Some of you know that I was not raised in the Anglican tradition. I was raised particularly low church. In fact, someone from our diocese once referred to me (only partially in jest) as snake belly low. Now, if you know me, you know that’s not entirely true, but it certainly is true of how I was raised. I didn’t become an Anglican until I was in my late 20’s, and for all of that time, after becoming an Anglican, I was at a church where Palm Sunday was celebrated much like the Palm Sundays I remembered from when I was a kid. The focus was on Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem, and the day was a day of joy and celebration.
And indeed, part of what we are doing in this service is expressing joy and celebrating that Holy Week is beginning, that our King has come, and that our redemption is close at hand. But what I discovered after getting ordained was that in Anglican tradition (and maybe in others as well, I’m not certain), Palm Sunday begins with a celebration of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem, and very quickly takes a dark and heavy turn towards the cross. I’ll confess that when I first saw this turn in the prayer book, which is made clear by the fact that there are two Gospel readings and functionally two liturgies, I was genuinely confused. My first response was to say, “Well, the prayer book only wants you to read the crucifixion on Palm Sunday because they aren’t sure people will come back for Good Friday, and you need to hear that reading before Easter.” And there may be some truth in that.
But what I’ve come to understand, which was already obvious to me but my understanding of the day didn’t match the liturgy I was used to, is that you cannot understand Palm Sunday without seeing it in the light of the cross. In many ways we are like the people of Jerusalem in the first century. They wanted a savior. They wanted God to return. They wanted God to act. They wanted their King to show up and solve all their problems and fix the world to be exactly the way that they wanted it. And so, when Jesus shows up, they rightly herald him as king. They call out to the Son of David, and they welcome him to into his city.
Holy Week begins with a celebration, and by Friday, it’s become a tragedy. The story is only redeemed by the incredible power of God to raise the dead. Without that, this story begins high, and it ends low. The city that welcomes its king will call for his head in less than a week. But why? Why does a story that begins with celebration end in tragedy? Why does a story that begins with so much light and life end in darkness and death?
The answer is simple. The celebration is a lie. It’s a sham. It’s a coat of pain on the outside of a building that’s already collapsing internally, and that fact should terrify us as the people of God, as the people who now wait for our king and God, as the people who expect to welcome him with shouts of celebration and to sing his praises as he makes the world exactly the way we think it should be. But what if, when he comes to his temple this time, when he comes to his church, he finds that it too become a den of robbers? What if when he comes, the week begins in celebration and ends in tragedy?
You see, there is an inherent danger in all of this, in gathering for church, in singing songs, in preaching, and most of all in using Jesus’ name cheaply and carelessly to express our own desires in his name. That danger is that the God that we long for, the God whose coming we want to celebrate, the King who we want to see enthroned as Lord and King of Heaven and Earth – the danger is that that god is a god of our own making and not the God offered to us in Jesus of Nazareth. That’s why this day takes a tragic turn, because God’s people welcomed a king shaped by their own will and desire, a conquering king, and when they didn’t get what they expected, they shouted crucify.
This cannot be overstated. We as the church cannot hear this too often. In fact, I’m certain that as a whole the church hears this far too infrequently. What we want is glory. What we want is power. What we want is a conqueror. What we want is prestige. What we want it privilege. And none of that has anything to do with a crucified Messiah on this side of Easter. The Christian life is cruciform. The Church is cruciform. All that we do, all that we say, all that we long for, all that we pray for, all that we hope for is cruciform because Good Friday is the only way to Easter. And this is not some advanced level form of Christianity, or some coincidence of the liturgical calendar, this is the basic level of Christianity. This is Christianity in its most pure and raw form because we worship a king who was crowned with thorns and enthroned upon the cross. This truth is the solid ground upon which we must build our lives and our church because everything else is sinking sand.
Paul lays this out perfectly in Philippians 2. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:5–11). To say that again, but more simply: the way up is the way down and the way to glory is the way of the cross. We find life in death. We find power in service. We find fullness in emptying ourselves. We find joy in humility. For us the cross is not just a symbol of salvation, but it demands a way of life. This is why our logo has the cross flowering into the tree of life because the cross is the only path to the tree of life.
I’m struck every time I read through the Stations of the Cross, and I know some of you have been watching and praying with me online, and thank you for doing so. If you want to know what I understand to be the basics of Christianity, if you want to understand what I want this church to be, if you want to understand what I think it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, listen to one of the recordings of the Stations of the Cross. The whole reading can be summed up like this: “Take up your cross and follow me.” The irony of the Stations of the Cross is that while for some, some of the stations are considered unbiblical and unhistorical, the theology of the Stations of the Cross, at least in the booklet that we use, is about as biblical and historical as you can possibly get, and that’s why it’s such an important service. The Stations of the Cross, like reading the crucifixion narrative on Palm Sunday, calls us back to the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian. There is no celebration unless we embrace the cross. There is no invite to the party unless we are carrying our cross. Christianity offers you nothing less than the inversion of the entire world. The way up is the way down, the way to life is the way to death. Only in emptying ourselves can we find the fullness of life. Only in pouring out lives out for the good of others can we find true satisfaction.
There is a party going on today. That’s true. But today’s party will take a tragic turn. The real party, the one you want to be invited to, the one that counts, the one that doesn’t end in tragedy but in resurrection and life everlasting, that party begins a week from now. It is the celebration not of a conquering king but of a crucified and risen Lord, and you don’t get one without the other. May we follow King Jesus to Good Friday so that he will lead us to Easter.