A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont, on April 14, 2019
There is a movement within Christian worship in the last couple of decades to observe this day of the Christian year as Passion Sunday, or Palm/Passion Sunday, instead of just Palm Sunday. In other words, on this Sunday we observe in worship the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, but in the deliberate context of the rest of Holy Week. That often means including Scripture not only about the entry but also about the Passion of Christ, and to have the movement of our hymns go from “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” at the beginning of the hour to “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” at the end. This tendency toward observing Passion Sunday has historical connections, but the main concern that motivates it is to ensure that churchgoers get the whole picture. The reality is that most Protestants don’t come to church between Sundays, so if we observe only the triumphal entry today, most churchgoers will go from happy day (Palm Sunday) to happy day (Easter) with no opportunity to reflect on the all-important moment of Christ on the cross. And without the cross, however we interpret it, we do not understand the significance of Christ.
I think there’s a lot of wisdom in the move toward Passion Sunday and the concerns that motivate it. And yet there is cost. The cost is that in our movement toward the cross we do only a quick run past the spectacle of Palm Sunday. In our effort to encapsulate the full meaning of Holy Week in a Sunday service, we risk spending very little time on the beginning. The triumphal entry disappears in the shadow of the cross, and we leave church wondering, “Why did we pass out those palms?”
But I want to focus this morning on Palm Sunday itself. We get to the end of Holy Week in due time. Today let us linger in the procession of the palms. What does it mean for us to stand, in our imagination, among the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with shouts of Hosanna and glory?
In that moment, Jesus was heralded as a king, the Messiah, the chosen one of God who would liberate his people Israel. He rode in with majesty, and the crowds lay clothing and palms along his way. This was the equivalent of the red carpet, a testament to the hope and honor the crowds were showering on him. Did they truly understand the kind of mantle Jesus would claim as God’s messiah? Clearly not; it is likely that most of the crowd hoped that Jesus would be a political liberator and lead the people to rise up against Roman occupation, to throw off the chains of brutal oppression and reclaim the glory days of Israel. By the week’s end they will see no inclination that Jesus shares their vision of liberation, and many in today’s crowd who shower him with adulation will join the mobs who taunt him, reject him, and call for his execution.
But on Easter Day the confession of Jesus as Messiah will be transformed, as the birth of the church in claims of resurrection will redefine the Lordship of this Christ, from expectations of conventional politics and power to the advent of a reign characterized by grace, love, and true justice. Easter will give the church permission to travel back to that Palm Sunday spectacle and join the crowds in their confession, knowing more than they knew when we sing with them, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Indeed, this royal proclamation will become the signature confession of the church from that first moment onward. At the name of Jesus, Christians in every time and place will bow and all their tongues will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!
Jesus Christ is Lord. That’s the symbolism of Palm Sunday, as a foreshadow of the Easter Good News. The language of lordship doesn’t sit quite as comfortably with us today, however, as it has for most of the church’s history. These days, to talk of Jesus as Lord runs counter to our preference for non-monarchical liberal democracies. To refer to Jesus as Lord implies hierarchy, and we don’t really like hierarchies these days. So the language of lordship may be more suspect in our time and place than it was over the majority course of the church’s history. Certainly a reluctance to use that kind of language affects our worship, no more so than in many Protestant hymnals (including our own), where musical revisionists have run roughshod over invocations of lordship in classic hymns. (I’m waiting for the hymnal that finally makes me sing, “All Creatures of Our God and Not-Exactly-Elected, But Perhaps Appointed Sovereign in a Way Consistent with Duly Respected Democratic and Egalitarian Principles.”)
