March 31—Christ or Caesar?


This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
Matthew 21:4-5

Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,

We are on the cusp of Holy Week. This Sunday, Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion, calls us all, once again, to “enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God has] given us life and immortality” (BCP, p. 270).

Filled with riotous activity, betrayal, violence, pathos, and love, Holy Week is a week of contrasts. The primary contrast? The contrast between the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, and the way of Empire, proclaimed by Rome and Caesar and symbolized by the pomp, circumstance, and brutality of Pontius Pilate.

A few years ago, biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan teamed up to write a compelling book about Holy Week. The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007) is a close, reflective look at the scenes and events of the week we call “holy” using the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels, as a primary lens.

Borg and Crossan describe the events of that first Palm Sunday and present it as a clash of two disparate social orders and theologies. They write:

Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30….One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession.[1]

About the implications of this, they observe:

This king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land—no more chariots, war-horses, or bows. Commanding peace to the nations, he will be a king of peace. Jesus’ procession deliberately countered was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God.[2]

Noting that Pilate represented Caesar, who claimed to be “Son of God,” asserting thereby his own divinity,[3] they add:

This contrast—between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar—is central not only to the Gospel of Mark, but to the story of Jesus and early Christianity.[4]

It seems to me this contrast remains equally central to us as Christians today.

Our faith, our belief in Jesus as the Christ, calls us into God’s kingdom and God’s way of love. This way is given its most profound expression with Christ’s crucifixion on Calvary. It is about self-surrender, self-sacrifice, ultimate and unconditional love. This way is, or ought to be, in sharp contrast to the ways of the dominant, self-centered, violent, dare I say, “imperial,” culture in which we live our everyday lives. In this latter world, we are all “commodified,” and profit is the most absolute value. In such an environment, elementary school children are brutally murdered, callously sacrificed on the altar of gun-idolatry and little action is taken in response.[5] In Christ’s kingdom of peace, this is nothing less than an abomination. There are so many things, so many aspects of our world and of our lives that dehumanize us, draw us from one another, draw us from the love of God, derail and distract us.

As we enter Holy Week 2023, reenact Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem in the year 30, as we begin our contemplation of those mighty acts whereby God has given us life and immortality, events are unfolding in our nation, marked by great theatrics and displays of bravado, that threaten to derail and distract us, draw us away from Jesus and his kingdom during this most sacred time of the year.[6]

Where will your attention be this Holy Week? From what will you draw meaning and purpose? What events will offer you life and immortality? What procession will capture you? Will your heart and mind be on the true king entering the city, humble and riding on a donkey? Or will you be distracted by a different procession featuring yet another pretender to God’s throne?

May you and yours have a blessed Holy Week focused on the one who truly saves.

Faithfully in Christ,

Bishop Stokes's Signature________________________

[1] Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), Kindle e-book pages 1-2

[2] Borg and Crossan, 4

[3] Borg and Crossan, 3

[4] Borg and Crossan, 4

[5] The reference is to the March 27, 2023 shooting at Covenant Elementary School which resulted in the murders of three school-age children and three adults.

[6] At the time of this writing, it has been reported that former President Donald Trump has been indicted by a New York Grand Jury and will be arrested and arraigned on Tuesday, April 4, 2023 which is Tuesday of Holy Week.