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By Bruce G. Epperly
With the exception of Christmas services of lessons and carols, many congregants will hear more scripture on Palm/Passion Sunday than any Sunday of the Christian year. With palm processionals, special music, and lengthy scripture readings, many preachers may be tempted to go easy on the sermon, but the readings for Palm/Passion Sunday demand serious homiletical reflection. Without a clear sense of their message, we will be unable to fathom the amazing surprises of Easter. Taken together, today’s passages present reality – and the life of Jesus – in the starkest fashion as they go from celebration to suffering and humiliation. In many ways, the Philippians passage is the centerpiece of the readings in its creative synthesis of glory, suffering, transformation, and celebration.
Philippians 2:5-11 as a lens through which to view Palm Sunday affirms the wondrous adventures of a non-competitive, intimate, and sacrificial God. Every knee shall bend out of wonder and love at the surprising grace of the One who does not dwell in majesty, aloof from creation and the human condition, but shares in our joys and sorrows. Only a suffering God can save, notes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Alfred North Whitehead adds, God is the fellow sufferer who understands. In Philippians 2, God is near, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, who refuses sovereignty to make possible salvation.
There is a universalism of grace and response in Philippians 2 that mirrors the universalism of suffering described by Holy Week. As my training pastor, George Tolman, once said over thirty years ago, “Life is risky business. No one gets out alive.” Suffering is a reality with which we must contend and, for some Christians, suffering stretches long beyond this lifetime to embrace eternity. Paul may very well take a different path from those for whom punishment is the final word. After all, how can you truly bend your knees in praise and proclamation without sharing in the glory of the One whom you worship. Elsewhere, Paul says God will be “all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28) and that just all died in Adam, all will be made alive in Christ. (Romans 5:15-17) While some unambiguously proclaim limited atonement, conditional salvation, and a hellish future for most of the planet, scripture is much more nuanced. There is justice, but there is also mercy and illumination. In the end, as Rob Bell asserts, “love wins.”
The faithful follower of Isaiah 50, identified by many Christians with Jesus, exemplifies the integrity and compassion of Philippians 2. Fully open to God’s spirit, the faithful follower is able to endure unmerited suffering and pain. Trusting God’s presence and help, the faithful follower stays the course on the journey toward the divine horizon. External threat, as painful as it is, cannot deter the follower’s commitment to walk the paths of justice and healing.
The readings from Mark (11:1-11 and 14:1-15:47) capture the roller coaster ride of Holy Week. We go from praise and exaltation to agony and desertion. Nowhere in the passages does Jesus claim the prerogatives of a sovereign. Perhaps, Jesus did not intend to ignite a celebration, but in the spirit of Mark’s “messianic secret,” enter the town quietly on a gentle, non-confrontational beast of burden. A youthful colt, not a muscular war horse, bears God’s beloved child.
Intrigue and conflict are in the air. The religious leaders plot Jesus’ death and Jesus’ followers condemn a woman’s act of kindness. The Passover celebration is marred by Jesus’ prediction that one of his closest followers will betray him, and in the end, the One who was praised as he entered Jerusalem leaves the city, vanquished, dead, buried, and abandoned, except by a few of the women who were his disciples.
It is easy to shut down emotionally on Palm/Passion Sunday. The day is too real, too raw, and too filled with ambiguity. It is frankly too much about our own lives, not only our own personal emotional, relational, and professional roller coasters, but the reality of our own moral and spiritual ambivalence. We praise, yet forget. We promise loyalty, yet deny the causes that we claim are dear to us. We know the realities of economic injustice, political and military violence, discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation, and the threat of global climate change, but live as if life is going on as usual. We celebrate while others are disenfranchised, partly due to the impact of our own largesse.
Palm/Passion Sunday leaves us in suspense. Does the story end at the Cross? Will it be the tragedy of another good person, slain too early by the powers of evil and our own spiritual fickleness? Or, will there be an empty tomb, an open future, and a horizon of hope? This is the journey of Holy Week.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. Contact him by email for lectures, workshops, and retreats.