Luke 19:28-40 – Processional Gospel with Palms. The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. An anti-triumph, in contrast to the Roman triumphal marches after a conquering victory.
Isaiah 50:4-9a – Game face: I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting… therefore I have set my face like flint…
Psalm 31:9-16 – In you, O Lord, I take refuge. Let me never be put to shame. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
Philippians 2:5-11 – Christ hymn: Have this mind, that was in Christ, who didn’t count on his equality with God, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and becoming obedient, even to death on a cross.
Luke 22:14 – 23:56 – The Passion: Lord’s Supper, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, trial, crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus.
Luke 23:1-49 – Passover dinner and arrest. Shortened version begins with Jesus before Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Longer version includes the burial by Joseph of Arimathea.
Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday
The Sunday before Easter usually begins with a blessing of the Palms outdoors and a processional. Participants are given palm branches to wave. Information on the procession can be found in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Leaders Desk Edition, p. 662-626.
Lutheran World Relief offers fair trade “eco-palms”. The deadline, usually about one month prior to Palm Sunday, has obviously passed, but make a note for next year. Each year we purchase $4.5 million in palms. Most of them are harvested in Latin America. Very little of this money reaches the actual farmers. This fair trade program gives $.05/palm back to the community and pays farmers fairly, eliminating the large corporations that pocket the profits and underpay workers. Creating a steady market in communities means they will care for and keep up their palms, rather than devastating the forest. Consider this for next year.
After Palm Sunday worship, some palms should be dried and stowed for burning to make ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday.
This is a long post. First I’ll share some history of Palm/Passion Sunday, then take the Scripture passages one at a time.
Pre-Vatican II, Passion Sunday was the Fifth Sunday in Lent (the beginning of Passiontide). Palm Sunday was the Sixth Sunday in Lent: Dominica in Palmis, Dominica or Dies Palmarum marked the beginning of Holy Week. In 1969, Pope Paul VI moved Passion Sunday to the Sixth Sunday in Lent, creating “Palm Sunday of the Passion of our Lord.” In Germany it was called Black Sunday, since the crosses were all draped in black on that day for Holy Week.
I grew up with this tradition of Passion and Palm Sunday mixed. It was explained that the passion was read on the Sunday before Easter because many people did not attend Good Friday services, and therefore would never hear the story of the cross. So, people who didn’t attend Good Friday would skip from a festive entry into Jerusalem to Easter. Easter with no cross. Heavy sigh.
Recently there has been a move back to letting Good Friday carry the weight, and allowing Palm Sunday to be just that, a celebration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.
Isaiah: Game Face
The Hebrew Bible text first reading is Isaiah 50:4-9a, about the abuse the suffering servant is to endure. In Isaiah, Israel is the servant, God’s servant, called to be a blessing to its own people, and a light to the nations/the Gentiles. Israel will not be great because of their power and glory, but because of their humble servanthood.
In chapter 50, part of Second Isaiah, coming out of the Babylonian Captivity, Israel, the Suffering Servant speaks. “I have been given the tongue of a teacher.” Is suffering not our teacher? Do we not learn by our mistakes, our failures and our shortcomings? The Suffering Servant is not arrogant, but now a listener, a learner. “God has opened my ear.”
“I gave my back to those who struck me… I did not hide my face from those who insulted and spit on me.” One lesson in humility can go a long way. There is nothing like being thrown into the dog house to teach us humility. “Therefore, I have set my face like flint.” Everybody plays the fool, sometime. No exception to the rule.
In the midst of this humility, the Suffering Servant is able to see God’s deliverance. There is hope. “He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.” Paul echoes something similar in Romans 8. “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
I can see why the early church latched onto these passages to describe Jesus, the Suffering Servant. The cross is about power through weakness. The cross is about God’s vindication of the powerless and outcast. Jesus is the ultimate suffering servant, show us what true glory is about.
Philippians 2: The Christ Hymn
Paul’s Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 comes up on Palm/Passion Sunday all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary: A, B, and C. The only other times it pops up is on The Name of Jesus, which many Lutheran congregations omit, and Proper 21A/Ordinary 26A/Pentecost +20 in season A, which usually falls in September. This passage is so central to Paul’s Christology in general and incarnation in particular, that one hates to miss an opportunity to preach it.
In Philippians 2, Paul not only defines the Christian’s posture in the world, but he also redefines divinity. God chooses to show divinity by self-emptying, and serving.
One of my favorite books is Michael J. Gorman’s, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology.
