Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palm/Passion Sunday

Today, the sixth Sunday of Lent, is known in the Church as Palm/Passion Sunday. The “palm” part we get. It is called Palm Sunday because it marks Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem when the people gathered along the streets to hail this new prophet with a royal red(green)-carpet of palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna.” The “passion” part is a little harder to fit into this particular Sunday. After all the passion, the suffering, persecution and ultimate death of Jesus, comes during Holy Week itself on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Why would the church want to celebrate it a whole week in advance?

Palm/Passion Sunday has derived in response to congregational life. Liturgists, scholars and pastors alike began noticing that the majority of mainline Protestant Christians never went to Holy Week services. In light of lingering anti-Catholic sentiments (we can’t do that…it’s too Catholic!), a general decline in church attendance and a elitist resistance to mar with any hint of defeat the victorious, hegemonic sense of Christendom, most mainline Protestants go straight from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the joy of Easter Sunday without ever truly contemplating the passion, the cross, the suffering, defeat and death of the one they claim to be their Messiah, their Savior. However, we interpret this theologically and practically complicated event, we confess it is central to how we understand our faith. No death. No resurrection. No Christianity.

So, to help the average North American Jane and Joe, liturgical scholars and church bureaucrats cobbled together Palm/Passion Sunday in which we are to move from praise to persecution in an hour. To be fair, most scholars agree you can have it all and so they suggest either celebrating Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. Yet, separating them out this way is never entirely satisfactory.

The fact of the matter is that just as the resurrection is inextricably linked with Jesus’ death, so also is the persecution inextricably linked to the choirs of praise we read about this evening. The joyful shouts of hosanna are intimately connected to the cruel cries for condemnation. The question we must address is indeed how these two events are does the joyful crowd turn so quickly to an angry mob?

When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, his reputation has already preceded him. After three years of ministry throughout the Judean countryside, people have begun to talk. Rumors of healings and miracles swirl around this person Jesus. Whispers of raising the dead and feeding the masses begin to circulate. Tales of confrontation with the powers that be and promises of coming reign of God have been heard by almost everyone. The buzz is this guy’s the Messiah, the one for whom Israel has been longing.

The notion of the messiah was part and parcel of the Jewish faith tradition. The prophecies of the Hebrew Testament that some Christians like to interpret as direct references to Jesus are really references to this Jewish hope of a savior who would come to rescue Israel once and for all from the generations of suffering and persecution.

When the crowds shout “hosanna” they are acknowledging Jesus’ messiah-ship for hosanna literally means “save us.” The royal path of palm branches and the shouts of praise are all signs that the people of Jerusalem identified the prophet Jesus with the hoped for Messiah.

But what the crowds expected and what they got were very different.

The traditional messianic hope was for a mighty, vengeful warrior to come from on high to reap violent recompense for the past pain and suffering of the people. This One was to overthrow the colonial power and in its place give all authority and control to Israel. The deliverance from oppression was to be a violent revolution in which the poor and outcast trade places with the rich and powerful.

But, the inextricable connection between this triumphal entry and Jesus’ shameful death, gives us a hint that the "kingship" of this Christ was not exactly what the masses expected.

Instead of a dramatic entrance on a war horse, Jesus enters on a humble beast of burden (two in the case of Matthew) and instead of simply replacing one political regime with another, Jesus sets about completely overturning popular expectations of politics, hierarchy and power. The Reign of God which Jesus initiates is no imitation of human systems of power in which one rules while the other is subject.

The very first thing that Jesus does upon entering the city is to literally turn over the tables in the temple. Straight from the streets of adoration, Jesus marches right into the temple to denounce the perverted values and disingenuous piety of contemporary religious practice. “This is a house of prayer, not a den of robbers!” For some, money and power had become more important than God and neighbor. Rather than provide for the poor as God commands, money was being changed for profits’ sake. (And, let's be clear this charge against the Israelites was nothing new...try reading Jeremiah or Ezekiel or Isaiah.)

After destroying the market, the Jerusalem Wall Street of sorts, Jesus continues down this path of condemnation and socio-political destruction or perhaps better said, reconstruction. Jesus confronts the Pharisees, challenging their authority and cursing them to an eternity of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus foretells of the destruction of the temple, the symbol of God’s presence among the people, and decrees tax collectors and prostitutes, the lowest of the low, to be the heirs of this new kin-dom. From chapter 21 to 26 in Matthew, Jesus turns the socio-religious world order on its head with some less than kind words. Here are just a few snippets of the things he had to say about those in power between the palm and the passion…

“Woe to you hypocrites!”

“You snakes, you brood of vipers!”

“There will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now!”

“You will be tortured and put to death!”

This is no warm and fuzzy Jesus. This is no triumphalistic king who will get even with the world for the suffering of Zion. No, this is not at all what the people expected…at least not the people in power.

To fully comprehend Jesus’ actions in this in-between week we must remember that Jesus was not entering a foreign city, nor entering the city of 'the Jews'. Jesus was Jewish. As such Jesus entered the city which symbolized God's promise to Israel in order to confront his own faith and tradition. And we know there is nothing more painful than that.

When we skip from Palm Sunday to Easter we run the risk of misinterpreting the entire Christian message. The issues at stake are not ultimate control or power. William Loader says to interpret it as such would only reinforce the worldly views that might is right and right is might. He goes on to write, "The true signs of messiahship have less to do with palms and crowns, and more to do with acts of healing and compassion. Without them the entry story is ambiguous, a potential disaster, which realizes itself in every generation in the name of piety. A radically subverted model of power exercised in compassion challenges the temple system and Rome in its day and their equivalents in our own, around us and within us."

You see the good news Jesus initiates, the good news we proclaim, is not always perceived as good news for everyone. The good news for the poor, is quite bad news for the rich who have to give up their wealth to enter the kin-dom. The good news for the outcast is bad news for the powerful, for they will have to give up their control to enter the kin-dom. The radical reversal of fortune that Jesus initiates will not be welcomed by all people…not all in society and certainly not all in the church.

The Gospel is uncomfortable business.

Just as Jesus confronted and challenged the faith and tradition of his own community, so also must we, who seek to follow Jesus, also confront and challenge the faith and traditions of our own communities, ever calling them back to the faithfulness of compassion, mercy, welcome and justice.

Not only are we called to confront our communities, our faith, our traditions, we are also called to confront ourselves. We are called to confront those places of resistance and hesitancy, that we each carry; those things that hold us back from embracing the complete joy of Easter. For some of us it might be the attachments we carry to worldly values or ideas about money, power, success or prosperity. For others it might be the wounds of past pain, disappointment, grief or loss, that keep us from experiencing the radical joy and hope of something new.

As we enter holy week we must prepare ourselves to receive the Easter proclamation of a new world order. That means we must prepare ourselves not just for the mixed reactions of the world, that might not take too kindly to our turning their lives upside down, but also prepare ourselves to confront our own places of resistance.

It is into this uncomfortable business that we too are called as faithful followers of the Christ…we are the ones called forward into this week to confront and challenge, knowing that in the end no power of injustice, evil or death can ever fully eclipse the power of Christ’s kin-dom which is known fully in compassion, mercy, peace, forgiveness, justice and a love so strong that not even death can contain it.

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