I delivered this homily at Midtown Christian Community for Palm Sunday, 2008.
Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- Isaiah 52:13-53:12
- Philippians 2:5-11
- Matthew 27:1-54
- Psalm 22:1-21
Today is Palm Sunday, the day we celebrate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, when he was welcomed by the Jews with celebration, everyone shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” It’s a scene of rejoicing and triumph, and so that’s why Palm Sunday is typically remembered as a celebration. It’s a great and very happy day!
Of course, as it turns out, this Friday we celebrate Good Friday, the day that marks Jesus’ death. So, even though we want to remember Palm Sunday with rejoicing and celebration, we have to remember that Good Friday lies just ahead of us. Rejoicing is going to be followed by rejection, betrayal, suffering, torture, and death. Though the entrance of Jesus was met with triumphant celebration, in one sense at least, it isn’t going to go well. You can imagine that as Jesus is entering Jerusalem being hailed by the crowds, he probably has very mixed feelings. Probably some kind of surface joy, but there’s also the underlying knowledge that his journey must go through the cross.
There are surely loads of things we can stop to ponder and meditate upon today and tomorrow, in thinking about the meaning of the Easter season, but I want to hold up before us this thought, this question: What makes us different as followers of Jesus? What is unique about us?
This question obviously can be answered in a zillion different ways—lots of things make us different from other groups and from the world in general. But there is something very specific about the rhythm of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday—that specific trajectory, they go together—that represents the most profound difference about us as Christian people, as followers of Jesus.
The collect points in this direction: “Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility (pay attention to what follows, now) Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”
That is the difference between us and everyone else: what makes us different is that we as a people were created by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we recognize that our lives must be shaped by death and resurrection. As the prayer says, “grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”
This pattern must find its way into every area of our lives, every nook and cranny of how we conceive of our relationships, how we conduct our friendships, how we think about others who give us trouble, how we behave in our marriages and families, how we imagine our futures, how we go to church—everything about us must be wrapped up in and reconfigured by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Palm Sunday, in one sense, is great, but in many ways I think that we love it because it makes perfect sense to us. It’s exactly how we would script things—Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey (well, maybe except for the donkey part; we’d have him on a fierce beast), but anyway, Jesus rides into Jerusalem and is welcomed by the crowds. It’s almost like a fighter on his way into the ring, he’s focused, he’s decisive, he’s fearless, he knows what needs to be done, he sizes up his opponents and gives confident, reassuring looks to those who see him as their Savior. The camera pans across his eyes—fixed, determined, resolute. Then we see the crowds, chanting wildly as they sense that all their hopes and dreams are being realized right before their eyes. This is so ideal, it’s so perfect! The story, at this point, is going so well!
Of course, if we were writing the story, if we were making the film, Palm Sunday would be the end. There would be no Passion Week. There would be no Last Supper, there would be no betrayal. There would be no Good Friday. Jesus dying? That makes no sense. It doesn’t fit! Yes, the fighter in our Jesus film might absorb some punches from his opponents, but of course he ends up thrashing them. That’s how you win, right? That’s how you solve the problem, isn’t it?
But this is exactly the point. That’s what makes us different.
Jesus’ mood is mixed as he enters Jerusalem because he knows that Palm Sunday is not the final scene; it isn’t the end. In fact, from this point the story takes some unexpected turns, some painful turns, some very dark ones.
As it turns out, it is through his death on the cross, and his resurrection that Jesus accomplishes salvation, and through which he gives us life from the dead and unites us together in one new body, giving us the promise of enjoying God forever when his Kingdom comes to earth. God solves the problem, and makes all things new, not on Palm Sunday, but on Easter Weekend.
Therefore, what makes us different, what makes us absolutely unique, is that our mode of life is thoroughly shaped by suffering along with Christ, by dying along with Christ, so that we can experience now and forever the power of the resurrection of Christ.
This is Paul’s point in Philippians 2.
Every group wants problems solved, every school of thought has strategies for family life, for friendships, for personal fulfillment, for self-improvement or for meaning in life. What makes us different is that we’re the kind of people who pray this prayer: “grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”
How are problems solved? Through power moves or by manipulating others? What are God’s strategies for how life should be lived? The pursuit of my dreams and self-advancement? God’s way is the way of suffering and death, the way of the cross, which is the only path to resurrection.
We love resurrection, don’t we? Just like we love Palm Sunday. But we only get Palm Sunday and we only get Easter Sunday when we embrace Good Friday.
Well, what does all this mean for us? Let’s make all of this live among us for a few minutes: Some of us are dealing with some difficult relationships right now, in various ways, suffering the pain and frustration of dealing with people who refuse to change or who refuse to love us, who are manipulating us or causing destruction: Parents; a spouse; a child; a friend; a co-worker. How do you “fix” them? How do you sort people out and solve the problem? Well, you die. You walk in suffering in the hope of resurrection.
What does that mean, how does it look, what specific actions does that entail? I don’t know. But perhaps that’s the sort of thing that needs to happen here, where we share our situations with the church and brainstorm to come up with strategies that are shaped by Jesus’ suffering and death—strategies that are not manipulative, that put aside power-moves, but that help us to approach others from a posture of weakness, hoping to unleash resurrection power into the situation.
How do we operate as families? How do we function as parents who follow Jesus? I’m not exactly sure, but I am confident that resurrection power enters a home when we follow Paul’s words in Philippians 2—looking out for others’ needs and concerns rather than our own. We refuse to demand that others conform to our standards, and we die to our own selfish desires so that we may experience the life of Christ in our homes and families.
How do we a find a way forward as a church? Well, we’re working that out, but it must be shaped and determined by the death and resurrection of Jesus. We will experience the resurrection power of God in our community when we give ourselves over to suffering and death, putting aside our own preferences, holding our own concerns lightly for the sake of our brothers and sisters and for the sake of God’s pursuit of this neighborhood.
I’m not sure how the rhythm of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday needs to move into your life and shape the way you think and behave, but perhaps this ought to be our prayer: “grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”