That’s a mouthful, but it’s more than gibberish. The Christ Hymn is an incredible work of Christocentric theology. Gorman begins pointing out the number of times Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” in his letters. When I reread the New Testament, scanning for “in Christ,” I’m shocked by the number of times that phrase is there, and how I’ve taken it for granted. Two examples:
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, so that I may gain Christ and be found in him. Philippians 3:8-9
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. 2 Corinthians 5:17
I remember Dr. Mark Alan Powell telling our New Testament class that there are no places in the Bible where we are told to invite Jesus into our heart. Not that it’s a bad thing to do, but the New Testament never mentions it. Instead, it invites a flip-flop of that. Not Christ in us, but us “in Christ.” Paul has a robust “in Christ” spirituality and theology. What exactly does Paul mean by this turn of phrase? What does it mean, concretely, for Paul be “in Christ?”
Gorman has four main points:
- Cruciformity = Theoformity, or what is called theosis in the Eastern Christian tradition. To be in Christ is to live life in a cruciform way. It is to be claimed and shaped by Christ. It is to be molded into the image of Christ. Theosis means humans becoming more like God. As Irenaeus said, later shaped by Athanasius: “God became what we are to make us what he is.” (See 2 Peter 1:4, Rom 8:29, 1 Cor 15:49, 2 Cor 3:18, 2 Cor 5:21, Phil 3:21). In Philippians 2, cruciformity, theosis is kenosis: emptying oneself.
- Justification is theosis. Justification, as Paul uses it, is more than a judicial term, a declaration of “not guilty.” It is more than a label. There is a transformation that begins to take place. Anything less is “cheap grace” a la Bonhoeffer, or “cheap justification.” Justification without justice is cheap, armchair grace.
- Holiness, then, is conforming to the cruciform character of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Holiness (sanctification) is not a supplement to justification, but the actualization of it.
- Non-violence is one of the essential elements of participating in the kenotic, cruciform God. To live the cruciform life is to empty oneself, to not lay claim to status and power, but to take on the form of a servant/slave.
That last part is critical: to live the cruciform life is not to lay claim to status and exercise power, but to take on the form of a servant. This is what it means to be “in Christ.”
Gorman’s scholarship and exegesis is impeccable. The first part of the book focuses on Paul’s Christ Hymn in Philippians 2, which he calls Paul’s “Master Story.” His brilliant work has huge implications for the church, especially in this postmodern context. Hear this ancient hymn, perhaps one of the first Christian hymns. Imagine the first Christians singing it in worship…
The Christ Hymn
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied 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 a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Gorman’s work here is brilliant. Christ’s kenosis, his self-emptying reveals the very character of God, and forms the key to understanding Paul’s theology, Christology, and ethics. The theology of this seminal passage permeates all of Paul’s letters. Gorman suggests that a kenotic Christ means a kenotic God. Paul’s understanding of Christ, and thus his understanding of God, is in two parts:
- Humiliation, verses 6-8
- Exaltation, verses 9-11
Gorman draws two conclusions:
- Humility is the character of Christ. Therefore, humility is the character of those “in Christ,” and
- Humility is the character of Christ, and therefore, also the character of God. Christ reveals the true, though often hidden truth about God: humility.
Humility is the character of those “in Christ.”
Although… not… but.
Although Christ was in the form of God, he did not count on it but emptied himself.
Notice the rhythm of this. Time and time again, Paul displays this pattern in his own behavior, probably unconsciously. And, this underlying pattern is woven throughout his letters. Here is the formula:
Although [x], not [y] but [z].
Although [status], not [selfishness], but [selflessness].
- In 2 Cor. 8:9, Although Christ was rich, he became not rich, but (so that) by his poverty we become “rich.”
- In Rom 15:1-3, Although they are “strong” they must not please themselves, but humble themselves and put up with the scruples of the “weak” so that the body might be built up.
- In 1 Thess. 2:6-8, Although Paul’s status as apostle allowed him to make demands, he did not, but rather he was gentle.
- In 1 Cor. 9:1-23. Although Paul has the apostolic privilege to have a wife and get paid for his his work, he does not exercise this privilege, but (v. 12) endures these sacrifices for the sake of the gospel.
Paul is doing what he sees Christ doing in Philippians 2. Possessing status carries with it an inherent mandate to deny oneself; practice humility. Emptying himself and taking on the form of a servant is not denying his apostolic identity; it is fulfilling it. Although he has authority as an apostle, Paul empties himself, exercising humility as a Christlike act of love. For Paul, love seeks conformity to the self-emptying image of Christ. Humility is the character of Christ, and therefore the character of the one who is “in Christ.” Paul exercises his true apostleship by acting in conformity to Christ.
Humility is the character of Christ, and therefore, it is also the character of God.
