Palm Sunday is also known as Passion Sunday – it’s one of those strange days when you can’t help being aware of two conflicting events, one joyful and one sad, and feeling torn between the two. (Hold up two scarves, one colourful, one black, to suggest these). You know, it might be that you have a family wedding in the same week as the anniversary of a family death, and there’s a clash of memories and emotions, happy and sad. That’s Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday: celebration and suffering held in tension.
On the joyful side, (put on colourful scarf) we think of the mood of the people cheering Jesus into Jerusalem, because he was, or was becoming, a hero to many of them. There were people there he had healed from disease and disability, people whose family lives had been renewed because of this. He was a rabbi, and he could argue the scriptures with the Pharisees in ways that were much more positive and uplifting to ordinary people than the endless academic discussions the Pharisees engaged in. Jesus didn’t talk down to ordinary people. And here he was making a formal, ritual kind of entry into the city at Passover festival time, in a way that was loaded with symbolism for those who recognised it. The day was full of excitement, energy and anticipation that something really important was going to happen. And I always feel that it’s the kind of day, the kind of public acclamation that Jesus deserved – to be honoured by people who saw him as a focus of hope.
That’s Palm Sunday. (lay aside colourful scarf, put on sombre one)
Passion Sunday is the same day, the same events, but seen through a very different lens, or filter. Passion is the willingness and commitment to suffer for what you love. And we could say that on Passion Sunday, Jesus rides into the lions’ den. He knows what the consequences are going to be, and he rides into the fortified city on a donkey. He rides in under the armed guards on the walls and the watch-towers, supported by fishermen and farmers.
He has tried to prepare his followers and especially the core group of disciples for what will happen, but he knows that in spite of their assurances that they understand, they can’t properly understand until these things happen. There are things in life that are so awful, so shocking, so depressing that there really is no way to anticipate how we ‘ll feel or react until they happen to us.
Jesus says all these things to the disciples because he knows they will look back and remember his words as they struggle to come to terms with his arrest, their own reaction – running away – then his death, and a little while later, his resurrection. Later still, the threats and dangers they will have to go through. And when they remember, they’ll say ‘Oh, now I understand.’
And they will understand, because they will experience the truth of what Jesus says: that he has conquered the world. He has conquered the power that the world’s trials and tribulations have to leave them hopeless and shattered, desolate and feeling helpless. When the disciples experience challenge, arrest, imprisonment and even approaching death, they will remember what Jesus has promised and find that it is all true. Jesus has conquered the power of the world over their – and our – spirits.
Yesterday I almost took down our church wall-hangings, feeling that they might be too cheerful for today’s topic. But then I realised that in spite of the shadow of the cross lying across this day, the reading actually points us towards the things our banners express.
Jesus began with hope (pointing to that banner). He said ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’. It might seem as if I have been killed, but that’s not the end. There is more to come – that’s hope, isn’t it? Not giving up, but going on, still looking to find Jesus in our lives.
Then Jesus says three times that joy (point to banner) will come again, and more so, a joy that no-one can take away. There will be weeping, and anguish and pain, but joy will come again. And isn’t that what we find? Not just that roubles come and go, but that even in our pains and sadness we have an underlying joy that troubles and sadness can’t wipe out. And countless followers of Jesus in all kinds of hard times have lived the proof of that promise.
Then there’s faith (point to banner): Jesus says because of your faith in me, you can ask anything of my Father, and it will be given to make your joy complete. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.”
Now more than just those who walked beside Jesus, anyone can ask for healing and help, for understanding, and it will be given because of their faith in Jesus.
And peace, perhaps the greatest of blessings (indicate banner). “ You will be scattered,’ Jesus says, “each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace.”
‘You will leave me alone’. When the disciples thought of how they had all scattered, and left Jesus alone to face his time of execution, I’m sure they burned with shame and guilt, as we all do when we fail to keep our promises, and we fail the people we love. But when they remembered his words, what a gift of grace and release there was in them: ‘Yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.’ What peace that must have given them, to know that Jesus was not abandoned and deserted in his suffering, even although they had run away – the Father was with him through everything.
Jesus was telling them that he had peace in the Father, and the resurrection proved that unity and devotion between the Father and Jesus, and proof of all that Jesus had told them. And now he says they can have the kind of peace in him that he has in the Father, in the assurance of his love and faithfulness.
These four gifts – hope, joy, faith and peace are absolutely consistent through the life of Jesus, and through everything God did in and through Jesus. We usually focus on the promise of these things in the weeks before Christmas, the weeks of Advent. It’s appropriate that we should also focus on them now, as they are at the core of everything that Palm and Passion Sunday mean.
The palm crosses the children brought around earlier combine these two aspects of this day – the palms of celebration and honour, and the cross of passion –Jesus’ willingness to suffer for what he – and the Father – loved. It’s just a little symbol, but a symbol of a tremendous reality.
John 16:16-33 New International Version
16 Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”
17 At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?”18 They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”
19 Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’?20 Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. 23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
25 “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. 26 In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. 27 No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”
29 Then Jesus’ disciples said, “Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. 30 Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God.”
31 “Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. 32 “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.
33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”