If done right, Palm Sunday would be an awkward Sunday. Palm Sunday isn’t usually perceived in that way and that’s because Palm Sunday is often done wrong.
|About This Sermon|
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
April 5, 2020
Isaiah 50:4–9; Matthew 26:47–75
Palm Sunday, the day we commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The culmination of a preaching ministry throughout Galilee: a year of teaching, healing, witnessing, and transforming. A year of bringing to so many people a sense that the Kingdom of God was at hand. A year in which expectations were so high that things were going to change decisively for ordinary people.
A Sunday, which unlike for us today, was not a day of rest, but as the first day of the week was a day of activity and excitement. A day to begin the week during which the great Passover holiday would take place, a holiday celebrating freedom from slavery and oppression and God’s liberating power. A Sunday in which all the hopes and dreams of so many are placed upon this one remarkable man—Jesus of Nazareth, whom some dare to hope is the long-awaited messiah, the deliverer-king who will free the people from their oppression under the Roman Empire.
And so as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, he makes conscious use of a prophetic symbol, riding in humbly on a colt. The people throw down their cloaks in his path and cut leafy branches in the fields and shout “Hosanna!” It’s a festive scene.
And so we in the church are fond of re-creating this scene. We sing hymns with hosannas in them. We hand out palms. We wave them a bit. We decorate the sanctuary with palm branches. It’s all very festive and wonderful. It doesn’t seem awkward at all.
But that’s probably because we’re doing it wrong.
See, we are aware of how this story ends. We know that in a few days’ time, the crowds—the same crowds—will be shouting not “Hosanna to the Son of David!” but “Crucify him!” Is there any reason not to greet this story with embarrassment for how we know the story turns out?
This story ought to elicit the same gulps we get when we see Anakin Skywalker meet Obi Wan Kenobi for the first time and realize: this nascent friendship is doomed to end in pain, tragedy, and death. We ought to have the same feelings when we get when we watch the hero meet the character that we, as the viewers, know will be the hero’s undoing, but the hero does not. It should be hard for us to celebrate Palm Sunday without a sense that things are about to go very, very wrong for Jesus.
Now, there are churches (and many Christians) who simply go from Palm Sunday right to Easter. And I suppose it’s easy to go from “Hosanna” to “Alleluia!” that way. But not if you do it right.
For a recognition of the power of this story is a recognition that at the heart of it there is a tremendous tragedy. A tragic turn of events in which shouts of praise turn to shouts of condemnation and death. If we, as the church, do it right, we cannot be all smiles and pretend that this story does not start in a promising fashion and yield to a bitter conclusion. We cannot face the adulation of Palm Sunday without facing the reality that this story ends in betrayal.
II. THE BETRAYAL OF JESUS
And betrayal is at the heart of this story. There are the obvious betrayals: Judas betrays Jesus’ location to the temple priesthood; Peter denies even knowing Jesus. The crowds that shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday are shouting “Crucify him!” on Friday. The disciples who are scattered on Thursday night, are nowhere to be seen on Friday and Saturday, and are found to be in hiding on Sunday. The leaders of the people, who ought to be protecting the innocent, instead hand over an innocent to the occupying power that will execute him. There are so many betrayals at the heart of this story that it typifies the kind of tragic drama that we know so well.
III. OUR BETRAYALS
There is something about betrayal that goes right to the heart of us. It is impossible to betray someone with whom you are not already close or with whom you do not have an intimate relationship. We value faithfulness and loyalty in our relationships. It’s what makes them work. But in order to foster relationships, we need to take leaps of trust. We make ourselves vulnerable to one another. And betrayal cuts right at the heart of that. We cannot be betrayed by one we have not first made ourselves vulnerable to.
The word “fidelity” is based on the word for faith. Loyalty, then, is not just a personal virtue, it is at the heart of faith. When we experience betrayal, it is not just an interpersonal infraction; it is a crisis of faith. When one has been betrayed by someone trusted, it becomes hard to have faith in anything.
There can be fewer experiences of raw pain than the realization that one whom you had trusted has betrayed that trust. When we are the victims of betrayal, we find ourselves in a wilderness place. We might wonder how God is known when we have experienced betrayal?
In the gospel story, we see tremendous betrayal. By Judas, by Peter, the disciples, the crowds, the leadership. Even at one point, Jesus wonders if God has betrayed him, too.
But again, we know this story’s ending. We know that it does not end with the jeering crowds, or the denying followers, or the traitorous friend. We know that it ends with new life. With hope. With the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Given that, we have to realize that God must be at work even in the midst of betrayal.
IV. FIDELITY IN BETRAYAL
Some have argued that betrayal can itself be an act of faith.
Indeed there are times when out of betrayal comes great faithfulness. There is a story that is told of an old man in a village who takes in a fugitive wanted by the government for being a dissident. The priests of the village worried about what may happen to the village if this man is found, attempt to convince the old man to hand the fugitive over. When he responds that his faith will not allow him to do so, the priests try another tack: they quote the scriptures that say that a faithful person should submit to the governing authorities. The old man replied that the scriptures also command us to take care of the suffering and the persecuted. The leaders then began to pray fervently, imploring God to speak to them directly so that they might know what to do. The skies darkened and the voice of God is heard: “The priests and the elders speak the truth, my friend. In order to protect the town, this man must be handed over to the authorities.” Whereupon the old man looks to heaven and replies: “If you want me to remain faithful to you, my God, then I can do nothing but refuse your advice. For you have already demanded that I look after this man. You have written that I must protect him at all costs. Your words of love have been spelled out by the lines of this man’s face, your text is found in the texture of his flesh. And so, my God, I defy you precisely so as to remain faithful to you.” With this, the story concludes, God smiled and quietly withdrew, “confident that the matter had finally been settled.”
