move to a new area and locate their bank, their grocery store, and their church, the church is being left off the list. There are the growing numbers of “de-churched”, those who have been burned by negative experiences in so-called Christian community. There are the children of the “de-churched”, who have never even set foot in the doors of a church, and whose experience of Christianity is shaped by what they see in society. And I’m sorry if I’m the one to inform you, but our co-religionists don’t always represent us well.

With all of these dynamics at work, I think our cultural reality is way more “crowd and city” than we might expect. And in that reality, we are the crowds. We surround Jesus and elevate his name with praise. The “city” might be intrigued by what we are doing, but our response is to wave palm branches and shout strange words like “Hosanna!” None of that does much to translate from our world to theirs. We might be the crowds…but should we be?

I think there’s much to be said for finding our place among the crowd in the city – and to do so with clarity and integrity. If we really believe that Jesus was the embodiment of the divine, if we really do proclaim that Jesus is the Christ, the incarnate God, holiness in fleshly human form, then the faithful church is the one that lives firmly within its culture. In other words, just as God took tangible form in first century Palestine, using the language and culture of the region, so must the church, as the so-called “body of Christ”, take tangible form in every language and culture it finds itself. And so, we must not separate ourselves into “crowds” and “cities”. We are not called to pull apart from culture. Instead, we are called to act as the bridge.

And that is both the gift and the challenge. Those of us who have been among the crowd for so long have largely forgotten what it’s like to live in the city. We have made Sunday morning worship a priority to the point that it might not even occur to us that there are other options out there. We know the insider language so well, knowing where the Narthex is and why we call it Palm Sunday and automatically bowing our heads whenever someone says, “Let’s pray” that when the city asks us “who is this” we are hard-pressed to come up with ways to translate what we believe and what we do into ways that the city might be drawn closer, let alone understand. The goal, I believe, is to be part of the crowd, living in the city, and moving between the two with clumsy grace.

How do we do this?

To be in the crowd and in the city is not easy. We like knowing who our tribe is. It helps us know whom to ignore. But living in both and in between is a much more interesting place to be! The beauty is that it is a place where we are constantly transformed – not because we want the crowd to act more like the city, but because we become the crowd that God wants us to be! You see, we know that God’s tribe is always bigger than ours. God never draws those circles as tightly as we like to. God finds pleasure in seeing us stretch – not to the point of breaking, mind you, but to the point of flexibility and growth.

Does this mean we change? Absolutely! But not the way that we might think. It’s not that we rearrange our lives in a way to accommodate a city that may not ever move beyond mere curiosity. What it does mean is that we spend more and more time with the citizens of the city in which we live.

The easy thing is to spend all of our time among the crowd. After all, they are our “people”. And yet, the faithful thing is to spend as much – if not more – time in the city square, willing to hear what it is that the city really thinks about our parades and prophets. We nurture relationships with our neighbors – not necessarily because we think they should be part of the crowd, too (though they should), but because God wants us to care about them as much as God cares about them.

Let me put it this way: it would be one thing to think of our hobbies and interests as things we can manipulate for the purpose of church growth. It would be one thing if our gym membership existed merely because we are looking for excuses to share the gospel and invite people to church. There are those for whom that works; but in this city, most of our fellow residents will simply learn to steer clear of the preachy spin class student.

It is another thing altogether to view our interests and hobbies as things that God has designed within us so that we might have relationships of integrity beyond the crowd. It is another thing altogether to sign up for an art class because we want to learn art and build authentic relationships with others who share our intrigue for creativity. If we do that, the opportunities to answer the question “who is this” will arise naturally.

The truth is that we are already there more there than we might like to admit. We are the crowds. We are here on a Sunday morning when there are an infinite number of other places we could be. We already know this Jesus. We sing his praises and give him titles like “Christ” and “Lord”. And at the same time, we are the city. Even those of us who have been in the crowds for as long as we can remember often feel like newcomers on the scene. We know there’s excitement around this Jesus, but we feel like we are just beginning to know who he is. We are intrigued, curious. We want to follow. We want to know more.

Who is this Jesus? That’s easy. In the end, he’s the one that turns the tables on us.