The Palm Sunday story is one of a few rare stories you can find in all four of the Gospels. Jesus entering into the city of Jerusalem atop a donkey or a colt, the crowds shouting “Hosanna” by the side of the road, leafy palm branches, coats and cloaks spread across the ground like a red carpet fit for a king. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all record their own version of the Palm Sunday event.
In contrast, the Christmas story only makes it into two of the Gospels. By the same token, you can find the Lord’s Prayer in two of the Gospels. And the Beatitudes…blessed are the meek and the poor…just two Gospels. In fact, the two most famous parables in the Bible, the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, appear only in the Gospel of Luke.
But Palm Sunday has a prominent place in each of the four Gospels, which means it’s a really important story. The question is why. Other than the fact today marks the beginning of the holiest and most important week in the Christian year, what makes Palm Sunday such a central event in our faith?
As I pondered that question this week, I came across a new thought. Maybe one of the major reasons why Palm Sunday is so important is the fact that Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the Christian church…
Now in truth, it surprises me to even consider that possibility. For years I’ve been a huge proponent of Pentecost, the day in the Christian year billed as the official “birthday” of the Christian church. While others are likely to tout the merits of better known Christian holy days, I’ve often found myself putting in a good word for Pentecost. Without Pentecost, I argue, the church wouldn’t be here to celebrate or remember anything.
But if you listen to the story carefully, Palm Sunday is the day the followers of Jesus Christ grew up. It’s the day the followers found their voice and summoned their courage. And most importantly, Palm Sunday is the day the followers of Jesus stepped out of the shadows and onto center stage…assuming their role as primary players and protagonists propagating the realm of God.
The Palm Sunday story itself is a familiar one. The city of Jerusalem during the celebration of the Passover festival would have been the ancient equivalent of the city of Boston as it gears up for the Boston Marathon a week from tomorrow. Back then, Jerusalem swelled with visitors from every corner of the world. Hotel rooms were scarce and overpriced. Restaurant reservations were long since made and confirmed. The city streets were teeming with casual tourists and curious onlookers and serious religious pilgrims.
On every corner, merchants set up tables to sell their crafts. Musicians and street performers worked hard to corral captive audiences. There was a distinct buzz in the air…a heightened sense of expectation and excitement.
In the meantime, with crowds big enough and boisterous enough to teeter on the edge of control, heavily armed Roman soldiers patrolled the streets looking for reasons to round up anyone who stepped out of line…
As for the disciples in the story, they had been relatively passive up to this point in time, content to simply shadow Jesus around the Galilean countryside. When Jesus argued with the religious authorities, the disciples quietly fretted about repercussions. When Jesus defended a prostitute, they whispered to each other in disbelief. When Jesus publicly defied the laws around the Sabbath, they squirmed in the background. When Jesus preached that the first would be last and the last would be first, they scratched their heads. When Jesus cast out demons and kissed lepers and healed those with disease and disability, they marveled…but only at arms-length.
Yet when the disciples finally arrived outside the city of Jerusalem, an amazing transformation took place. For the very first time, the disciples went from timid onlookers to movers and shakers.
On that Palm Sunday day long ago, the Roman soldiers lined the side of the road that led into the city gates with their shiny swords and helmets and gleaming coats of arms. For anyone nearby, the legion of Roman soldiers represented an intimidating display of power and might.
Undaunted, however, the disciples staged their own drama. In front of everyone gathered to watch the parade unfold, the disciples boldly announced their allegiance to the God made known to them in Jesus Christ. And in doing so, they openly flaunted their resistance to the Roman emperor Caesar with a cadre of the emperor’s soldiers standing mere yards away.
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” As the disciples shouted, the Roman soldiers stood and watched stoically. To put it bluntly, what the disciples did that day was in your face. And yet on a far more serious level, what the disciples did that day constituted grounds for treason.
Palm Sunday was a “line in the sand” day for the disciples when the private became public and the personal became political. No longer content to simply swear allegiance to any earthly government or earthly power, the disciples chose instead to declare their faith in the Prince of Peace…
Lo and behold, that faith investment, that mission statement, that guiding principle which the disciples claimed long ago on Palm Sunday is the same one the church holds onto generations later. As Christians, you and I swear our ultimate allegiance not to the powers and principalities of this earthly world, but rather to the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Could it be that the church traces its lineage all the way back to the disciples on Palm Sunday, who took to heart everything they had seen and heard and learned from Jesus and put it on display for the world to see…?
In the same manner as long ago, today is Palm Sunday 2017 and it is our turn as followers of Jesus Christ to show the world what faith in God looks like. And to put on display what the love of God looks like.
Loving our enemies as well as our friends, including those who are immigrants and strangers and aliens among us. Following in the footsteps of the disciples long ago, today is our turn to show the world what embracing our neighbors means. Forgiving those who trespass against us and the ones who sin against us not once, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Today it is the church’s turn.
In a world filled with conflict and violence and chemical weapons and unthinkable destruction, today is a good time to demonstrate our commitment to turning the other cheek and walking the way of the Prince of Peace. In a world where we spend so much time kicking and clawing and scratching. Dog eat dog. Might makes right. Only the strongest survive. Judging and condemning. Winning and losing. Today is the day to proclaim the abundant mercy of God and to adopt the daily quest for justice that fueled Jesus’ ministry.
In a world where the rich get richer while the poor are often abandoned and left to their own devices. In a world where fear and prejudice by definition mean that some are welcome while others are relegated to the outside looking in. In a world obsessed with self-help where we often forget about reaching out and helping our neighbors.
In this world you and I are called to stand for different values than the powers that be. You and I have to work and train hard in order to practice courage. And demonstrate kindness. And show compassion. And exercise gentleness. And perform generosity and gratitude. Today, Palm Sunday 2017 is your turn and my turn. To find our voice. And declare our allegiance to the One who comes in the name of the Lord. It is the church’s turn. It is Wapping Community Church’s turn.
Maybe, just maybe the Palm Sunday story can be found in all four Gospels because today is the day the church was born. Not in wind and flame and fire. But rather in loud shouts of “Hosanna.” And in unyielding courage and hope and conviction. Amen.