Jesus is Lord. Despite some attempts to scrub such antiquated language from our worship, it remains often enough in our texts and traditions. What does it mean for twenty-first-century Christians to bend their knees and let their tongues confess with the Church of every time and place that Jesus Christ is Lord, in the spirit of the procession of palms? It means to confess that the God we know in the person of Christ reigns in power in and through and over the world in which we live. To confess Jesus as Lord is to make a claim on what is really real. It is to respond to threats to democracy and excessive confidence in it that there is another power at work in the world. It is to respond to the excesses of capitalism and unjustified confidence in it that there is another power that determines what is right and good and valuable. It is to respond to fear with confidence, to cynicism with hope, and to fatalism with effort. To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to claim that he reigns, even when that reign seems hidden or contested.
The confession of Jesus as Lord is the inspiration of our calling to regard ourselves, one another, and all human beings as worthy of love. It is the centripetal force that inclines us together when other forces would pull us apart. That confession is the authority for our commitment to preserve and protect the world in which we live, as gift and charge. It is the basis of our confidence that beauty is real, and it resides in the world as an extension of the grace that bestows it, so that even if we remain silent the stones shout out to acknowledge it. That confession is the basis of our confidence that Dr. King was right, the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice. The confession of Jesus as Lord is the lens through which we understand what is really real and what ought to be in ourselves, our community, and the world.
What does it mean for Christians to confess Jesus as Lord? My good friend Mark Douglas wrote a book called Confessing Christ in the 21st Century, in which he asked this very question. And the answer he offered is this, that the confession of Jesus as Lord is the defining characteristic of who we are as church, and how we understand ourselves in the world. When we stand together in this confession as church, we proclaim that we have a story to tell to the nations. It is a story about how God’s governing grace works in the world and through time. We honor and share in the ways our ancestors told that story of grace in the past, we live abundantly in our present, and we maintain our hope for the future all as testament to our conviction that God reigns in the past, present, and future. That shapes who we are together, a community that learns together to practice the virtues of gratitude, grace, humility, and hope. And it shapes how we relate to the world in which we live. As Mark puts it,
Instead of accepting a view of the world outside its doors as chaotic, the church tells a different story about a God who creates and orders all of human life, and it lives out that story by helping persons interpret their own lives in coherent and stabilizing ways so that they can live in the busy world…. The church, then, isn’t so much a place to escape from the world as a place that helps us learn to live in that world. And it can do so because it believes that Jesus’s Lordship extends throughout the world. (p. 139)
In the midst of all the hard realities in our news and the weight that many of us are carrying in our personal trials, today we nonetheless gather downstairs for the youth group’s annual pie raffle, one of our favorite fun traditions here at Middlebury UCC. Why do we insist on laughing in moments like these? This morning we have also welcomed new members into this church, and by extension, we have welcomed or reaffirmed them as members into the Church universal. What does it mean to do that? What does it mean for them to identify with us, and for us to embrace them? I hope what it means is that we have invited them to share with us in the witness to Christ’s Lordship. I hope it means that we welcome them into our worship and study, into our service to communities near and far, into our fun and fellowship—all of which is our way of saying to each other and the world: this isn’t so much a place to escape from the world as it is a community that helps us learn how to live in the world, to live with a commitment to reconciliation, grace, and friendship—to live as if we know that Jesus is Lord.
After my sermon last month, many of you responded by asking, what should we do? What should we do to combat the message of hate? What should we do to push back on the culture of racism and bigotry so antithetical to the gospel? That is an important question, but I’m not sure it’s the most important question. I wonder if the most important question is this: who are we going to be? In the face of all that is not right in our world, who are we going to be? May I suggest this morning that one possible answer is that we are going to be Palm Sunday people. We are going to be a community oriented around the proud confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. We are going to be the people who say unapologetically that we believe God reigns in Christ, with grace and love, and that confession is the reality that shapes us, as individuals, as a community, and as actors in this world. We are the people of palms and pies, who witness through their words and deeds, through their fellowship and friendship, through their laughter and prayers, through bended knee and tongues confessing and arms extended that Jesus Christ is Lord—in, over, and through this world—to the glory of God Almighty. Amen.
Photo: Christ Entering Jerusalem by Giotto. 1304-1306. Fresco. Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua, Italy.