Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
2 April 2023
Palm Sunday is one of the most festive celebrations of the church year. Waving palm branches, we process outside the church, and we have glorious music to accompany our worship. But today, you may have noticed on the service leaflet, is also called the Sunday of the Passion. Our Gospel reading from Matthew takes us through what will happen to Jesus the rest of this week – the Passion or the suffering of Jesus as he is arrested tried, and executed. During this holiest of weeks of the Christian faith, our liturgy invites us to enter and experience the drama of salvation that took place two thousand years ago. As we speak and reenact the events, we become the crowds. We become the disciples.
Today, we join the crowds that welcome Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. The city is full of pilgrims who have come to observe Passover in the holy city. And the crowds are excited to see in person the famous preacher, healer, and miracle-worker. We read that some spread their cloaks on the road, others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road, and they shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:8). Through their words and actions, the crowds proclaim Jesus the king, the messiah, the fulfillment of prophecy.
But then as we turn to our Gospel reading, there is a dramatic shift – no longer the joy and fanfare of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem but the sorrow and tragedy of His Passion and Death. We have a kind of preview of what will happen the rest of this week. What begins as a royal welcome for Jesus will end with his death on the cross as a criminal.
And, through it all, we become part of the events that lead to Golgotha. On Thursday, we will join the disciples at the Last Supper when Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Holy Communion and when he washed the feet of his disciples. Then we will follow Jesus and the disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and keep vigil in Jesus’ moment of agony as he prepares for the supreme sacrifice that he will make on the cross. It is in the garden where Jesus will be arrested. And what do his disciples do? One of them, Judas, who has betrayed him to the authorities, comes to identify him, and the rest of the disciples desert Jesus and flee into hiding for fear of their lives. And later Peter, one of the main disciples, denies even knowing Jesus.
On Friday, we will join the crowds again. But their mood will have changed. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, they shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Now, at the time of his trial before Pilate, they scream “Let him be crucified!”
As our readings and liturgy lead us through these events, we are more than spectators. We may not have been physically there two thousand years ago, but we are no less part of the story of Jesus’ Passion and Death, for it is our sins and transgressions that put him on the cross. As we read in the book by the Prophet Isaiah:
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way
And the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6)
Like the disciples and the crowds, we, too, are guilty of betraying, denying, and abandoning Jesus. How many times have we, while calling him Lord and Savior, let our egos drive our actions? How many times have we conveniently hidden our Christian identity for the sake of acceptance by our peers? How many times have we failed to be faithful in our prayers and devotions? How many times have we disobeyed the command to love God and neighbor?
During this Season of Lent, we have been reflecting on our sins. That does not stop with Holy Week. In fact, the reflection on our sins intensifies as we speak and reenact the acts of betrayal, denial, and abandonment. We lay bare the worst of what lurks deep in our hearts and minds. As human beings, all of us have a bit of Judas in us. All of us have a bit of Peter in us. All of us can be fickle like the crowds, quickly turning from love and adoration to hatred and violence.
So, toward the end of this week, on Friday, we will join the crowds one final time, this time at the foot of the cross, to gaze upon the body of Jesus. At the foot of the cross, we will confront the paradox of our salvation. Jesus was condemned that we might be forgiven of our sins. Jesus died that we might have life. But, as we know, the story doesn’t end there. Death will not have the final word. For the rest of the week, as Jesus lies in the tomb, we will wait. We will wait for the promise of resurrection.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!