Lessons for Palm Sunday (Year C): Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
God didn’t make anybody to be a second-class citizen.Michael Curry
Of this country, or the human family.
I believe it because I believe that is what the scripture teaches.
And that is clearly what Jesus teaches.
He says, come unto me all of you.
He didn’t limit love.
The dude, he got it.
The story of Palm Sunday is featured in all four Gospels. The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – the story with the humble beast, the shouting crowds, the branches, and the coats and cloaks spread like a carpet upon the road – has center stage in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Making the cut in all four gospels is a pretty big, biblical deal.
Christmas didn’t make it into all four gospels. Two of the Gospels make no mention of the pregnant Mary for whom there was no room in the inn, the shepherds watching their flocks by night, the angels, the star and the wise men, or the babe in the manger. Christmas only makes the cut in two Gospels.
The Lord’s Prayer didn’t make it into all four Gospels. The prayer that Jesus taught his followers – the prayer that the church has recited over the course of more than two millennia’ the prayer that is recited alike in Kenyan huts and European basilicas, by Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Pentecostal – isn’t in all four Gospels. It only made the cut in two.
The parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son appear in but one gospel. The Beatitudes made it into only two Gospels.
But the Palm Sunday story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has pride of place in all four Gospels.
Which makes me wonder if we’ve had something wrong all along. All along Christians have regarded Pentecost as the beginning of the Church, the Church’s birthday when it was born in wind and fire. But I’m not so sure. I wonder if Palm Sunday isn’t the Church’s real birthday. Palm Sunday is the day the followers of Jesus grew up, found their voices, summoned their courage, and assumed their role as witnesses to God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
This is the day. Palm Sunday is the day Jesus’ followers stepped out onto the world stage, stepped out in earnest as players and protagonists in the realm of God.
Let’s set the scene. The ancient city of Jerusalem during the annual Passover festival swells with visitors from all over the world. The city is alive, abuzz, international, exciting. Every possible room is rented at a premium price. Grocers have stocked their shelves to capacity. Everyone is out of doors. The visitors and pilgrims are readily identifiable by their clothing and by their manners, and by the extra bags hanging off their shoulders, and by the way they meander up and down the streets, pausing, gazing, pointing.
Merchants sell their wares on street corners and in public squares: exotic foods, trinkets, brightly colored cloth. Musicians and street performers gather knots of people who gape and laugh and applaud. The atmosphere sizzles and pulses. The expectations of the whole Jewish world, having come to Jerusalem, is in the air. To keep the peace, Roman legions patrol the streets, conscripts from among the citizenry, helmeted, armor gleaming, astride noble steeds.
Until this day…really, until the moment of entrance in Jerusalem, the followers of Jesus had been just that: followers, largely passive and reflective. They had traipsed after Jesus all over Palestine. When Jesus argued with civil and religious officials, the disciples watched, tense and riveted. When Jesus defended a prostitute, they gasped. When Jesus conversed in public with a woman from Samaria, they winced. When Jesus defied the Sabbath laws, they cringed. When Jesus declared that the last shall be first and the first last, and that rich will be made poor, they glanced around guardedly to see who was listening. When Jesus kissed lepers and healed those of broken bodies, they whispered in fascinated awe. Until this day, the followers of Jesus had been largely passive, if keen observers of his ways. But on Palm Sunday a shift occurs, a transformation begins.
As they enter Jerusalem, the followers begin to assume the roles of leaders. They walk onto the world stage of a capital city during a great annual festival. For the first time since they have known Jesus, they take up their roles as players and protagonists in the kingdom of God. As Jesus and his paltry band of followers enter the city, Roman soldiers gather to investigate the fuss–steeds snorting, armor gleaming, swords flashing, and the crests bearing Caesar’s proud and commanding image.
Against this display of power and authority, against and in defiance of it, the followers of Jesus stage a street drama announcing their heart’s allegiance. Namely, their fealty does not belong to Caesar, not to the Emperor of Rome, the pretender god; but, rather, it belongs to Jesus, the Prince of Peace. On the streets of Jerusalem in front of God and Rome and everybody, they announce and proclaim that their hearts, their allegiance, their fealty belong not to the Pax Romana (an uneasy peace achieved by force) but to Pax Christi – a peace to which we are invited, but never coerced; a peace which emanates from the very heart of God; and, a peace that passes all human understanding. This is the day they shout in public that they belong to God and not to Caesar. A declaration which, in their case at this time, is nothing less than an act of sedition.
For the past three years (from the day Jesus called them from their fishing nets until this moment) the commitment to follow Jesus had been particularly personal, intimate, and private; but now, on this Palm Sunday, the commitment to follow Jesus becomes public and political.
Palm Sunday has pride of place in all four gospels because this is the day the followers of Jesus become protagonists, actors and leaders, in the kingdom of God. This is the day the Church comes out of the closet. This is the day the Church distances itself from the state and from all worldly power. This is the day that they absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to every earthly prince, potentate, state, and sovereignty, and vow that they will and do bear true faith and true allegiance to Jesus, the Prince of Peace and Son of God. This is the day the Church becomes the Church. This is the day the church is born. This is the day we say to Jesus, “It’s our turn, Jesus, and you have taught us well. You have shown us and taught us what God looks like. Thank you, Jesus.”
It’s our turn now, our turn to show the world what God looks like, to show the world what love looks like, to show the world what it looks like to love your enemies, not only your enemies, but the immigrant and the alien, the stranger, and the other. Show the world what it looks like to forgive those who trespass against you, to forgive the one who sinned against you–who sinned against you–to forgive this one not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. Show the world.
In a manifestly violent world, it is now our turn to show the world, to show our friends, our families, our neighbors, our colleagues, what it looks like to follow the Prince of Peace, to turn the other cheek. It’s our turn now.
In a merciless world, a dog-eat-dog and might-makes-right world, in a world red in tooth and claw, it’s our turn to show the world what mercy looks like, God’s mercy. It’s our turn, now, today, to give witness to mercy. For Christ’s sake give witness to mercy. Show the world what God looks like and watch, just watch. The world will turn its head.
It won’t be easy. It will be costly. It may cost you your life.
It was on Palm Sunday that the followers of Jesus began to understand just how costly and rigorous is the Christian life. You train for it as an athlete trains for a race: rehearsing the virtues, practicing courage, training oneself in kindness, exercising gentleness, working at mercy and generosity. It’s a fulltime job, this training and practicing. It is a way of life. I submit that Palm Sunday has pride of place in all four gospels because it was on Palm Sunday, it was today, that the church was truly born … not in wind and fire … but in courage and in conviction.
This is the day the church found its feet and found its voice and swore allegiance to the Prince of Peace. May the church be born again today, reborn today on Palm Sunday…in me and in you.
For Christ’s sake, let’s show the world what God looks like.