Not only is Christ defined as kenotic, or self-emptying, not only is the Christian (the one “in Christ”) defined as kenotic, or self-emptying, but GOD is therefore defined as kenotic, or self-emptying.
Jesus expresses his very divinity in “downward mobility.” Gorman cites Hellerman, saying Phil. 2 is a contrast to the Roman “cursus honorum,” a lifelong, upward mobility to honor in the Empire, from slavery, to peasant, to aristocrat, to divinity (like Caesar). Jesus instead moves backwards, from equality with God, down the ladder to slavery, then even to public humiliation by death on a cross. The phrase “In the form of God” is Paul’s clearest Christological statement.
“In the form of God” vs. “In the form of a slave” was common parlance. For a god to be in the form of a slave was inconsistent in Roman thought. A god does not divest power. Divinity and kenosis don’t go together. Erik Heen points out ἐν μορφn θεοu (in the form of God) is a phrase used in Emperor cult worship. After Augustus, the phrase was only used for the Roman emperor. This hymn sets Christ up against the Emperor.
It is most likely that Paul didn’t write this hymn, but is quoting something early Christians sang in worship, hymn composed very early, before Paul’s missionary journeys. We are hearing echoes of the very first Christian hymns and theology.
The exaltation is not promotion, but a confirmation of Christ’s divinity. But is this emptying in contrast to what God is like? Is God in Christ doing something completely out of character? Or is self-emptying revealing the most intimate and profound character of God?
In other words, Gorman says, there are two possible readings of this text:
- Christ renounced his deity: “Although Messiah Jesus was in the form of God, a status that means the exercise of power, he acted out of character – in a shockingly ungodlike manner, contrary in fact to true (imperial) divinity – when he emptied and humbled himself.”
- Christ exercised his deity: “Although Messiah Jesus was in the form of God, a status that people assume means the exercise of power, he acted in character – in a shockingly ungodlike manner according to normal but misguided human perceptions of divinity, contrary to what we would expect, but, in fact in accord with true divinity – when he emptied and humbled himself.”
Of course, Gorman’s point is the latter. Jesus redefines divinity, and this ultimately changes the world irrevocably. In the crucifixion, Jesus subverted and deconstructed concepts of divinity when he emptied and humbled himself. This is an absurd story of God in first century Rome, which is Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 1:18-25.
Christ’s self-emptying then is not a termination of his deity; it is the fullest expression of it. Gregory of Elvira said that Christ’s majesty and divinity, though never lost, were “momentarily hidden,” as the sun is hidden behind a cloud. Gorman argues that Paul’s point is quite the opposite, that the humility of incarnation and the cross in fact reveals divine majesty. Like Father, like Son. Christ reveals the true nature of God.
Therefore, Gorman would rather translate hyparchon “because” he was in the form of God not “although” he was in the form of God. Because he was in the form of God he emptied himself… Placher calls this the “Narrative of a vulnerable God.”
Vulnerable God: Now there’s an oxymoron.
Oh, I think everybody knows so what. They may not like it, but the implications for the church are pretty obvious. If we follow a self-emptying Christ, who reflects a self-emptying God, then being “in Christ” means to be a self-emptying church, a self-emptying people, that the world might see the true God.
The preacher might give self-emptying examples from individuals in the congregation to make it personal. Or stories of saints and/or ordinary people. Schindler is a great example of one who poured himself out for others. The preacher might find examples from the congregation’s history or other congregations’ histories. One congregation I served in a changing neighborhood, while in seminary, turned part of their parking lot into a playground for neighborhood children. That’s rerooting.
Former Bishop Brauer-Rieke from Oregon told me of some congregations in Portland, who were struggling in this difficult economy, with a colder-than-ever winter. Many were unable to pay their astronomical heat bills. One congregation, Redeemer, strongly rooted in the community realized that the houses in their neighborhood were built about the same time as the church, and therefore, the people in the neighborhood must be going through the same thing. They turned their focus from inward (their energy bills) to outward (their neighbors’ energy bills).
One pastor in our synod tells me his congregation was dying when he arrived. They figured, if we’re going to go out, let’s go out with a bang. They used their coffers to bless the neighborhood. They gave and gave. And of course, they started to grow. This is, in part, why, even when times are tough, cutting back on our percentage of giving is not appropriate. A church that doesn’t give isn’t a church.
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, so that I may gain Christ and be found in him.
The Christ Hymn of Philippians 2 echoes another ancient hymn in Isaiah 40-55: The Song of the Suffering Servant. God’s power is made known to the world in self-emptying. To paraphrase Irenaeus and Athanasius: “God became what we are to make us what he is.”
