A sermon for Palm Sunday

Sometimes when you ask people “How are you?” instead of responding with the conventional “Fine, thank you”, they’re honest enough to say how they really feel; and sometimes the answer is “I’ve been a bit up and down this week”.

And that’s how I always feel about Holy Week. As we follow the story of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, our feelings go up and down like a yo-yo. We rejoice, and share the excitement of the crowd on Palm Sunday, as Jesus rides into the city in triumph; we go down into anxiety as he upsets the carnival mood by cleansing the Temple; we cheer with the disciples as he gets the better of the scribes and Pharisees in debate during the week; we feel the shadow of tragedy as Judas creeps off to talk to the Temple authorities about betraying Jesus; we share the disciples’ joy as they celebrate the Passover and are given the gift of Communion; we plunge into despair as Jesus is arrested, tried and crucified; we exist in limbo through Saturday, and finally, leap up into the joy of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

This switch-back of emotions is not a chance thing; the Passion stories of the Gospels are written to create it in us. Even the topography of the story reflects the ‘up and down’ of our emotions – down to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives on the donkey and up to the Temple Mount; down to the brook and up to Bethany each night; down to the house for the Last Supper then back up to the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane; down to the trial and up to the hill of crucifixion; down to the tomb and, finally, up to Resurrection and Ascension.

And yet, the ups and downs of our feelings are not as simple as that. We know the story too well to feel any emotion purely. Even as we rejoice today as we hear the Palm Sunday story, the shadow of the cross is already with us; as we give thanks for the institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, our thoughts are already turning to Good Friday; and we can never feel completely the black despair of the disciples at the crucifixion because we’ve already looked at the last page of the story, and we know it all comes out right in the end!

And perhaps there’s more to it than that. Into the reading and hearing of the Holy Week story, we bring our own experience. Christ’s story becomes mixed up with our story; and we know how often joy is mixed with pain, happiness turns into tragedy, or hope comes out of defeat. The excitement of a sports fixture turns to terror as a part of the structure collapses; a simple shopping trip becomes misery as a suicide bomber strikes; the first day of school is disrupted as children are taken hostage and many die in the rescue attempt; an exotic holiday turns to disaster as a tsunami strikes: and yet, out of a family’s grief, new movements for peace and reconciliation are born; after tragic deaths, new safety measures are put in place, or new research starts that brings hope of a cure for future sufferers.

The older we become and the more we experience life, the more we learn about the ways of the world, the less able we are to feel totally happy – or totally sad.

What is God saying to us through all this, through the story of Holy Week, and through our experience of life, as each helps us to interpret the other? What do these reveal to us about the nature of God?

I want to suggest to you that what is revealed about God – and therefore about the Christian life, lived in close communion with God – is its essential paradox.

In Christ is revealed a God of power, who conquers through weakness; a God whose ordering of the world operates through human free will; a complete man, the most wholly human being who ever existed, who yet is the perfect revelation of the divine; one who proclaimed that the first would be last and the last, first; that those who wished to share in the ruling of his kingdom must become the servants of all; who stated that the people closest to God were sinners, and that outcasts would be the first into Paradise; one who asks us to find joy in suffering, victory through defeat and life through death.

Holy Week presents us with a religion where the cross, an instrument of torture and execution, becomes a sign of God’s love; where the blackest day in the religious calendar is given the title “good’ Friday. As Paul points out in his letter to the Corinthians, the word of the cross is foolishness to those whom the world considers wise – the philosophers, and all others who seek to explain the world solely with the tools of intellect and reason.

Yet many of us who call ourselves Christian also find the wisdom of God hard to take. This is why so many on the fringe of Christianity don’t celebrate Easter as they do Christmas; and why even some regular churchgoers ignore Holy Week. They come for the ‘highlights’ – Palm Sunday and Easter Day; but they stay away for the ‘low’ on  Good Friday.

But if we really wish to know, and live in communion with our paradoxical God, we have to be with him faithfully through the whole story. We have to ride the switch-back of Holy Week with him. We can’t just be here for the bits that make us feel good, or that we understand with our human minds and human emotions. Unless we are close to him through all the Holy Week experiences, downs as well as ups, then his story will not inform our life’s story, and our religion will not be of any real use to us as we live our lives.

Of course, we will not always understand what is going on. If it’s any comfort, even the disciples did not understand. The Palm Sunday story shows very clearly how they continually got the wrong end of the stick. Jesus arranged his entry into Jerusalem to reflect the prophecy in Zechariah, of a king who would come to persuade by peaceful means, and would renounce the chariot, the war horse and the battle bow, which are weapons of war. Yet his disciples and followers carpeted the way with their cloaks, as the fellow officers of the rebel king, Jehu, did after he was anointed king by Elisha, and began his bloody campaign against the worshipper of Baal. And the crowds spread palm branches before Jesus, as their ancestors did when they welcomed the victorious warrior, Simon the Maccabee. And we can be sure that when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers and traders in the Temple, many of his followers saw it as the first act of a rebellion against the powerful religious leaders who collaborated with Rome, rather than as a statement of the love of God for all people, as Jesus’ quotation from the prophet Isaiah proclaimed it to be.

And, of course, we shall often mistake the meaning of the story. As we enter into the events of Holy Week, it is easy to get the emphasis wrong: to make too much of the horror and suffering, and so let the Passion dominate the resurrection, the crucifix prevail over  the empty cross; or, on the other hand, to anticipate the events of Easter so much that we minimise the suffering that precedes it, and  see Easter as a fairy tale ending, a reversal of Good Friday, instead of as a consequence of the Passion, the inevitable working out of the story.

This is why the liturgical cycle of the Christian year is so important, and why we need to come back to the story again and again, with new insights, new questions and new doubts each year. Every time we hear again the story of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter we have another chance to relearn their lessons, to walk more closely with Jesus on the way of the cross, to understand at a deeper level the paradoxical nature of our God.

We can avoid the conflict of emotions, and the questions with which the ‘foolishness of God’ confronts us, by selective attendance, which helps us ignore the parts which don’t fit easily into our human logic.

But, to use one of my favourite quotations from T. S Eliot, by doing so we shall ‘have  the experience but miss the meaning’.

It is only by being there, in the conflicts and contradictions, through the ups and downs, and by accepting the problems and doubts as part of our way of the cross, that we shall come to know Christ crucified as the revelation of the wisdom of God.

For it is only when his story becomes our story, when his Passion becomes our passion, that his Resurrection will become our resurrection.