Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019
Luke 19:28-40; Luk3 22:14 – 23:56
Fr. Samuel Torvend
By the year 311, the Emperor Constantine had legalized every religion in the Roman Empire and thus brought an end to the horrific persecution of Christians that had been ordered by his predecessor. This meant that wealthy Christians, a minority in the church, could travel freely to the land of Jesus and physically walk on the roads and streets he had walked. They could follow the path he traversed as palms branches waved him into Jerusalem. They could gather at the cross and then at the stone of resurrection, enclosed in the great church funded by Constantine.
But here was the problem: wealthy Christian tourists, upon their return home, gave the clear impression that their ability to pay for an expensive tour of the holy sites made them down-right special, privileged, why even holier than their Christian acquaintances who could never afford such an extravagance. Thus we find bishops frantically writing letters to their many parishioners suggesting that no one needed to travel to Jerusalem to be close to the Savior and that, in truth, Jerusalem could come to them. Thus we come to the origin of the Palm Sunday procession and the liturgies that mark holy week: if you can’t travel to the holy city, then let the holy city and the events that took place there come to you. Let Jerusalem come to Rome, Canterbury, and Tacoma.
And if you live hundreds of years after the historic events of this day and week, worry not: he who shared a meal with his followers in an upper room is coming to you, here, at his altar: his mystical yet very earthy Presence shared in bread and wine, Body and Blood, with all those who will never walk the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem or sing resurrection praise in the great church built by Constantine.
The keeping of this Palm Sunday, nonetheless, raises an important question: Why did Jesus come to and enter Jerusalem? One standard answer to the question, often sung in hymns and prayed in liturgical texts, is this: “He entered the city to die on the cross and thus save humankind from its sins” (a view promoted by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century).
Others, however, see it differently. Did he not come, they ask, to celebrate Passover, the feast of Hebrew liberation from Egyptian oppression? And was this keeping of Passover not a dangerous thing to do among a people, the Jewish people, who suffered under Roman imperial rule, under a political regime that demanded worship of a murderous and narcissistic emperor, a regime that commanded the collection of a punishing tax by the priests of the Jerusalem Temple?
What we do not hear in the gospel readings of this day and week is this: after his entrance into the city, Jesus enters the Temple and, in this most holy of places, makes a public demonstration in the name of God by overturning tables and protesting those who collaborated with Roman violence and religiously-sanctioned injustice. Or say it this way: in the name of the Reign of God, he protested in favor of peace and the need for religious ritual to foster God’s own justice here on earth.
All the gospels then note that this public act of protest prompted a small group of elites to plot against Jesus. Indeed, the prophet from the Galilee was now known to Roman authorities in Jerusalem, authorities nervous about a potential Jewish revolt against their violence, their lack of love, their injustice, and their merciless regard for those they thought inferior to themselves.
If this is why Jesus entered Jerusalem – to keep a feast of liberation from a false god and an inhumane existence, and to protest the use of religion to dominate rather than nourish human life with God on this earth – why then do we keep this Palm Sunday? Well, I can only answer this question for myself and that answer begins 70 years after Constantine legalized the Christian faith. For in year 381, the Christian Emperor Theodosius transformed Christianity into the state religion and bestowed on this now imperial religion many privileges. But the emperor made it clear that privileges come with a price and that price was the silencing of Christians – there could be no questioning, no protest, no turning table over when the state used this religion for its own and frequently horrific purposes: the persecution of Jews; the suppression of dissent; the killing of pacifists; the silencing of women. You just talk about love, said the emperor, and leave the world to us.
Why do we keep this Palm Sunday? I can only answer for myself: I am a Christian who is committed to the person of Jesus who inspired a movement of reform – not an established religion with many privileges – but a movement of reform in religion and society. I hold that this reform was made manifest in his teaching and, more importantly, in his actions: in his free healing; his sharing food and drink with social outcasts both wealthy and poor; his crossing boundaries of gender, ethnicity, and class so that the many – rather than the few – might know that they are counted among the people of God; his refusal of state violence as a form of social control; his eagerness to forgive rather than punish; his protest of the use of religion to divide, discriminate, and make easy money; his astonishing love for the many poor that compelled him to promote an equitable sharing of earth’s many riches; and this, too: his recognition that to question the way things are and thus upset the comfort of the status quo could lead to arrest.
Oh yes, there will be countless Palm Sunday processions throughout the world today, two billion people holding palms in their hands. But I wonder: will those processions and will our procession lead us into peaceful protest and loving yet clear questioning of the empire in which we live? After all, his procession did not lead him into a church, but rather into a city – a city in which he planted self-giving love and forgiveness, and the justice that makes for peace. The only question is this: will you and I follow him into this city and continue his life-giving and saving work?