Palm and Passion Sunday – April 9, 201

March 23, 2017 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Isaiah 50:4-9a Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2:5-11 Matthew 21:1-11 and Matthew 26:14-27:66

Preachers struggle to discern what to preach on Palm Sunday. On the one hand, it is important, in the context of Holy Week’s conflict and pain, to highlight celebrative moments of our lives and Jesus’ ministry. There are times we need to shout “Hallelujah” and give thanks for the wonder of creation and humankind. On the other hand, given the realities of typically sparse Holy Week worship attendance, preachers don’t want to leap too quickly from “Hosanna” to “Christ is risen.” Our world is a theater of tragic beauty. Consciously or unconsciously, we participate in the destruction of our planet and the deaths of our human companions. The celebrations of Easter are meaningless apart from the way of the Cross. Resurrection is not denial but affirmation of life – choosing new life – in a death-filled world. Resurrection healing emerges from the conflict and tragedy of Holy Week.

Palm Sunday celebrations honor the celebrative aspects of faith. Like those Palm Sunday revelers, we need to sing “Alleluia.” On Palm Sunday, we are counseled, “Don’t let your Hallelujahs be half-hearted.” Sing and dance as you prepare the way for Jesus! In light of Jesus’ love for us, how can we keep from singing?

Jesus rides into Jerusalem without fanfare and pomp and circumstance. He comes not as Pilate or Caesar, and not even as the Temple high priest. He comes in simplicity and peace. God’s Messiah is one of us, not parading his power, but expressing his solidarity with humankind. Palm Sunday celebrates “God with us,” as our companion and friend. On Palm Sunday, we celebrate loving power, not powerful apathy.

Philippians 2:5-11 celebrates Christ’s willingness to suffer with us. God does not parade God’s power, but chooses to be one of us, sharing in our joys and sorrows. The world bows down to Christ out of love, not fear. The divine “kenosis” – God’s abandonment of hierarchical and unilateral power in favor the relational power of love – embraces everyone, not just a select few.

Paul’s initial readers would have contrasted Christ and Caesar. Caesar bullies, manipulates, polarizes, and stretches the truth for his purposes. Christ’s circle of love has no boundaries: Christ rules through hospitality, honesty, compassion, and inclusion. In a world of polarization, the message of Christ is that every knee shall bow – every knee! All humankind will be embraced, everyone will recognize Christ’s rule. All humanity will eventually be welcomed into a realm that has no end or boundary. Perhaps, the “all” embraces the non-human world as well.

The Passion reading from Matthew’s Gospel is a spiritual roller coaster. Whether the congregation reads the short or long version, this passage is best done as a readers’ theater or play. Jesus’ divinity is revealed in his complete humanity. As an early church father asserted, the glory of God is a human fully alive. In the Passion readings, Jesus is presented as fully alive – compassionate, anxious, spiritually centered, emotionally abandoned – and yet placing all these experiences in God’s care.

Matthew’s passion suggests that even as he faces the cross, Jesus has choices. His death is not foreordained. Jesus could have taken another path as noted in his prayer, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Jesus embraces his destiny, not as a preprogrammed robot, but as a creative and decisive individual. The cross is an act of freedom, congruent with God’s vision that Jesus honor his vocation, regardless of the cross.

The Passion testifies to God’s embrace of the world’s suffering. God is passionate. The divine pathos, as Abraham Joshua Heschel asserts, witnesses to God’s care for humankind in all its wondrous beauty and pain. The incarnation reaches its culmination in the cross, not as predestination, but as God’s feeling our pain and out of God’s pathos, bringing healing to the suffering we experience.

The Passion of Jesus takes us beyond human experience. Christ experiences the pain of the world – not just the human world. God feels the sorrow of vanishing species, of dying polar bears, of endangered dolphins and whales. God grieves the massive loss of life, resulting from human greed and apathy. Our consumption adds to God’s pain. Our conservation and care adds to God’s joy.

Palm and Passion Sunday call us to examine our lives. Will we celebrate God’s creation and human diversity? Or, will bring pain to the world? Will we sing “Hallelujah” to the beauty of the Earth or will we shout “Crucify” as our behaviors put future generations at risk?