There are those who make the case that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was not an act of faithlessness, but an act of faithfulness. The Gnostics (whom I am loath to look to for inspiration, generally) produced a Gospel of Judas in which Judas’ sacrifice of Jesus was required in order to liberate Jesus after death. But aside from that, some have noted that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death and resurrection would not have been possible had not Judas done what he did. Others have noted that perhaps Judas was engaging in a willing sacrifice of Jesus along the lines of Abraham’s willing sacrifice of his son Isaac, expecting Jesus to be returned to him without injury. In this line of thinking, the tragedy is not what Judas did, but that he did not wait long enough to find out how the story turned out, committing suicide before experiencing the resurrection.
One philosopher has gone so far as to say that Christianity and betrayal are intimately connected, writing, “[While] in all other religions, God demands that His followers remain faithful to Him—only Christ asked his followers to betray Him in order to fulfill His mission.” Indeed, Jesus says to Judas at Gethsemane, “Do what you came to do.”
We might see that in a paradoxical way, sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is betray the very thing we’re faithful to, like when we are compelled to report a friend whose behavior is self-destructive. The friend feels betrayed, but the betrayal is done out of love.
But in our circumstance, when we have been betrayed, where is God then? Not out of any loving act, but the opposite? Where can we find God in the midst of the betrayals that afflict us, those wilderness experiences in which we find ourselves, hurting and alone?
It would be arrogant and insensitive of me to say, “Well, that betrayal that you’ve experienced is analogous to the betrayal that Jesus experienced and therefore probably brought about some good.” That’s a nice idea, but there are some ideas that work great as intellectual concepts but do not comfort us at all.
But perhaps there is something here of God that we can take with us.
Is there anyone who doubts that had Judas lived longer to be reunited with Jesus that the two would have been reconciled? Is there anyone who doubts that Jesus would have forgiven Judas for the betrayal? Does not Christ forgive his tormentors, betrayers, and executioners from the cross in Luke’s account by calling out, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”? Isn’t it far more probable that Jesus, in predicting betrayal, saying “It would have been better for him if he had never been born” is not pronouncing a curse but is reflecting with compassion on the tragedy that his betrayer will undergo?
In the midst of betrayal that leads to agony and death, Jesus is able to pronounce forgiveness. Perhaps God isn’t in the betrayal itself, but in the grace to respond to the betrayal with love.
That is not an easy thing, to be sure. But there is much about Christianity that is difficult. In fact, if Christianity seems to be an easy religion to do and to live out then you’re doing it wrong. For Christian faith is the way of the cross, it is the way of challenge and difficulty. But even more so, it is the way of transforming those challenges into something meaningful. It is about responding to violence not with more violence, but with reconciliation. It is about responding to hate not with more hate but with love. It is about responding to betrayal not with more betrayal but with fidelity. A fidelity to the betrayer that is transformative. That has the ability to turn the world on end.
Now, this is not easy. And Christian faith isn’t about being a doormat easily walked over. But the God-moment in betrayal is in the transformation of the betrayal into something more powerful. When Joseph was reunited with his brothers years after they’d sold him into slavery in Egypt, he says to them not to be angry with themselves for their betrayal because through that very betrayal that sent Joseph down to Egypt, God had been able to save them from famine.
I am not going to say that every betrayal has a reason for it that God intended. But every betrayal offers us an opportunity to do something so transformative that God can be known in the midst of the betrayal. After all, isn’t that exactly what Jesus does?
Some years ago in a sermon, I pondered how it is that we could sing “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday knowing what we would shout in only a few days’ time. How is it that Palm Sunday is not more awkward and embarrassing for us? It seems, as I reflected earlier, that Palm Sunday can only be celebrated with a deep sense of irony or by acknowledging the embarrassment and tragedy that will come.
Even more so because we’re not the only ones who know what’s coming; Jesus knows it, too. He’d been predicting it for a while. He knew Peter would deny him, that Judas would betray him, that the disciples would run away, and that the leaders would hand him over to their occupiers. I wondered how those “Hosannas” sounded in Jesus’ ears, given what he knew was about to take place.
For when we remember that Jesus went into Jerusalem likely know it would bring about his death, the fact that he did it anyway is mind-boggling. Why? Why would anyone do that for a bunch of faithless ingrates who are so fickle as to be on your side one moment and shouting for your death the next? Why would you do that for your supposed friends who will all scatter and betray you?
But Christ goes to the cross to bring about the work of the Kingdom not unaware of the looming betrayal, but in order to transform it. He is no weakling, no pushover, no doormat. He is one who has his mind set on God’s purposes and seeks to transform betrayal by responding with a grace so profound that it is astounding.
We are fickle. We are often faithless. We are often those who betray. But out of a recognition of the astounding grace that can transform our betrayals into faithfulness, out of a recognition that the world itself is turned upside down by such love, we can, without a trace of irony, shout “Hosanna!”
And we can take that grace into the wildernesses of our own lives, transforming the betrayals we have experienced into God-given opportunities for grace, that eventually the whole of creation can shout, “Hosanna!”
Isaiah 50:4–9 • The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. 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.
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?
Matthew 26:47–75 • While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.”
 Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal, Paraclete Press, 2008, pp. 1-3.
 Ibid., p 29.
 Ibid., p. 21, quoting Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 16 (italics in original).