It strikes me every year that the liturgists who authored the Prayer Book Liturgy for Palm Sunday wanted to discourage long sermons. More than any other service, the message is communicated at the level of the gut, viscerally. Very little interpretation or explanation is required beyond simple participation in the service. A service which leaves us, intentionally, at a moment of great despair, there to linger for a week reflecting on our role in the events that transpired.
And I don’t simply mean our role in the liturgy, obviously, but our role in the events that the liturgy and the readings recount. In the Liturgy of the Palms, we stand with those who welcomed Jesus‘ entry into Jerusalem with loud “Hosannas” and cheers and rejoicing. Standing with them, crying out with them, we’re reminded what it feels like to finally have that log awaited desire fulfilled. To see our most hoped for reality come to pass. The Messiah has come! The King who will restore the land to its rightful people. The one who will settle accounts, restore good fortune, put to right injustices and bring people into line with the sword. Hosanna! we cry, connecting with the joy they felt, believing that the day of the Lord they had always envisioned was coming to pass, that the Kingdom they assumed God would establish was being called into being. Finally. after all these years. It’s time to celebrate. To lay palm fronds at the feet of the one who comes, of the Messiah we’ve been waiting for.
But then, something happens, and the Liturgy forces us to confront a sad reality about the great throngs that greeted Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem, and about the great throngs of people who have lived and died on this earth in all the years since. We transition, with the crowd, from shouts of praise and Hossana, to the Passion Gospel where we cry out “Crucify him!” We learn, through participation, that the people who cheered so mightily at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cheered just as mightily for his crucifixion when they realized that this was not the Messiah that they wanted or expected. This Jesus. He was not the Messiah that they expected and this kingdom he announced… it was not a kingdom they wanted any part of. And so they turned on him to protect what little they had, to guard the things they loved, the things they loved which they thought were dedicated to God, but for which they would crucify God.
And we’re there with them.
We’re put there with them by the liturgy, because we’re there with them in spirit so often in our day to day lives. Today and throughout Holy Week we’re called to examine our relationship with God. To examine what exactly it is we’re hoping for, why exactly it is we claim to follow this carpenter from Nazareth. We’re called to seek within ourselves any evidence that we have, like the crowd, decided to shout “Hosanna,” because we have created a Messiah, a God, in our own image, because we have looked forward to the establishment of a kingdom governed by a law of our making.
We’re called to look with fresh eyes at Jesus and the message of his Gospel, and decide again whether it is a message we can handle, whether we’re willing to continue the hard work of changing our expectations and casting off our selfishness and prejudices in order to truly welcome the Kingdom that even now is coming more and more into reality.
We’re here today, as well, to be reminded of the times when we have said “Crucify him,” by our actions. To be reminded of the times we have rejected the truth and message of the Gospel by rejecting what it means for us and for all people. We may never have gone so far as to consciously reject or renounce Christ. We may never have participated in a “de-baptism” ritual, such as have become popular among atheists in England these days. Be that as it may, I would go so far as to say that all of us have at some point done something so out of conformity with what Jesus would have us do that we might as well have shouted those words while he stood in front of that crowd.
Our service today invites us to remember that, at least as much as any of the actions of those actually present in Jerusalem at that time, our sin, our need for redemption, placed Jesus on the cross.
In the words of the old Lutheran Hymn:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee
Or as a priest friend of mine put it in one of his sermons:
We may well ask ourselves which role we play in this human drama. Do we test God, Jesus, the Spirit in terms of “What is in it for me?” The crowd did. Do we resent the way the Faith accuses us and wish we could silence Jesus, as Judas hoped? Do we run from Jesus and hide behind self-preservation? How ironic it is that the religious leaders and most of the disciples acted from self-interest. The Chief Priests convinced themselves that an unholy murder was justified to safeguard the institution. The disciples perhaps convinced themselves that if the work was to continue, they should protect themselves from arrest and punishment.
Over and over again in the long story of the church, Christian people have acted the roles we encounter today, not just on Palm Sunday… (Fr. Tony Clavier)
The reality is that as humans we are all of us, mixed bags. Traditional Christian Theology has explained this by juxtaposing the reality that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, with the idea of Original Sin, which, though it can been articulated in different ways, basically means that, if God were to become incarnate today, if Jesus were to return, people today would react the same way they did over two thousand years ago. The great philosopher Aristotle famously said that humanity “when perfected is the best of animals; but if [...] isolated from law and justice [...] worst of all.”
What Aristotle believed could only come by law and justice, as Christians, we know can come only through Grace. Living well means saying yes to grace.
Rowan Williams makes the observation in his book Tokens of Trust:
“Only three human individuals are mentioned in the Creed, Jesus, Mary and Pontius Pilate: that is, Jesus; the one who says ‘yes’ to him; and the one who says ‘no’ to him. You could say that those three names map out the territory in which we all live. Through our lives, we swing towards one pole or the other, towards a deeper ‘yes’ or towards a deeper ‘no’. And in the middle of it all stands the one who makes sense of it all. Jesus—the one into whose life we must all try to grow, who can work with our ‘yes’ and can even overcome our ‘no’.” (p 76)
Palm Sunday with it’s liturgy is here to remind us that we all move back and forth on that continuum, that we all say no and we all say yes. The challenge of the Christian life is to say the yes more and more and the no less and less.
As Williams puts it in his book Resurrection: interpreting the Easter Gospel:
The condemning court, the murderous ‘city’, [i.e. Jerusalem, or more generally the world as opposed to God's will] is indeed judged as resisting the saving will of God; but that does not mean that the will of God ceases to be saving. The rulers and the people are in rebellion; yet they act ‘in ignorance’ (Acts 3:17; cf. Luke 23:34), and God still waits to be graciously present in ‘times of refreshing’ (Acts 3:19). And grace is released when the judges turn to their victim and recognize him as their hope and their savior.” (p3)
If we are looking for hope in today’s bleak retelling of the Passion and death of Christ, it is that when we recognize our complicity in evil, we do not have to stay there. We are not finally condemned. Just because we may find ourselves resisting the saving will of God, that does not mean it is not saving. And that is good news to hang onto as we mark the way of the cross this Holy Week.