This is a sermon for Palm Sunday, given in the “church up the road.” The Scriptures it references are Matthew 21:1-11, and Matthew 26:14-27:66.
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 actually live out that change, to make it concrete and personal, asks so much of all of us that we often shy away from it, using whatever distraction is available; even, sometimes, using religion as a shield between us and the demands of a holy God.
As human beings, we live, metaphorically, at the gates of a city; we each look out from our own personal bubbles into a bigger system of things, what Augustine would have called the “earthly city;” a city where so many innocents suffer, and where all manner of evils are hidden under a cloak of self-justifying, selfish, posturing words. 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 horrors in our world is in ourselves too: the passionate longing never to be a victim, the hunger for security expressed in the ownership, the 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 worldly city.
Yet, that worldly city – that system 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 bustle of power and commerce, to send us back into the holy silence of the desert or the peace of the countryside. He plunges himself, and us with him, on triumphal procession into the heart of it all; and he tells us that the entry point into the systems of human evil are also the gates of heaven. If we recognise our involvement, our complicity in human systems, and despite that shock of recognition, find the courage and honesty to walk with Jesus into the heart of that system, to the cross and the tomb, the path takes us to unexpected joys, because it is God himself who 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 all of our systems of evil are shown for the sham they are.
Are we willing to move towards that garden, learning the mind of Christ? It will ask a quiet costliness from us. A succession of small gestures, each of which defies the systems of evil by treating others as valuable; 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, letting us experience God’s heavenly city in the midst of our worldly one. It’s 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, which will finally bring reconciliation and healing.
It’s worth noting that in the story of Jesus’ arrest, two of his disciples betray him; both Judas and Peter, each in their different ways, betrayed Jesus profoundly. But only one of them saw the resurrection. The difference between a Judas and a Peter isn’t in the surrender to temptation; it’s in the openness to see that our worst moments need never be the ones which define us.
Standing here this morning, we can see the possibilities. By faith we know that we can enter with Jesus and walk with him, to and beyond the cross, to the beginnings of new life. But that sick feeling in our stomachs at the fickleness 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, at the edge, looking in but 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 resurrection. 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. We stand at the gates, and they stand open. Let us walk with Jesus this week, with him to his cross and his resurrection.