Walking, Riding, Dying: A Homily for Palm/Passion Sunday, 2019

How many miles had Jesus walked on his long journey to Jerusalem? Way back in chapter 9, Luke tells us “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” But even before that, he had been walking throughout Galilee. He had walked and along the way he had healed and taught. Now, finally, as he approaches Jerusalem, he instructs his disciples to fetch a donkey so he could ride on it for a bit.

He may have been tired. He may have been full of anxiety and fear about what would happen in Jerusalem, but he didn’t ask for a donkey so that the final leg of his journey would be less taxing. He wanted to ride on a donkey to make a point—to stage a demonstration. It’s a clear reference to Zechariah 9:9:

Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 

Jesus is making a claim that, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite the Roman Empire whose ruler was Tiberius at the time, despite Herod Antipas, who was Rome’s lackey, and Pilate, who was procurator of the province, and in Jerusalem with a legion of Roman soldiers to keep the peace during the tumultuous Passover celebration, despite all that, Jesus was the true king.

We tend to overlook the confrontational side of this procession. We want it to be about joy and happiness; we want our shouts of Hosanna to be shouts of praise. But it’s all so much more than that. We feel the dramatic shift from joy to sorrow already in the collect I pray at the door,

“Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but
first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he
was crucified:

We may want to linger outside the doors of the church; we may want to continue the procession with our friends from First Methodist and Festus the Donkey as they make their way around Capitol Square, but the reality is that whatever joy we feel, whatever joy was felt by his disciples and the others who accompanied them, they knew that this procession was not the end of the story. They knew there were still steps on the journey. In Luke’s gospel, it is not an entry into Jerusalem at all. It’s a procession through villages outside of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was still waiting. The final confrontation with Rome was still ahead; the final confrontation with the forces of evil remained a few days away.

There’s something about ritualized activity, something like our Palm Sunday procession walking down N. Carroll St., something about an act like that. It may bring to mind other times we’ve walked the very same sidewalk—on our way to dinner, or from the bus to church, or one of the many protests Capitol Square has seen in recent years. We may suddenly remember other times, other walks, and we may suddenly understand them differently. Imagine Jesus walking here, in Madison, on Capitol Square, to imagine walking with him as he staged his demonstration and confronts the principalities and powers. What would he do here? What would he say? Who would charge him crimes? Who would arrest him and why? Who would execute him?

Jesus would continue walking the streets of Jerusalem over the next few days as he walked back and forth from Bethany where he spent the night to the temple, where he taught and confronted the religious and political establishment. After the Last Supper he would walk with his disciples to Gethsemane, where he would pray, and where he would be arrested.

And finally, he would walk painfully, suffering, after torture, under the weight of the cross until he fell and it was given to another. Finally, he would walk to his place of execution.

It’s a journey Christians have replicated in many ways and in many places over the centuries. We have marked what we think was his journey to the cross in the streets of Jerusalem. We have created devotions like the stations of the cross that invite us to enter into his journey and to meditate on his suffering.

Much of that devotional practice, our hymns and traditions focus on the suffering he underwent. Most of that devotion connects Christ’s suffering with our sins and emphasizes our responsibility for the crucifixion. When we read the passion narratives on Palm Sunday, we shout “Crucify him” as if we were the crowd condemning Jesus to death. Many of us find such imagery and devotion powerful and life-giving.

Yet there are other ways to understand the cross and this journey to and in Jerusalem that Jesus walked. In the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul is likely quoting a hymn that Christians were already singing in worship, a hymn that reflects early understandings of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And here there is nothing of sacrifice, or sins, or guilt, or punishment.

Instead, what Paul and those other early Christians emphasized was Christ’s self-giving and obedience:

“Who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but humbled himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on the cross.”

In the cross, we encounter God—not an angry or vindictive judge, but a God who emptied himself for us. In the cross, we encounter the self-giving God who became one of us, to show us the fullness of humanity, to remake us in God’s image. In the cross, we encounter God’s love.

As we journey through Holy Week this week, as we walk with Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, to the last supper, to Gethsemane, to Pilate’s chambers and finally to Golgotha, may each step be an opportunity to experience God’s love in Jesus Christ. May this week be a journey into the heart of God’s love.

 

 

 

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