This is a sermon for Palm Sunday, given in both the “church up the road” and the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Luke 19:28-40. The traditional service for Palm Sunday begins out of doors, with the people coming into the church with palm branches and crosses in triumphal procession, and this custom is referred to in the sermon.
Each year I find myself thinking that Palm Sunday is the one occasion in the year that the church really “does” irony. This morning’s tradition, of carrying palms in procession, goes back to the very early church in Jerusalem, who would walk into and through the city gates at the beginning of Holy Week, strengthening their sense of personal connection with the events they were about to remember in worship.
Half a world away, and centuries later, at the beginning of Holy Week, we also come to strengthen our sense of personal connection in worship. We place ourselves with Jesus before the gates of a city. We place ourselves among the adoring crowds at the triumphal entry, but we don’t share their innocence. We know, with a sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs, that all too soon it will go wrong, and end so utterly badly.
We know that once we have entered we shall be swept up in events that we cannot control and that will bring us to the very edge of what we can bear, as we walk with him to Calvary and the tomb. This week tells us that God is able to change everything about us – our fear, our sin, our guilt, our untruthfulness. But to receive that change in the actual circumstances of our lives asks of all of us such a revolution in our hearts that we are stunned and frightened at the thought.
As believers and as human beings, we live at the gates of a city; what Augustine would have called the “earthly city;” a city where so many sufferers are silenced and where so many innocent on all sides of terrible conflict are killed and their deaths hidden under a cloak of angry, selfish, posturing words, whatever language they are spoken in. We know that in this earthly city, trying to live by faith, hope and love leaves us looking pretty helpless. And we also know in our hearts that so much of what fuels the violence is in ourselves too: the passionate longing never to be a victim, the hunger for security expressed in the ownership of the land, the impotent near-mindless fury that bursts out and brings destruction to so many. We know the urge to defend what can’t be defended because we can’t lose face. We are, by our human nature, citizens of this earthly city.
Yet, that earthly city – that city which puts refugees in concentration camps, which allows systems of slavery to flourish to produce its consumer goods, which spends its wealth on weapons of war rather than investing in human flourishing – that city of which we are citizens is also the place where, if we are willing, God works transformation. Jesus does not steer us away from the gates and send us back into the holy silence of the desert or the peace of the countryside. He keeps us close to him as we stand at the gates, and he tells us that these are also the gates of heaven. If you recognise your involvement and prepare to walk with Jesus into the city, to the cross and the tomb, there is a joy and a mystery at the end of the path, because it is inexhaustible divine love that walks with us. We stand not just at the gates of the earthly city, the great city where the Lord was crucified, but also at the entrance to the heavenly city, the city of God. At the end of this week’s story is the garden of resurrection, where our wounds are healed but not hidden away.
Are we willing to move towards that garden, learning the mind of Christ? It probably means an infinity of small gestures that won’t be noticed (much less praised by others); tiny personal admissions that we cannot live forever in isolation, pride or unforgiveness. It is those actions – everything we do, no matter how small, which acknowledges the worth and dignity of another human being – which will finally bridge the gap between vision and reality, creating the heavenly city in the midst of the earthly one. That insistence on refusing to compromise the regard in which we hold one another, because we have come to see the depth of the regard in which God holds each of us, is what will finally bring reconciliation and healing.
Standing here this morning, we can see the possibilities. By faith we know that we can enter with Jesus and walk with him to his garden of new life. But that sick feeling in our stomachs at the fickle acclaim of the crowds reminds us of another set of possibilities; our own potential for cowardice, for self-interest, for weakness. We know that we could find ourselves caught up in the murderous crowds, and, at the end of it all, find ourselves with empty and even blood stained hands.
This week, if we enter into it fully, will take us on a guided tour of all of this. We will see and hear things we don’t want to, and at the end be surprised that apparently, despite it all, God hasn’t given up on us. The challenge to us is to not let the irony of Palm Sunday turn into cynicism, but to let it help us develop a kind of double vision; one which always sees God’s possibilities overlaid on human realities.
Or we can stay at the gates, unwilling to commit ourselves because we know that as soon as we enter there will be trial and suffering; but if we stay there, we shall never reach the heavenly city. How much do we want to be there, where God walks with us again?
As we enter Holy Week, we reaffirm our desire to walk with God, whatever the cost. We pray that God will raise up communities whose vision of this is clear, who look to One who has cleared the way for us not just back to Eden but forward to the heavenly city in which the nations are healed and strangers live gratefully together. The gates are before us, and they stand open. Let us with Jesus prepare to go through, to walk with him to his cross and his resurrection.