A sermon for Palm Sunday


or the past couple of years, we’ve departed from the appointed lectionary readings for Palm Sunday (which include both the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry and the whole Passion story), and tried to focus on the story as it unfolds from the triumphal entry to the arrest in Gethsemane.  The idea is that we use Palm Sunday to set the stage for what follows in Holy Week, which in the case of saint ben’s includes several opportunities to explore the Passion story.  What follows here is the sermon preached on three sections from the Gospel according to Luke: Luke 19:28-40, Luke 22:1-23, and Luke 22:39-53.

Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,

and glory in the highest heaven!’

For a people living under the iron rule of the Roman Empire, you can’t sing a song much more hopeful – or much more dangerous – than that.   The other three gospels include one more word in this hope-filled and dangerous song:  Hosanna, literally “save us”.  For the disciples and the others who have been traveling with Jesus as his movement grew, it must have seemed as if his entry into Jerusalem meant that now, finally, he was going to enact messianic kingship.  For those who were just caught up in the moment, watching this Galilean rabbi approach the city accompanied by his jubilant followers, it would have represented a moment of possibility.  Is this the one we’ve been waiting for?  Are the days of the Empire numbered?  Hard not to sing hosanna – “save us” – that day.

Luke tells us, though, that some were not much interested in joining in on this bold song:  “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.'”  It is not prudent to upset these Roman rulers, after all.  We’ve learned how to maintain a kind of compromise with them, allowing us to continue with our religious life.

“And Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.’”  This is much bigger than any carefully maintained political balancing act struck with the occupying army.  What is about to happen is unstoppable.  You can almost see the great smile cross Peter’s face as he hears his teacher say that to the Pharisees…

But in the days that follow, Jesus acts in a manner totally unlike what one might expect of a conquering and victorious messiah/king.  He tells his odd parables; he engages in public debates with scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees; he praises a poor widow for her offering of a penny, calling it a great gift; he speaks in cryptic language about the coming destruction of the temple and of a political collapse of astonishing proportion.  And there is no sword and no crown anywhere in sight.

By the time he gathers with his friends in that upper room to share the Passover meal, they must have been beginning to wonder when the hoped-for triumph would begin to roll.

The Passover supper itself is a kind of subversive story-telling meal.   The story of how the Hebrew slaves escaped from their Egyptian overlords is told, woven into the sharing of food and drink, laden with symbolic meaning.  When you’re living in captivity under another empire, it is hard not to dream and hope at Passover.

In the Passover meal, bread is broken and shared, and a cup of wine is blessed and passed from person to person.  That night, Jesus took that sharing of bread and wine, and spun it on its head.  “This bread that we share; this is my body broken for you.  This cup of wine, is my blood poured out for you as the new covenant.  When you do this, you do it in memory of me.’  As N.T. Wright observes, Jesus didn’t offer his followers – and that includes us – a theory of the cross and of the atonement; “Theories have their proper place.  But they weren’t the main thing that Jesus gave his followers.  He gave them an act to perform.  Specifically, he gave them a meal to share.” (Luke for Everyone, p. 262)

And who is at that meal that night?  The disciples.

The insights of the theologian Michael Welker are helpful here:

Jesus does not celebrate the last supper with his disciples because they are the small, faithful apostolic elite, the few irreproachable models of integrity, the glorious Twelve, to whom the administration of Jesus’ legacy is entrusted on the basis of their moral and religious blamelessness.  The disciples do not stand above the threatened world… The disciples themselves are enmeshed in the ‘night of betrayal.’ (What Happens in Holy Communion?, p 71)

(And) nothing, absolutely nothing, suggests that Judas is hindered in participating in the communal celebration of the meal.  This is likewise the case for Peter, who will betray Jesus three times, for the disciples who will fall asleep in Gethsemane, and the disciples in general, who will become embroiled in controversies over rank, and who ultimately will abandon Jesus and flee. (p. 72)

There aren’t good guys with white hats and bad guys with black hats in this story.  There are only people.  You can try to fit the Pharisees and perhaps Pilate with black hats, and fault them for everything, but really what drives them all is the degree to which they’ve become enmeshed in political and social systems of power.

There is a long tradition of trying to outfit Judas not just with a black hat, but with a whole set of black clothes.  Yet remember, he was at that last supper too.   Yes, he spiraled from disciple to betrayer in a way that should horrify us. Yes, Luke does write that “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot,” yet it is important to remember that it is not as if Judas has been “infected” by the Adversary in a manner in which he himself has played no role.  He’s been caving in on himself for some time – managing to justify all manner of things in his own heart and mind – but don’t imagine for a minute that it was because he was innately more evil than any of the other disciples.    Or any of us, for that matter.

The disciples who so boldly sang of Jesus’ kingship – Hosanna! – flee in fear.  The others who lined the road and joined in with the song, are counted amongst those who will cry out “crucify him” on the day of his trial.  Some will go out to Golgotha to watch him die, even to mock him as he suffers.

And it is over them, too, that he will say those astonishing words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Maybe that is a good place to leave the story for now.  They didn’t know what they were doing – couldn’t possibly have known what they were doing – and much of the time neither do we.  They are us.  Whatever word of judgment is spoken over them, is also spoken over us.

And whatever word of mercy and grace is offered them?  It is offered to us too.


Jamie Howison

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