Palm-Passion Sunday – April 10, 2022
Bruce G. Epperly
The Triumphant Entry
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Passion of Jesus
At the ascending edge of Holy Week, the preacher must ponder whether to lean toward the violence and abandonment of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday or focus on the celebrative spirit of Palm Sunday or attempt a creative synthesis of both. Eventually we must deal with both to embrace the personal and institutional aspects of Holy Week. Holy Week is an emotional and spiritual roller coaster with political implications.
Whatever decision the preacher makes, the order of the day for Palm/Passion Sunday involves the interplay of celebration and passion. The celebrative parade masks underlying tension. Jesus’ entry is a prelude for conflict with the religious and political authorities. He is a peaceful warrior; a leader who rules by relationship and love, and not coercion and independence Passion Sunday focuses on life’s darkest hours, but the darkness reveals Jesus’ commitment to God’s realm and our salvation.
Palm/Passion Sunday is the appropriate theological as well as chronological entry point for the spiritual maelstrom on the horizon for us and for Jesus. The maelstrom of Holy Week and the maelstrom of our current personal and political lives. The period between Palm Sunday and Easter encompasses the full spectrum of public and private life – adulation and abandonment, celebration and conflict, integrity and suffering. In the week ahead, we encounter the ambiguity of religious and secular institutions. As we witness on a daily basis, our institutions, intended for good, are often diabolical agents of destruction. Institutional misuse of power crucified Jesus. As Walter Wink observed, the powers are good; the powers are fallen; on occasion the powers can be redeemed.
The gospel readings present Jesus’ ministry as cruciform in nature. Jesus is lured toward Jerusalem and the cross. Some see this as predetermined. For example, a Christmas billboard I once saw in Lancaster, Pennsylvania portrays a manger and cross side by side and proclaims “born to die,” they believe Jesus’ whole life is aimed at redeeming us on Calvary. Jesus, Pilate, the Jewish religious leaders, and the crowd are playing preordained roles in God’s plan of salvation, they assert. In contrast, I see the cross as a reflection of the intersection of providence of grace and decision-making, not the predetermined providence of predestination. Jesus’ integrity, shaped by his faithfulness to God’s vision and his willingness to challenge the religious and political powers, made the cross a possibility. I believe Jesus could have chosen other routes, but his integrity led him to follow God’s vision by staying in Jerusalem rather than choosing the peaceable life of a married village rabbi, making a local difference but never of any consequence in the unfolding of human history.
Jesus followed God’s vision through the valley of conflict and persecution. Jesus’ first century faithfulness to God’s vision of Shalom, and not destruction, shapes our lives today, challenging us to sacrifice for causes greater than ourselves and confront the injustices of our world, rather than accepting them as normal.
After the celebration of the Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem – the celebration of a faithful leader – we turn to the abandonment and agony of Jesus’ passion. Isaiah portrays a faithful rabbi, who faces persecution and conflict with integrity and fidelity. The suffering servant of Isaiah, incarnate in the life and ministry of Jesus, inspires Jesus to stay the course regardless of the opposition he faces. His integrity is sustained as well as nurtured by his trust in God’s faithfulness.
Psalm 31 also highlights God’s faithfulness. Despite the conflicts of life, the Psalmist proclaims that our times our in God’s hands. God’s love embraces us in every season of life. God sustains us as we travel through the valley of the shadow of death, whether personal or political and God will meet us on the other side.
Philippians 2:5-11 is, according to many scholars, one of the earliest Christological hymns. Whether initially from Paul’s hand or from another early Christian author, Paul’s use of passage implicitly contrasts Christ and Caesar, and two very different visions of power and success. Both are rulers, but one rules unilaterally and by coercion, while the other rules by love and relationship. Caesar is exalted above us; Christ is one of us. Christ’s power is relational; Caesar’s is unilateral. Bowing before Caesar is motivated by fear; bowing before Christ is motivated by love. Jesus’ power is empathetic and inspirational; Caesar’s power excludes, dominates, and depresses all but the chosen few. Surely, Paul’s Philippian readers would have known which path to follow to be faithful to the way of Jesus and God’s vision for their community.
There is an implicit theological and soteriological universalism in Philippians 2. Every knee bows from love – the key word is “every.” Could this mean that eventually everyone will experience God’s love, directly and first hand? Could this mean that despite our infidelity eventually we will experience grace, inspiring us to say “yes” to God’s love? Surely this is the implication of Philippians 2 and Jesus’ pronouncement on the cross, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus’ amazing forgiveness opens the door for every lost child, regardless of her or his past infidelities. Sin is real, but grace is greater. We can turn away from God’s vision and suffer the consequences of our decisions, but God will not turn away from us.
Like ourselves, the characters in Luke’s passion are flesh and blood decision-makers. They are agents in condemning Jesus, not characters in a previously written script. Jesus is also an agent: at every step of the way, making decisions, feeling the pain of abandonment, and experiencing the emotional, spiritual, and physical agony of torture.
To make sense to twenty-first century people, Palm/Passion Sunday must be seen as a contemporary event, revealed in the machinations of political and religious leaders. In this era in which some collapse religion and politics to advocate immoral treatment of immigrants and xenophobic and racist public policies, the message of Holy Week takes a very different path.
As we ponder Holy Week, the hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” refers to our current situation. We are both faithful and fickle. We are committed yet turn our back on our ideals and God’s dream for humankind and the Earth, as individuals and as a nation. We feel courage, yet are overcome by fear. Still, there is hope in our ambivalence and weakness; God does not abandon us even when we abandon God. God persistently and providentially provides pathways toward wholeness, and like a holistic physician uses every means to bring us to wholeness, regardless of our past. We were there at the Cross and Palm Sunday; and we are here on Easter, living the resurrection and transformation God envisions for us. Through it all, we can proclaim with Psalm 118 that God is with us as we hold suffering, tragedy, and beauty in contrast, “this is the day that God has made and we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 60 books, including TALKING POLITICS WITH JESUS: A PROCESS PERSPECTIVE ON THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.