Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

March 20, 2005
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Reading 2: 
Psalm 31:9-16
Reading 3: 
Philippians 2:5-11
Reading 4: 
Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
By Rick Marshall

Let’s call this Schizo Sunday; it wants to split and go in two different directions: Palm/Passion. But the problem is with our reading of the narrative and not the narrative itself.

What is the relationship in the church’s history between the Triumphal Entry story, symbolized by palms, and the Passion narrative? One is a giddy, silly, mock coronation. It makes the reader woozy in its circus gestures toward the worship of a standard king. It would be comedy if it didn’t turn tragedy; it’s conclusion is the crowning of “The King of the Jews!” in Matthew 27:27-31. In contrast, the Passion narrative heavily unfolds to its inevitable conclusion. The church, in it’s double mindedness about this Sunday, thinks it solves the dualism by giving us a choice with the slash between Palm and Passion. The lectionary for this year settles this by coming down on the side of Passion over Palm. Yet, we still hear the voices of the cheering crowd sounding like a muffled Greek Chorus as a background to the Passion narrative, like a catchy jingle that forms a loop in the mind. The temptation toward King David persists as powerfully as any archetype. I think the lectionary is right in this choice because the Triumphal Entry is prelude, set up, to the dirge of the Passion and the ultimate failure of any humanly choreographed triumph.

To hear the Passion once again is like listening to an Italian opera without knowing Italian: the sounds and words are familiar because we have heard them so many times, and the feelings the hearing evokes are deep and powerful, but we still don’t speak or understand the language. And, as if learning Italian would solve the problem of understanding, we think that learning the language of the narrative could crack the code of the true meaning of Divine passion. Maybe we should just sit back, listen, and enjoy hearing it all over again. It will evoke deep and powerful feelings. There is mystery here. If we listen carefully to the familiar story once again, put our ear to this holy ground, we hear footsteps, scuffling, a cough, Roman words, long Aramaic vowels. The lash of a whip comes; we hear the sharp clank of iron on flesh. We wince. Silence, wind, a groan. It becomes Greek to us once again. The narrative curls around a deeper movement: a plumbing of the heart of God. The story is more shocking than we ever thought possible. The pulse throbbing underneath all the layers of the narrative is the rhythm of Divine grief. Who dares to go there without the safety net of this familiar telling?

All of this might be an argument for simply reading the full narrative and letting it stand on its own without comment. But that might be too naked, too unrelenting. Chattering about it in a sermon takes away the edge, the chill of being directly exposed to Divine pain. We can no more bear the full force of this narrative than we could see our parents cry when we were a child. Even Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” by focusing on the violence, misses the profound pain of God. The movie glides on as if it were a ballet of violence, when, in fact, the narrative takes us to the most primitive depths of existential paralysis; it is gut-wrenching. We are witnessing the execution of someone’s child and not just any execution nor just any child. “My God, my God!” Life doesn’t getting any darker than that night in the Garden of Gethsemane or than the moment of utter abandonment on the cross. What words are even possible that can plumb those depths? The language has to be metaphorical, poetic.

For this Sunday, we will focus on the whole Passion narrative. The word “passion” might hold the key to the thrust of the text. “Passion” is an odd word to be so theologically important. Its actual occurrence in the Bible is rare, and when it does occur, it has negative connotations: feelings and desires to be feared or avoided because they cause trouble in the form of corruption. I have a vivid memory of reading about the Greek horse which represents the wildness and power of passion, with the cold bit, called reason, in its mouth to steer this dangerous animal. The fear of feelings seems so Greek, yet passion is a Latin word, which doesn’t make things any easier to understand. In itself, the concept of passion is simple: strong feelings, undergoing suffering etc. The striking thing is its application as a description of the Divine. And it is no peripheral concept; it is central. If the Gospels are passion narratives with extended introductions, then passion, or feeling, is a major attribute of God. Therefore, the passion narrative might be one grand divine “ouch” in response to the cost of love. But it is more, of course.

The word “passion,” and the narrative itself, suggests that God feels, which completely and unequivocally contradicts the stubborn theory of God’s immutability, that is, the idea that God does not change, that God is impassive, or lacks passion. If the Gospels take seriously the idea that God feels, then maybe we should, too. Here is the problem: to feel is to be vulnerable to being changed. But this makes perfect sense because if God is love, then to love someone is to feel their feelings, to hurt when they hurt, to rejoice when they rejoice (does this sound like our friend Paul?), to be open to being changed by the other, because that is the nature of love. As a father, husband and friend to many, I know this to be true about love. Love is the passion word par excellence. It is the defining relational word and it is the central word that describes God.

At the heart of the Gospel is this stunning claim that God feels and is vulnerable to us and feels our feelings and responds to us. Love implies feelings, feelings imply response, and response implies the possibility of changing. There is a logic to love and that logic is worked out in so many stories in the Bible, most poignantly in the Passion narrative. This should have been the theological logic all along. But early on, the church fathers (and they were men) decided to turn Greek and opted for omnipotence, immutability and all those other descriptions of the logical simplicity of the Divine nature. Hence the tortured path of creeds, trying to make one plus one equal three.

But a responsive God is not simply a Christian idea, because the Jewish scriptures describe a God deeply involved in an ongoing, difficult, painful relationship with creation. God exhibits all the feelings of being in relationship: love, anger, disappointment, affection, pleasure. This dynamically involved God is there in all the stories. Look at God’s resolve at the end of the Noah story not to react in anger! Look at God negotiating with Moses! Look at the book of Hosea! Look at God’s satisfaction with creation at the end of the Creation story in Genesis! Look at the prophets, pleading on God’s behalf! God is fully engaged in dynamic relationship with Creation.

What a mistake is the idea of omnipotence, if it is understood as God having all coercive power and if that power means that God does not change in response to creation. Immutable, impassive, coercively all-powerful. How do these ideas set with the passion narrative? They don’t. The theory of Divine omnipotence flattens God, turns God into a one-dimensional character in a weird ballet of external power over a stubborn material universe. The God of the Bible is far more interesting (not to mention worshipful) than the God of simple omnipotence.

Preaching the Text:
From a process-relational perspective, God and the world are involved in a dynamic relationship that can best be described as a loving relationship, implying all the texture and the contours of any loving relationship. One strategy, then, might be to focus on the nature of love and to work out the idea of God as Love in light of how we understand any loving relationship. Examples of husband/wife, parent/child, friend/friend, etc., could easily be used as windows into the Divine nature.

Another strategy is to focus on one or two scenes, for example the Garden scene or the Cross scene to talk about the Divine cost of love. We understand the cost of love. The issue of trust, as discussed earlier this season, could be reintroduced here. Jesus, facing his own death, offered himself into God’s hands as an act of trust, not unlike Abraham. However, we are not ready to talk about creative transformation. It is not in the air in this story. We will save that for Easter, where it grows from this dim place to full bloom.

Another way to handle the passion narrative is to go directly to the word “passion” and work out the meaning of the word for God as described above. Take a look at how the Bible describes the relationship between Creator and creatures, Parent and Child, Bride and Bridegroom, Lover and Beloved.

Or, as you prefer, especially if you do not observe Tenebrae, you could simply read the story and let it stand on it’s own.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.