Players and Protagonists in the Kingdom of God


The story of Palm Sunday is featured in all four gospels. The story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, the story with the humble beast, the shouting crowds, the branches, the coats and cloaks spread like a carpet upon the road, this story has center stage in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Making the cut in all four gospels--well, that's a big biblical deal.

Christmas didn't make it into all four gospels. Two of the gospels make no mention of the pregnant Mary for whom there was no room in the inn or the shepherds watching their flocks by night or the angels or the star or the wise men or the babe in the manger. Christmas only makes the cut in two gospels.

The Lord's Prayer didn't make it into all four gospels. The prayer that Jesus taught his followers, the prayer the church has recited over the course of more than two millennia--the prayer recited alike in Kenyan huts and European basilicas, recited by Catholic and Orthodox, by Protestant and Pentecostal, even Jesus' own prayer--isn't in all four gospels. It only made the cut in two.

The parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son appear in but one gospel.

The Beatitudes--blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor--made it into only two gospels.

But the Palm Sunday story--the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem--this story has pride of place in all four gospels.

Which makes me wonder if we've had something wrong all along. All along Christians have regarded Pentecost as the beginning of the church, the church's birthday, the day the church was born in wind and fire. But I'm not so sure.

I wonder if Palm Sunday isn't the church's real birthday. Palm Sunday is the day the followers of Jesus grew up, found their voices, summoned their courage, and assumed their role as witnesses to God's will on earth as it is in heaven.

This is the day. Palm Sunday is the day Jesus' followers stepped out onto the world stage, stepped out in earnest as players and protagonists in the realm of God.

Let's set the scene. The ancient city of Jerusalem during the annual Passover festival is a lot like Boston, Massachusetts, at the time of the Boston Marathon. The city swells with visitors from all over the world. The city is alive, abuzz, international, exciting. Every possible room is rented at a premium price. Grocers have stocked their shelves to capacity. Everyone is out of doors. The visitors and pilgrims are readily identifiable by their clothing and by their the extra bags hanging off their shoulders, and by the way they meander up and down the streets, pausing, gazing, pointing.

Merchants sell their wares--exotic foods, trinkets, brightly colored cloth--on street corners and in public squares. Musicians and street performers gather knots of people who gape and laugh and applaud.

The atmosphere sizzles and pulses. The whole exotic world has come to Jerusalem. Expectation is in the air.

To keep the peace, Roman legions, conscripts from Roman citizens, helmeted, armor gleaming, astride noble steeds, these patrol the streets.

Until this day, until this moment, until right now, the followers of Jesus had been just that: followers, largely passive, reflective. They had traipsed after Jesus all over Palestine. 

When he argued with civil and religious officials, they watched, tense and riveted. When he defended a prostitute, they gasped. When he conversed in public with a woman from Samaria, they winced. When he defied the Sabbath laws, they cringed. When he declared that the last shall be first, the first last, and the rich poor, they glanced around guardedly to see who was listening. When he kissed lepers and healed those of broken bodies, they whispered in fascinated awe.

Until this day, this moment, until right now, the followers of Jesus had been just that: followers, largely passive, if keen observers of his ways. But on Palm Sunday, today, a shift occurs, a transformation begins. And the shift? It's seismic.

As they enter Jerusalem, the followers begin to assume the roles of leaders. They walk onto stage--onto the world stage of a capital city during a great annual festival. For the first time since they have known Jesus, they take up their roles as players and protagonists in the kingdom of God.

As Jesus and his paltry band of followers enter the city, Roman soldiers gather to investigate the fuss--steeds snorting, armor gleaming, swords flashing, and this: crests, crests, bearing Caesar's proud and commanding image.

Against this display of power and authority, against and in defiance of it, the followers of Jesus stage a street drama announcing this: their hearts, their allegiance, their fealty belong, not to Caesar, not to the Emperor of Rome--to that pretender god--but to Jesus, Prince of Peace. On the streets of Jerusalem in front of God and Rome and everybody, they announce and proclaim that their hearts, their allegiance, their fealty belong, not to the Pax Romana--an uneasy peace achieved by force--but to Pax Christi, a peace to which we are invited, but never coerced, a peace which emanates from the very heart of God, a peace that passes all human understanding.

This is the day they shout in public that they belong to God and not to Caesar ... which, in their case on this day, is nothing less than an act of sedition.

For the past three years--from the day Jesus called them from their fishing nets until this moment--the commitment to follow Jesus, it had been personal. It had been intimate and private; but today, this day, Palm Sunday, the commitment to follow Jesus, it becomes public and it becomes political.

Palm Sunday has pride of place in all four gospels because this is the day the followers of Jesus become protagonists--become actors and leaders--in the kingdom of God. This is the day the church comes out of the closet. This is the day the church distances itself from the state and from all worldly power. This is the day, this is the moment, the hour, that they absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to every earthly prince, potentate, state, and sovereignty and vow that they will and do bear true faith and true allegiance to Jesus, Prince of Peace, Son of God. This is the day the church becomes the church. This is the day the church is born. This is the day we say to Jesus, "It's our turn, Jesus, and you have taught us well. You have shown us and taught us what God looks like. Thank you, Jesus."

It's our turn now, our turn to show the world what God looks like, to show the world what love looks like, to show the world what it looks like to love your enemies, not only your enemies, but the immigrant and the alien, the stranger, and the other. Show the world what it looks like to forgive those who trespass against you, to forgive the one who sinned against you--who sinned against you--to forgive this one not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. Show the world.

In a manifestly violent world, it is now our turn to show the world, to show our friends, our families, our neighbors, our colleagues, what it looks like to follow the Prince of Peace, to turn the other cheek. It's our turn now.

In a merciless world, a dog-eat-dog and might-makes-right world, in a world red in tooth and claw, it's our turn to show the world what mercy looks like, God's mercy. It's our turn, now, today, to give witness to mercy. For Christ's sake give witness to mercy. Show the world what God looks like and watch, just watch. The world will turn its head.

It won't be easy. It will be costly. It may cost you your life.

It was on Palm Sunday that the followers of Jesus began to understand just how costly and rigorous is the Christian life. You train for it as an athlete trains for a race: rehearsing the virtues, practicing courage, training oneself in kindness, exercising gentleness, working at mercy and generosity. It's a fulltime job, this training and practicing. It is a way of life. I submit that Palm Sunday has pride of place in all four gospels because it was on Palm Sunday, it was today, that the church was truly born ... not in wind and fire ... but in courage and in conviction.

This is the day the church found its feet and found its voice and swore allegiance to the Prince of Peace. May the church be born again today, reborn today on Palm me and in you.

For Christ's sake, let's show the world what God looks like.

Let us pray. Dear God, on this Palm Sunday, grant us the courage and self-control to step out onto the stage of life as courageous Christians, as players and protagonists in your realm which has no end. Amen.