We begin the day with a party. A royal procession! A celebration fit for a king! This is the moment we’ve been waiting for! It’s been 10 chapters—seems like forever ago!—since Luke told us that Jesus had set his face towards Jerusalem! Along the way he’s been teaching and healing, calling and convicting, drawing people to a new way of life. He’s been declaring heaven’s kingdom with all the authority of its true king. There have been rumblings that he really is the Messiah—the king after God’s own heart, the One who will vanquish the enemies of abundant life and usher in God’s will and way: God’s hope and peace, joy and love, on earth as in heaven.
People have caught his vision. They’ve marvelled at the way the kingdom goes through leper colonies and fractured lives, bringing newness and wholeness; that it knocks over walls that separate and divide, walls designed to maintain the way things are. In Jesus’ kingdom announcements we’ve not just heard a new possibility; we’ve seen it come alive. Every touch, every gesture, every word has pointed us to a reality that is overwhelming the way things are in favour of the way they will be.
And so we join the whole multitude of disciples praising God joyfully, with a loud voice, for all the works of power we have seen. And the whole thing is meant to tell us something about who Jesus is, about what he’s up to. This is holy pageantry! The donkey is the obvious thing. No warhorse here. This king comes just like the prophet Zechariah said he would—not with pomp and silliness we’re used to from kings, but humbly, intentionally, clopping slowly and deliberately into God’s city.
And he doesn’t just come in a rather different style than the other rulers who have marched into Jerusalem; he comes from a whole different direction. He comes down from the Mt. of Olives—the place where the prophets insisted God would start the holy revolution to save the world. And that matters because the Mt. of Olives is to the east of Jerusalem. He’ll enter the city from the east. And everyone in the crowd knows that the powers that be, the rulers of the current order of things, enter the city from the west. All power is Rome’s power. All power comes from the west. The legions that have been sent to keep an eye on the Passover festival, the ones lining the walls, ready to crush anything that looks like rebellion against Roman peace—they enter from the west. The gospel of Caesar, the Empire’s brand of good news, always comes from the west. The Pilates and Herods get their authority from the west. Jesus clops into town from the east. This kingdom moves in a different direction. It’s a whole new thing.
And so we sing, ‘til our voices are raw: Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!! Everyone in this parade is singing from the depths of their soul. A new king is here. A new way. God’s way. And goodness, we’re ready for it. Aren’t we ready for a new rule, a new possibility?
· Aren’t we ready to see love and justice and righteousness flourish in the shells of violence and greed and division?
· Aren’t we ready for brokenness to be made whole? For communities to be healed, for tables to be expanded, for fractured relationships to be pieced back together?
· Aren’t we ready for mercy and grace freely given? For the lavish love of our divine parent, instead of the stinginess of self-improvement and self-promotion?
· Aren’t we ready for peace that doesn’t require a sword, or nuclear codes?
Aren’t we ready, in the depths of our heart, at the core of our humanity, for a rule that flows in a different direction? The songs of this parade well up from our deepest, most human yearnings. Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! It’s a song that demands to be heard. It has to be sung and danced! The whole creation longs for his reign. If we keep silent, the rocks will cry out!
But how quickly the song does begin to fade. When does that start to happen? Do things get a little quieter when, in the midst of the celebration, Jesus breaks down in tears over the city that refuses to recognize the things that make for peace? Surely conquering heroes don’t cry.
Does the song fade when Jesus walks into the temple and throws a holy temper tantrum, upending and upsetting the local business? Maybe we didn’t think the economy was in any danger under King Jesus. Isn’t the economy always the biggest issue?
Maybe the singing gets quieter and the dancing a little less energetic when the keepers of the way things are, the rulers and authorities we’re so used to, begin to ask Jesus just who he thinks he is. Where did he get this authority? Because it certainly wasn’t from them. Or maybe it’s when they start to question the stuff he seems to hope in—I mean, resurrection? Honestly.
Maybe the party breaks up when it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a revolutionary strategy. Or when he insists that if we stick with him, we can more or less guarantee that folks whose opinions really matter to us are not going to respond terribly well. Or maybe it was when we realized that he actually meant that our martyrdom was a legitimate possibility, not just his.
How do we get from this victory parade, to the table where Jesus, tells us one more time (we haven’t believed it yet) that his revolution is going to meet with suffering and death? How do we get from singing for joy about the king who comes in the name of the Lord, to wondering which one of us will betray him first?
How do we get from the joy of Palm Sunday, to the shadow of Maundy Thursday, to the disaster of Good Friday? There’s this devastating moment when Jesus is crucified, under the mocking epithet “This is the king of the Jews”—in other words, this is what happens to kings who try to upend the way things are—where Luke tells us that the crowds who’d gathered to watch the spectacle beat their breasts and went home. But Jesus’ acquaintances, the ones who’d been with him the whole time, ever since Galilee, watched from a distance. His acquaintances! How do we get from disciples, beloved friends, witnesses to all that Jesus has been about—how do we get from taking the bread and wine, his body and blood given for us—to acquaintances, watching from a distance? The assessment is brutal. In that moment it’s like the psalmist says, “there’s not one who is faithful.”
