Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

April 1, 2007
See Also: 

Year A
Year B
Year C

Sermon Holy Week
John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 2: 
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Reading 4: 
Luke 19:28-40
By Ignacio Castuera

It is interesting to note that the people who craft the Lectionary feel free to have a reading from the Gospel of John on the Fifth Sunday in Lent and then again on Easter Sunday but do not do it on Palm Sunday. John is the only Gospel that mentions palms, so it is strange that we do not have here the reading from that Gospel.

I translate the freedom of the Lectionary crafters into the freedom of the preacher to introduce changes that make people more mindful of the tradition in a sort of via negativa. Since no palms are mentioned in the Lucan text why not work with a worship committee and have a different kind of observance that highlights the “triumphal entry”? This Sunday could just as easily be named “garments Sunday” since that is what the people throw on the ground to usher the King of Kings into the holy city, or branches Sunday which are also mentioned by Luke.

I suggest that one could also play with the symbol of the “stones” that fill the texts this time.  The altar and chancel could have a collection of different kinds of stones or people could be asked at a given time in the service to bring a stone to the altar. Conversely people could take home stones from the church service to keep during the Holy Week in their homes and make them the center of family observances in preparation for Easter.

The “palms” will be more meaningful in their absence, people who year after year have entered sanctuaries festooned with palms may see more clearly that the real point is not palms vs. no palms but the recognition of the entering Christ as ruler who is much more connected with the tenderness of God than those who appealed in the past to the “divine right of Kings” or who appealed today to hear God telling them to go to war against rather defenseless Third World countries.

If these were silent the very stones would cry out is much more than a threat by the King of Kings, it is a summons to become the building stones of the basilea Theou! This is clearly understood by the early church writers who again and again call members to become living stones that ground themselves on the rejected stone in order to serve both God and humanity.

One important feature to lift up is that the “triumphal entry” is not exactly a spontaneous event. People might have joined in the moment, but the event itself was carefully planned. Jesus had indeed other followers who were not part of the core that went around with him. This ought to suggest that as we enter into action in the world in the name of the tenderness of God and the faithfulness of Christ to that vision, we too must study, plan, and think ahead. The books suggested earlier will give us much to think about but that is only a beginning. We must unite with others who, in one way or the other, understand that true power will flow from a vision of tenderness far more than from a threat of force.

The “triumphal entry” is the symbol of the anticipated victory of love over fear. As we swim in an ocean of fear in the heart of the American Empire we need to build alliances with those who understand, however vaguely, that love is indeed the most powerful force in the world. Gandhians, Buddhists, and many other progressive people of faith and of no particular faith will join the “triumphal march” only as they see more and more followers of the Prince of Peace adopt peaceful, but active, ways of pointing out the injustices of the Empire and the bright alternatives of the basilea Theou. 

Luke 22 and 23

Passion Sunday is seldom observed in Christian communities, what often happens is that the Passion Narrative is spread over two or three observances before Easter, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday (usually an ecumenical event where 7 preachers offer meditations on the “seven last words,) and in a few churches an Easter Vigil. It is unfortunate that the Passion story gets short changed and that most of the people who will attend our Easter Services will have “pole vaulted” from the previous Christmas to the Easter event.  Be that as it may, it is important to include elements of the Passion story in some way, preferably as a “prelude” in the Easter observance.

A darkened church at the beginning of the Easter feast followed by a reading without comment of the Passion narrative or a musical reminder of the Passion, any of these would make the Easter observance far more meaningful and far more realistic. The comments that follow may be used during any of the possible services during holy week leading to the Easter festival.

Passion is an interesting word for what goes on during the last days of Jesus earthly life. On the one hand we have the traditional understanding of the “passive” role which makes puts Jesus on the receiving end of the actions of others; this is the meaning which most often the church has had in mind when speaking about the Passion of our Lord.   

On the other hand, Jesus’ “passion,” in the more common understanding of that word, also fills the narrative from the passionate way in which he chastises the Temple thievesto the very active way in which the Gospel writers have him act even from the cross. (After all, “seven last words” hardly match the images from the Old Testament and like a sheep before his shearers he opened not his mouth.)

Given that for many centuries only one of these two meanings has dominated piety and preaching a necessary corrective calls us to lift up the active, visceral, fire in the belly type of passion that ignited the deeds that Jesus performed during his last week of earthly presence. John Cobb called in one of his books for a passionate, progressive, Protestantism as a complement to the cerebral, reasoned and calm way in which liberal Christianity had confronted issues of injustice, abuse and oppression. Connecting Jesus’ passion to the emotion and commitment required to oppose the Empire from within will also contribute to understand the Easter observance in a manner that is much closer to the way the early church understood that event.

Ignacio Castuera, a United Methodist minister, is currently serving Trinity United Methodist Church in Pomona, California, and also serves as the national chaplain for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Rev. Castuera has served churches in Mexico, Hawaii, and California. In 1980, he became the first Latino District Superintendent of the Los Angeles District of the California Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.