There’s no wiggling out of this.
The good news is, when we give ourselves away, that’s when we really begin to see what life is about.
The Triumphal Entry
Zechariah 9:9 says,
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The donkey is actually the mount of royalty arriving in peace (Genesis 49:11, Judges 5:5, 10:4). On a horse if in war. This Jesus is royalty, but he is the Prince of Peace, and he is arriving in peace, not as a conquering hero. This king practices humility, as Paul also expresses in Philippians 2.
Charles Spurgeon writes, “Brethren, let us be lowly. Did I hear one say, ‘Well, I will try to be lowly’? You cannot do it in that way. We must not try to act the lowly part; we must be lowly, and then we shall naturally act in a humble manner. It is astonishing how much of pride there is in the most modest.”
Jesus’ entry is not a pseudo-humility. The donkey is royalty. The palms signify victory. There is a greatness here, but it is a greatness expressed not in pomposity, but in humility. Those who are truly great need not prove it. Einstein had a humorous humility to him. It is the nature of true strength, to not have to posture.
I have often thought, that if we, the church, could learn this kind of humility, the world would pay careful attention. It could be our greatest form of evangelism, living lives of humility. As someone has said, your life is the greatest sermon you will preach. Jesus showed his greatness through lowliness, his power through humility. The lesson for me this Palm Sunday is humbleness.
Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being.
Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility.
The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.
– Saint Augustine
The gospel writers present Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a kind of anti-Triumph – a parody of Caesar’s pompous march into Rome after each military victory.
Dan Clendenin calls it a Counter-Procession that ends with the death penalty.
He highlights three reasons Jesus is crucified:
- Subverting the nation
- Encouraging people to not pay taxes
- Calling himself a king
While these are probably trumped up charges, the sign over his head on the cross confirms that this was probably the line of thought: “King of the Jews”.
Jesus was popular. He drew large crowds. Anyone who could draw a crowd of 5,000 men, plus women and children, was a dangerous person. Clogging Jerusalem’s streets drew attention to Jesus. An anti-imperial, anti-triumphal procession of peasants would capture attention of the authorities, who were expected to put down riots, much like we see in many places today. Jesus had to have known what he was doing by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey – what he was saying.
What does it mean for us to participate in subversive counter-processions today? What does it mean to empty ourselves as Paul talks about in this coming Sunday’s epistle text (Philippians 2)? What does it mean to pour ourselves out like a drink offering (2 Timothy 4:6)?
It is all well and good to ogle and reenact Jesus’ own procession, but how do we process into the world as a subversive community exposing systems of power and privilege? I think first we have to acknowledge them. They have to become topics of discussion. We have to name who is powerful and who is powerless, because the church has sadly gotten this wrong many times throughout history. (Read about the Doctrine of Discovery for example.)
When we live in humility, we will echo the voice of the people, and the voice of the powerless, who live under the power of those who wield the threatening death stick.
To walk the way of the cross is to tap into the power of compassion, listening, enlightening, and emptying. It’s the power of powerlessness.
Julius Caesar was born 100 years before Jesus. Known for his incredible speaking ability, his magnetic personality and his military genius, he was elected Pontifex Maximus in 63 B.C. at the age of 37. Today the Pontifex is the Pope, but back then it referred to the Pagan High Priest of Rome.
By reducing the taxes of the rich and by giving land to the poor, he became extremely popular with all levels of society. He conquered what are now Britain, France, Belgium and Germany west of the Rhine, making him the greatest military leader of his time. He is reputed to have known the names of every one of his men in battle. You can read more about this and what follows in Jesus the Last Day, A Collection of Essays published by the Biblical Archeological Society. © 2003 Biblical Archeological Society.
As popular as Julius Caesar was, the senate nevertheless elected Pompey instead, another military leader with his own faithful armies. The senate told Caesar to give up his army. He did not know what to do: submit to the will of the senate or to Civil War? On January 19, 49 years before the birth of Christ, Caesar said, iacta alea est – the die is cast – and his armies crossed the Rubicon River, entering Italy to change history forever.
From there he conquered Spain, then Greece, and Egypt where he lived with Cleopatra, then on to Syria and Pontus. He conquered the Mediterranean world with such ease he reported his victory with the words Veni, Vidi, Vici – I came. I saw. I conquered. He never once doubted that he had done the right thing. Because Rome needed the best general in charge, right? His victory proved that he had done the right thing; the gods were on his side. The victor is the winner and the winner is the gods’ choice, right?
When he returned to Rome, the people lined the streets for his Triumphal March. They waved branches and threw their garments before him as he rode into Rome on his horse. Some in history see him as the greatest military commander ever. Others see him as one who destroyed democracy and the Republic.
