Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
I bet with our lengthy gospel narrative today, you may be sitting there hoping for an abbreviated sermon. I will oblige my sisters and brother and so, there will be no references to cartoon characters, perfume commercials, Fig Newtons, or Super Heroes today. However, the lighthearted Lenten sermon metaphors you have heard over the past few weeks, the teachings of Lent have provided us with some important discipleship lessons.
After five weeks of hearing about “following Jesus,” we may wonder how we end up today with the liturgy of palms. You may say, “I have participated in this liturgy for years and I still do not understand what is going on. Why do process into the sanctuary waving palms and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor.” “Why then, does that joyous celebration, abruptly change into a dramatic reading of Our Lord’s journey to the cross?” Let me explain.
The Palm Procession has been a tradition in the Roman, Anglican, and other Christian traditions for centuries and there is more than a reenactment ritual going on here. Many churches begin with a brief sojourn, usually from the parish hall or an outdoor spot, in order bring into the present moment the events of the cheering crowd at Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the city. We actually take our place among the crowd shouting, “All Glory Laud and Honor,” just as they did so long ago.
Then, we enact the gospel narrative by having select parishioners read certain parts of the story, thus putting us in the roles of the characters themselves. We do all this, so that we might bring into the present moment, our place in the same crowd, and in the group of closest disciples. We join the story that goes from “All Glory Laud and Honor” to “Crucify Him, Crucify Him,” which makes present for us, our own struggle with discipleship. Each one of us, if we are honest wrestle with what kind of Savior it is that we seek and what symbol of our discipleship we are willing to carry; a palm or a cross.
Palms or Cross?
Let me give you a few examples of the folks in today’s gospel that could not decide between palms or cross. From the Last Supper, we find the disciples with Jesus in the Garden praying, where he asked them merely to stay with him and pray, but they all fall asleep. Later, Jesus was arrested and did not resist his own apprehension. However, Peter forgot what Jesus taught him about loving neighbor, and he cut the ear off of one of the soldiers. Jesus healed the man’s injury though. Later, Peter the bold defender of the Savior denied Jesus three times when accused of being a disciple. Later, the crowd that cheered Jesus upon his arrival, asked for the release of a violent insurrectionist in place of the innocent one we follow.
After shouts of “Crucify Him,” we still hear Jesus on the cross say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” As the crowd taunted the tortured savior the shouting, “You saved others, save yourself Jesus,” we hear a criminal’s plea, “ Jesus remember Me when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus last words were, “Father I commend my spirit,” and then we hear a soldier’s regret for his action, “Surely, this man was innocent,” and then Jesus died.
The crowd, his disciples, and others just sitting on the sidelines debated about who Jesus was, and in their struggles, they experienced cycles of adulation, rejection, and regret. How many of us do the same? As the baptized we journey in faith with Jesus every day, but the path of our discipleship is lined with both palms and crosses, and like the crowd, we are often unsure what kind of Savior we really want.
What Kind of King?
We are not that different from those early disciples. When they shared that meal of memorial with Jesus, it was not an hour later that they were arguing about who was going to be greatest among them. They seemed to forget his teachings and warnings about self-denial and self-giving love. It was as if they forgot all that he taught them and they still had hopes of a power-wielding King, who would satisfy their own personal desires. Most Christians struggle to choose whether we want to follow a “king of the palms,” or a “king of the cross.”
To follow the “King of the Cross” means we choose the counter-cultural, arduous path of self-giving love, while rejecting the normative, tranquil path of self-satisfaction or self-preservation. When life becomes uncomfortable and we must take a stand to protect the innocent, to bring justice to the oppressed, to claim peace in the midst of chaos, or to merely claim Jesus as the Lord of our lives, we have the capacity to be like Peter, and deny our affiliation. I personally wonder sometimes, if I faced the same threat of rejection, violence, or arrest over my faith, would I be like Peter?
If were in the crowd
Wepost-resurrection Christians hear this story each year, but we hear it from the perspective of looking back, but what if we did not know the outcome of the story; what if we did not know about resurrection? I wonder if would seek also a Savior that would wield power against our enemies, rather than a Savior who shows us how to love our enemies.
It is a frightening thought, but maybe we might have been the one that pounded the nails into his hands, or the one who spit in his face, or the one who denied him three times. Imagine for a moment you were in the crowd, would you have shouted “Crucify him, Crucify him.” Despite their rejection of his radical love in action, Jesus still said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
We educated, postmodern, post-resurrection Christians process with palms in hand and enact the story every year, but we need to be reminded that we too need ongoing sanctification in our lives, because each one of us must decide whether we want a humble, self-giving, serving Lord, or a Lord who serves our own desires.
The Choice is Ours
Palm or a cross; the choice is always ours. Will we follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha, or will we stop in the courtyard near the warm and comfortable fire, and deny him like Peter. Honestly, none of us want to go the full distance to the disgraceful death of a cross, but thanks be to God, none of us have to do so, that is because we have God’s grace.
God’s grace is the gift we merely accept. We cannot work for it, do enough to gain it, or serve in enough ministries to manipulate it. It is the free gift of love from God, and it is ours despite, how we often reject the humbled Lord, who intercedes on our behalf saying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
So, which will it be, a palm or a cross? It really is an easy choice, that is if we can trust in God’s grace, rely on God’s direction, and seek God’s will and humbly pray, “Father, I nee you every day. Father, please, also forgive me; because when it comes to following you, I really DO NOT know what I am doing.”
(1) King, Michael A. “Holy Hate.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 23, Nov. 2007, p. 18.