A sermon preached on The Sunday of the Passion (also known as Palm Sunday) at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete on April 14, 2019, at 11:00 am.
The readings for the day may be found here.
Why Does This Day Have Two Names and Two Themes?
Today’s worship is a merger of two traditions. The ancient tradition of Rome was to commemorate the Passion on the Sunday before Easter. As the Church of England is part of the western Church which inherited the traditions of Rome, we continue in this practice. But pilgrims from the Latin speaking West going to the Holy Land, as early as the 4th century, observed another tradition. In Jerusalem they re-enacted the last week of Jesus, celebrating entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the Sunday before Easter, and remembering his institution of Holy Communion on the night before he was betrayed, and walking the way of the cross on Good Friday and reading the Passion of St John on that day. Gradually, this other practice was also observed in the western church, alongside the older tradition. And so we have Palm Sunday, which is also the Sunday of the Passion.
Something You May Have Missed
As you listened to the gospel of Palm Sunday which we read outside, you may not have been aware of it as a parody. For there was another entry into Jerusalem taking place at that time.
This procession originated on the ocean, in the city of Caeserea Meritima, the capial of Judea built by Herod the Great, and after his death, used by Roman governors. Herod and his successors had been replaced by the procurator Pontius Pilate, who normally resided in the good Roman surroundings of Caeserea Meritima, but was obliged to climb up into the hill country of the province of Judea to Jerusalem.
Imagine, if you will, the progress of the Procurator. As a soldier he rode a horse. He would have been followed by the government apparatus – clerks, military staff, advisors, assistants, trusted servants, slaves, and their families and clients. Hundreds of people, in other words, with much baggage. They would walk or ride along the main roads built by the Romans themselves, climbing upwards through the fields and forests, fearing nothing. As they walked through towns and villages, as the occupying force went by, parents would pull their children off the street. Then they would see Jerusalem in the distance, and as they approached they would be met at the gate by the leaders of the Temple and the city. The company of Romans, signifying the power of the Empire and the Emperor himself, would then process up to Herod’s old palace, right by the Temple itself.
Now, contrast that with the same entry by Jesus. Nobody would have feared him and his disciples as they walked towards the city from Galilee. In all probability they made their way along the Jordan valley, descending and then turning west to climb up to the city. Where Pilate was a military man seated on a horse, Jesus, we are told, rode on a donkey. He had no bodyguard, no armour, just the usual peasant robes. Where Pilate, as a Gentile would have avoided the Temple, Jesus went into it and by overturning the tables and driving out the money changers, claimed it as his own. Where Jesus was acclaimed by the people, Pilate received the sullen welcome due a conquering power. Whereas Pilate represented the son of the deified Caesar, Jesus was the son of David, the son of God. Whatever claim Caesar and the power of the Empire had, Jesus had a greater one. Thus, Jesus’s entry was a parody, subversive of Pilate and all that he represented.
The Model of Discipleship
Of course, the greatest difference is to be seen in their contrasting approaches to power. Jesus says in the Passion just read:
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them;
and those in authority over them are called benefactors.
But not so with you;
rather the greatest among you must become
like the youngest,
and the leader
like one who serves.
For who is greater,
the one who is at the table
or the one who serves?
Is it not the one at the table?
But I am among you as one who serves.
The one who is truly great in the Kingdom of God is the one who serves. This paradoxical power of Jesus is seen in his being poured out for many. Paul writes in Philippians 2:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
This is the same Jesus who as they take him to the cross says,
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
On the cross a thief recognizes Jesus as an innocent victim, a sacrifice, the suffering servant who is also the Messiah: “”Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The same Jesus who was greeted by lowly shepherds at his birth, associated with fishermen, people possessed by demons, Samaritans, sex workers, the occasional Gentile, tax collectors, radical zealots, now grants mercy to a thief. In contrast, Pilate gives in to the lobbying of his collaborators among the chief priests and the scribes, and upgrades the punishment of the Nazarene from flogging to crucifixion.
Jesus comes, voluntarily, to serve and to die for us. This is the theme of the servant songs in Isaiah, and of which we heard part of the third today:
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Jesus is obedient, and for the sake of God and humanity he is willing to undergo abuse and death, and he does not condemn his murderers, but intercedes for them. We kneel at the cross in awe, and we rise to be Christ in the world.
Where are you in this Passion?
Where are you in this Passion Play according to Luke?
- Are you at supper with him, taking in his teachings about power and service?
- Are you falling asleep in the garden?
- Have you betrayed him, as Judas did?
- Have you denied him, as Simon Peter did?
- Are you accused him, as the chief priests and scribes did?
- Have you condemned him, like Pontius Pilate?
- Have you mocked him, as the soldiers and the mob did, and even as one crucified with him did?
- Have you suffered with Christ, carrying a burden you did not ask for, as Simon of Cyrene did?
- Have you stood and watched from afar, as we are told the women from Galilee did, and wept?
- Have you seen the injustice, even as the centurion did?
- Have you believed in secret, as Joseph of Arimathea did?
- Have you believed even in thee midst of shame and suffering, as the other thief did, saying, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom”?
- Have you died with Christ on the cross?
Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, so that as we die with him, we may rise with him in glory. Amen.