In subsequent years, every time land was conquered there would be a triumphal procession. The historian, Dio Cassius, tells us the triumphator would gather his armies and the Praetorian Guard, and enter Rome clad in armlets and a regal purple robe embroidered with gold after the rites of Dionysus. With a gold laurel crown upon his head that had been borrowed from the Temple of Jupiter, he held a branch in his hand.
The racially-diverse, conquered prisoners of war would march ahead of him, Africans, Jews and Arabs; proof the victories he had attained. When the triumphator arrived at the Roman Forum, he would command some of the prisoners to be put to death and the rest imprisoned or enslaved. He would ride up to the Capitol and perform certain sacred rites to the gods. The word “capitol” just means “the head.” The head of Italy. The head of the world. Later a triumphal arch would be erected to commemorate the event.
Each leader felt his triumphal march had to upstage the others. So the processions became more and more complex and lavish. Perfumes would be distributed to those along the way to create an aroma or aura. By 20 B.C, 20 years before the birth of Christ, the triumphal procession became the sole privilege of the Emperor, who would parade through the city as people shouted, “Hail Caesar!” A bull would be dressed up and led along in procession to be sacrificed to the gods at the end. A priest would walk behind the bull with a double-bladed axe for the sacrifice.
The Emperor’s face would be painted red like Jupiter’s statue so that he would be identified standing in for the deity. Indeed, Gaius insisted on being addressed as Jupiter and Nero was called Apollo.
Just before the sacrifice, the triumphator would be offered a cup of wine, but he would refuse, and instead the pour the wine out on the bull or the altar. The wine symbolized the precious blood of the sacrifice.
After the sacrifice, the Emperor would then sit on his Throne in glory.
Both Luke and Matthew base their version of Jesus’ passion on the Gospel of Mark, which was written in Rome, for Christians in Rome. They could not possibly fail to see what we 21st century American Christians almost always miss: Jesus’ procession to the cross is a parody of the Roman triumphal march. It follows a formula.
Jesus is taken first to the Praetorian guard, where he is clad with a purple robe and a crown of thorns.
They parade him through the city, shouting, “Hail, king of the Jews!”
His executioner walks alongside him.
The triumphator would be led to the Capitol, the Head. But Jesus was led to Golgotha, the place of the Skull.
Like the triumphator, Jesus too is offered ceremonial wine, but he too refuses it, echoing his words at the Last Supper, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:24-25).
At the end of the procession, the Emperor would sit on his throne. When Claudius returned to Rome after a military campaign, he ascended the steps of the Capital on his knees and then sat on his throne with his sons-in-law on his right and on his left. When Titus returned after destroying Jerusalem and the temple he had Vespasian on his right and Domitian on his left. When Jesus concludes his triumphal procession, he is crucified with two thieves, one on his right and one on his left.
The gospel writers want us to see Jesus’ last day not just as a triumphal march but as a kind of anti-triumphal march. Whereas the world glorifies power and violence and destruction; Jesus encounters the hatred and violence of his own religious tradition, and the hatred and violence of the world’s greatest empire and responds not with hatred and violence, but with submission to God’s will, and in his resurrection, finds a victory that transcends the human condition.
The pomp and pride of Gaius and Nero are contrasted with the humility of Jesus, and so the pomp and pride of the world’s rich and powerful are contrasted with the humility of the world’s poor and common people. In Christ, God is not for the victor, but for the victim. God’s divine favor is not found in victory, but in humility, compassion, and service. In kenosis: emptying oneself (see the next devotion, below). Here’s the message: The salvation of the world depends upon God’s way, Christ’s way being made manifest in the world.
As followers of Christ, we are challenged on this day and every day, to not cater to power and the powerful, but give our lives for the poor and downcast of the world. The innocent. The powerless. The children. We are challenged to reject the hatred, violence, and power plays of the world, and risk living in the humility of Jesus the crucified Jew. We are not promised that there will be no cost. We are never promised that there will be no hour of trial or a cross with our name on it. In fact, Jesus warns us that there will be persecution, by those who reject God’s ways. But in the end, there will be a crown of glory that will outshine the suffering of this world.
Hear Paul’s understanding of the Triumphal March (and Mary’s anointing for burial?) in 2 Corinthians (2:14-15):
…thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.
There can be no mistaking Paul’s metaphor here: Christ is the ultimate Triumphator because he has destroyed the real enemies: sin and death. Therefore, we are freed to follow the cross in Triumphal Procession all the days of our lives, until we are led to our joyful resurrection.