Like I said, maybe you might want to stay home on Palm/Passion Sunday.
But before you make alternate plans, hold on a minute. The reading from Philippians (2:5-11) appointed for this Sunday might help us deal with the liturgical and contextual disconnect of Palms and Passion. This ancient Christian hymn describes God’s work in Jesus – particularly Jesus’ self-emptying to take on human form and be of loving service to others.
If you look at the shape of the text itself, perhaps the most notable structural element is the space between verse 8 and 9. Yes, the space.
Your bibles most likely preserve the extra-line space between two, clearly visible sections of this poetry. The first part puts the onus on us, because it is introduced by the words: “Let the same mind be in you …” (v.5). We are encouraged to embody the gift of Christ’s presence, Christ’s mind, in us – the attitude of loving service to others.
In the context of what we do on Palm/Passion Sunday – this is the Palm part. Bear with me.
You see, the crowds heralded Jesus as the King who would save the people from Roman domination. The crowds believed in the kind of Messiah who would come and make their lives better, who would change their external circumstances for the better. And so when Jesus rode in majesty, riding on a donkey, the crowds understandably laid palm branches on the royal highway and cheered “Hosanna! Hosanna!”
The Palms part of the service represents our often meager attempts at worship, at service, at prayer and Christian faith. Well-intentioned, perhaps. But, in this sometimes zealous defending of the truth or passionate display of piety, we are still seeing into a mirror dimly, aren’t we? (1 Corinthians 13).
For all their misguided, imperfect, muddied expectations, beliefs and desires – this was the human response to Jesus. I believe we can relate: Because how often do we catch ourselves falling far short of the mark? How easily do we come to confession, bearing our misdeeds and failures? Don’t we, as the Christian family, need to confess our divisions, our fighting, our self-absorbed compulsions that lead us astray, distract us, and bring us to our knees? That’s why we need to ‘do’ Palm Sunday.
But we also need to ‘do’ Passion Sunday.
Because the Palms part alone is not the full story. Doing the Palms part alone means we haven’t truly ‘emptied’ ourselves, as we are called to let the mind of Christ be in us. How can we embody the “mind of Christ” by emptying ourselves of ourselves? Is this even possible?
That’s why the space between verse 8 and verse 9 is so important. Because however we decide to respond to this scripture, to Jesus, to our living faith either individually or communally – our response dies at verse 8. After that, God takes over.
If every knee will bend at the name of Jesus, if every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, it is because God highly exalted Jesus and gave him that name that is above every name. Human volition – our action, our choice, our striving – ends at verse 9. The most important word in this text is, “Therefore”. Because now, God takes over.
We cannot do what Christ did in the Passion. We cannot atone for our sins, ourselves. We cannot by our good works save ourselves. We cannot by our even valiant efforts make ourselves right with God by what we believe and by what we do.
I know so much of our Christian culture orients itself about imitating Jesus – What Would Jesus Do? All well and good. But the Passion reminds us that it was Jesus, and only Jesus, who walked that path to the Cross for us. The Passion puts in perspective who is the author of our faith, who makes things right in our lives, who creates in us a clean spirit, who lives in us in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The space between verses 8 and 9 is the equivalent of the grave in which Jesus lay, dead as dead could be – perfectly obedient to death – with no pulse, no thought, no will (p.175, Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word Year C Vol 2). A famous preacher, Fred Craddock, says: “The grave of Christ was a cave, not a tunnel”; that is, Christ acted for us knowing that his human life had to completely stop.
That is precisely what God has exalted and vindicated: self-denying service for others to the point of death without first claiming any return, no eye upon a reward (p. 42, Philippians – Interpretation Series). Otherwise, it wouldn’t be death, would it? Our human thoughts and beliefs and wishes all have to die. So it was for Jesus’ humanity. Love for others, to the point of death.
I read the Processional Gospel from Luke this year. What immediately follows this text we didn’t read. The form of the Lukan text implies that Jesus went immediately from the triumphal entry on the donkey to the hillside overlooking Jerusalem, where he weeps over a people so misguided and delusional. But unlike a natural human reaction which would dismiss and discard with disdain, Jesus weeps out of love and great desire to gather everyone under protective wings as a mother hen her chicks. (Luke 19:41-44)
Jesus reconciles Palms and Passion in his love for sinners. That’s us. Despite our sin, Jesus sees in us a beauty and a reflection of God’s goodness worth dying for. Worth going to the Cross for.
That is why on Palm/Passion Sunday, in the end, we do not focus on what we believe about Jesus. We focus on what he did. And what we can do because of what he did.