This is the tension of this day, of Palm/Passion Sunday. And the wisdom of the Church is to not let us get around this tension. We don’t get to go from one celebration to the next. We can’t get straight from Palm Parade to Easter Victory. We’re stopped short in this week. We don’t get to avoid the tension. We don’t get to avoid the fact that what we see on this day reveals the tension in our own hearts. In the juxtaposition of songs of praise and utter denial—of the blessing of the king who comes in the name of the Lord, to turning from the king who is crucified—we see something familiar. We are both desperately ready for the world that Jesus promises, longing for the way things are to give way to the way things will be; and we are the ones at the table who know that the betrayer could be us.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable thing about Judas is that he was chosen. He was part of the inner circle. The gospels never make any attempt to suggest otherwise. He didn’t sneak in. Jesus called Judas, and gave him a job. Judas watched Jesus do what Jesus did from Galilee to Jerusalem; he was at the front of the revolutionary parade. Jesus washed his feet. He handed him the bread and wine. Some have suggested that Judas’ betrayal was really the twisting of his eagerness, a twisting of his deep desire for the confrontation between God’s way and Caesar’s way. He was a true believer. And he sealed his Saviour’s fate with a kiss.
And if Judas is a bit much for us to handle, we could just watch Peter move from swearing unflinching allegiance to Jesus, to denying him 3 times, to weeping, alone, in the darkness. Peter, the Rock of the Church—who’d been transformed by Jesus, called out of the way things are to witness God’s future breaking in at every turn, who’d seen his Lord transfigured, who’d heard the divine voice declare that Jesus was ever and always the One who would bring God’s will on earth as in heaven—the best we can say for Peter is that by Friday he’ll become a distant acquaintance when the battle got tough. We don’t even know for sure if he was in that crowd.
This day confronts us with the tension in our own hearts. (I assume it’s all of us, not just me.) It confronts us with the reality that we are both longing to join the parade, longing to sing the promise of a new kind of king and a new kind of kingdom; and that we are somehow complicit in Friday’s catastrophe. This day confronts me with the truth that my songs of praise also get a little quieter when I see that Jesus isn’t the one who will storm the gates to vanquish my enemies, but comes slowly, with his eyes full of tears for the city that will kill him.
I dance a little less enthusiastically when it becomes clear that his revolution, the kingdom on earth as in heaven, might pose a threat to the way I like things to be; that it might upset and upend comfort and security, even my best religious convictions might be flipped over.
I sing a little less boisterously when competing authorities start to bluster and demand adherence to the way things are, always for very compelling—and self-preserving—reasons.
I start to wonder if the victory parade is a bit premature when it becomes clear that Jesus’ strategy isn’t quite like any plan of attack that I’d come up with; that his plan for conquering the world is submission, humility, mercy and prayer, that he really believes that greatness and service have to do with one another—that he seems to be taking his Sermon on the Mount, his kingdom manifesto, quite a bit more seriously than I thought anyone could.
I’m as likely as not to slink away and watch from a distance when the keepers of the way things are begin to smirk and point out that this whole thing is a bit naïve, a bit too good to be true, and worse: impractical. I mean, resurrection? Honestly.
The distance between rejoicing discipleship and timid acquaintanceship never seems to be all that far in the human heart. As St. Paul puts it, whenever I want to do good, evil seems to be lurking around the corner. Our best intentions get twisted. We can be awfully prideful about our humility; our songs of praise can become shouts of condemnation; our righteous commitments can become barriers to loving our neighbors; our shouts of love somehow become quick denials.
This is the tension that this week demands we lean into, insists we be honest about. It’s the tension that reminds us that what we hope for, what we’ll celebrate next Sunday, the truth we’re gathered in today isn’t affirmation that we’re doing just fine, but that God’s desire for us is so much more than just fine. It’s more than we can ask or imagine.
It’s leaning into this tension, allowing the brutal honesty of Luke’s storytelling to wash over us, to overwhelm us, to grab our hearts, which opens us up to the wonder that the One on the cross really hangs there for us—that there is nothing he won’t give for us. It’s the tension that allows us to see that we are also the faithful and fickle to whom Jesus passes the bread—body broken—and the cup—blood for a new covenant. It’s the tension that makes real our need of a new covenant, a new hope, a new promise, a righteousness not our own. It’s that tension that allows us to offer up the broken pieces of our hearts, the darkest corners of our lives, our failed self-righteousness, and let him take that stuff into the grave, to break its death grip on us.
It’s the tension that allows us to feel the full weight and wonder of grace when he comes once more to walk beside us when we would stand a long way off,
· when he comes again to draw us back into the hope we’d had,
· when he offers us the bread of a new day.
· It’s the tension that allows us to know him as the king whose way really does conquer the ways of sin and death, and make a new world—all that we long for—possible
· the One whose way is vindicated;
· the One who will overwhelm us and all things with his healing peace, and make us sing again.