Today is Palm Sunday, the day we Christians commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as he rode among a crowd of disciples and well-wishers who cried out "Hosanna," a word meaning "God saves." They continued, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!"
Of course, today is also the beginning of Holy Week. Our observation turns to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We remember not only foot-washing and the Last Supper but also betrayal and denial. There is another crowd, this one outside a supposed trial in the court of Pilate, calling for Jesus' crucifixion.
Was it one crowd or two? In a city the size of Jerusalem, it is of course easily conceivable that there were several different "crowds" around. The descriptions of the people in the crowds seem different; the gospels describe the Palm Sunday crowd as "disciples" while focusing on the "religious leaders" as the impetus for the Thursday night gathering. Maybe more to the point, just in exercising some emotionless analysis, the motives and goals of the two crowds seem so different.
On the other hand, we know of at least two - Judas and Peter - who were in both, and it does not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that there were many others with one foot in each crowd. Maybe some were there on Sunday because they thought that Jesus, who had finally decided to come to Jerusalem, was there to overthrow the Romans; when it was clear by midweek that such was not His goal, they may have easily turned. Maybe some had no real idea what a "messiah" would be, and by Thursday, they knew that Jesus was not what they were looking for.
The trial of Jesus was where he clearly said - for the first time in most of their hearing - that He in fact claimed to be God; that was not what they were expecting to hear or what they wanted to hear. Perhaps the response of many of them is shown in the words of Judas' characterization of this claim of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, embodied in the song, "Heaven on Their Minds": essentially, the idea is that Jesus and the disciples had a good thing going, but as Jesus starts "all this talk of God," things have gone too far.
Maybe others were just misled by the charismatic demagoguery of the Sanhedrin and the high priest and found themselves caught in a mob mentality.
The haunting question is not really about the individuals in each gathering so much as it is about where we would have found ourselves. If we look in the gospels for descriptions of the crowd at the trial, we will find ourselves identifying words like disgruntled, angry, self-righteous, irrational, and bloodthirsty. And in our twenty-first century religion, like the Sunday palm-wavers, we can engage in public and loud worship; but when we find ourselves confronted with the true spiritual nature of the Christ who is not what we expected, we can be confused. When self-appointed "religious leaders" begin to point out how Jesus is not what they think we need - or worse, telling us that they really understand Jesus, and we should accept their characterization of what He is "really" like - we can become disgruntled. When our chains are not immediately thrown off, we can be angry. When we really never took the time in the first place to understand what "messiah" is, we can, like Peter, deny that we know Him at all.
My point is not to answer the question of whether it was one crowd or two, whether every person's "Hosanna!" turned into a "Crucify!" in four short days. My point is rather to address us, here and now. In which crowd are we? Many of us would be described as "discples," and yet, when the crowd around is is singing a different tune, where is our voice? What is our choice? Whether the mob is "religious" or not, when the catcalls of the many evince the irrationality that would rather release Barabbas than see Jesus enthroned, how do we bahave?
That we were in church this morning, singing hymns and remembering children with palms, is no guarantee of where we will be or what we will be doing on Thursday night.