Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

April 8, 2001
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Reading 4: 
Luke 19:28-40
By Barry A. Woodbridge

The Lucan account of the triumphal entry structurally depends upon the preceding parable of pounds involving the greedy and vengeful king. The king has gone away "to get royal power for himself and then return" (Luke 19:12). He returns "having received royal power" (v.15), but the citizens hated him and sent a mob delegation after him (v.14). Thus, the parable anticipates the plot of the triumphal entry.

This lesson is therefore about power and how people respond to it.

Luke prefaces the ritual of an earthly ruler entering with a royal procession into a conquered city with this ominous note of incipient rebellion against a royal power.

Notice there are no shouts of "Hosanna" in Luke’s narrative. Instead, we have "the whole multitude of disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen…" (v. 37b). Lacking our sometime cultural inhibitions, they vocalize what they feel. There’s no stopping them, neither by the Pharisees who want to stop both their public display and their sacrilegious content of naming Jesus as king, nor by Jesus himself.

To all this, the lowly donkey-straddling Jesus makes the response which ends the lection because it culminates the theological point Luke has been dramatically developing:

"I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out" (v. 40).

The reference is to Habakkuk 2:11 "The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork."

The only one day in my life I ever walked around the gates in Jerusalem, the stones did fall down from their plaster. A municipal public works crew was making some repairs high up on the walls, and chips from the stones were falling around us pilgrims as we walked by on the Jerusalem sidewalks. I saved one piece as a remembrance of the walls of Jerusalem, but the power causing those stones to fall was far from the power intended by Habakkuk or Luke!

The process-informed hermeneut and preacher will have much to offer about this passage. Luke’s Jesus offers the proposition: God is dawning a new kingdom through Jesus’ ministry, and if one part of creation doesn’t respond to it, God has the persuasive power to raise up another creation who will. If these people here and now don’t shout out about the power of creative transformation, then God can raise up another people group who will, even if that takes working back from stones or inanimate life forms!

In other words, God’s initial aim is not God’s only aim. Or, perhaps it would be better to conceive of God’s initial aim for every occasion not as linear but multi-dimensionally as an array. If this one component of God’s aim is not realized, other components of the same array will be efficacious to a similar and related end or purpose.

God’s power in Jesus is donkey power, not nuclear power. The triumphal entry marks the procession of persuasion, not Caesarean cohorts. Those who understand this undamental shift in power will be able to celebrate, later mourn appropriately, and finally be lifted up in the continuing light of Christ transformed in Easter.

Thus, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord," included by Luke and echoing the Psalter of the day (Ps. 118:6), becomes the cry of reality, the shouted mantra of those who have come to terms with a new view of power --God’s persuasive power.

As Passion Sunday-Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

The contemporary church celebrates Palm Sunday and too often misses out on the lections of Holy Week. Some will offer these lections on Palm Sunday as a means of including more worshipers in a Good Friday worship experience.

In these lessons, we move from the Psalmist’s trust in God precisely in the death brought about by adversaries and opposition to God, to the Deutero-Isaiah servant song where grievous assaults made on God’s servant lead to the affirmation that vindication is near Isa. 50:8).

Then, the third lesson from Philippians lifts us into the famous christological hymn, which hardly seems fit for the occasion of death and dying in the passion story in the Gospel lesson in Luke, except there is an all-important connection with last week’s epistle lesson from Philippians 3:4b-14.

We have all been taught better than to theologize at the bedside of a terminally ill patient. Why this lesson with the great high christological hymn when we are ready for "O Sacred Head Now Wounded"?

Fred Craddock, discussing the Philippians hymn in his commentary on Philippians in the Interpretation series, notes that the lectionary committee has the church read this passage every Palm Sunday to remind her precisely during the triumphal emphasis that the church is to be the servant church and assume the mind of Christ who himself was the humbled servant.

Sometimes we need to read the lectionary consecutively to hear the message intended. Last week, we mentioned the possibility of pausing for silence after reading the first phrase in Phil. 3:10 "I want to know Christ…" to hear the determination in Paul’s words. Just before that in 3:8-9a he uses a curious phrasing when he writes "For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.

Today, in the Philippians hymn in 2:7b-8, the same phrase and with the same verb (heurisko) recurs when he writes:

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

Not many interpreters have noted this similar construction in the two chapters, and the standard Greek lexicon suggests there might be two different meanings. Phil 2:7b might suggest an accidental discovery without seeking, and 3:9 might mean discovery through an intellectual process. Others disagree that the verb is really the same sense in both verses, and that sense is more properly interpreted simply as "appear" or "appear to be."

Christ emptied himself of all claims to divine status and appeared as the man, Jesus, who poured himself out for others. Paul comes along, and more than anything else wants to empty himself of all his accumulated social, religious, and intellectual status and appear as (be found in the form of) the emptied servant of Christ.

This is our clue as to how to fulfill the purpose of Lent: we realize that in the incarnation Jesus became subject to all the same powers and principalities which can bring death both physically, psychically, and spiritually to any of us humans. As we become like him in his death, we empty ourselves of all other claims and participate in his vulnerability, having his mind (his world view) whether we live or whether we die. Paul claims this emptied out state, this gaining of Christ and his mind in us, 1) surpasses any other goal in life, 2) results in personal freedom and joy, and 3) releases us from the bondages that keep us in fear and anxiety.

One appropriate worship response to the Philippians and Gospel lessons would be the ritual of washing of feet, which many do on Maundy Thursday.

Another ancient Christian spiritual discipline, one seldom practiced outside of the Roman or Orthodox churches, could open Paul’s and the Gospel’s message for our congregations. The Stations of the Cross represent a spiritual discipline which makes real and, if properly presented, visceral, the themes in all four lections for Passion Sunday or Good Friday. They combine scriptural (along with some noncanonical church tradition) themes with bodily movement of acts of humility.

If none other are available, perhaps youth groups or other church groups might create a simple art form representing each scene, with the congregation moving from one scene to another around the sanctuary or outdoors in a church garden, stopping, bowing or kneeling, and meditating on the meaning of each scene. (Too lengthy to include here, but available upon request via email from the author, is an unpublished set of process-oriented meditations and prayers used for each station.)

Post Vatican II, the stations include a fifteenth station for the resurrection, which could be reserved for Easter morning in the sanctuary:

Station One – Jesus’ Trial

Station Two – Jesus’ Cross

Station Three – First Fall

Station Four – His Mother

Station Five – Simon Cyrene takes his Cross

Station Six – Veronica Wipes his Face with Her Veil

Station Seven – Second Fall

Station Eight – The Women at the Cross

Station Nine – Third Fall

Station Ten – He is Stripped

Station Eleven – The Nails

Station Twelve – He Dies

Station Thirteen – Mary’s Arms

Station Fourteen – The Tomb

Station Fifteen – The Resurrection

For further resources on process Christology and the Philippians hymn, see: Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power.