This is a day for careful reading of the scripture. Bring it to life. Invite a variety of voices. But even an excellent reading does not make a sermon unnecessary. The text resides in a realm that needs, still, to be brought “home.” How does this astonishing story resound in our lives? Tell us that. What does it mean to have the “mind of Christ”?
This day is supreme paradox. Hosanna to the victorious king! Riding on a donkey. Then arrested, tried, and executed. Hosanna!
Some Christians want the imagery of our stories to be clean, uncomplicated, and one-dimensional. This day is not that. Instead, we are invited by the Palms and Passion put together that the God we worship is strong enough to be weak enough for truth. We are to see that power comes from vulnerability, that victory is assured where it is not expected or understood. This is not a God who comes to us in a form we comprehend easily. For that kind of understanding, we need paradox.
Here, at the beginning of Holy Week, the center of our lives, we see the whole story, so that on Maundy Thursday we can understand why we are called to wash each other’s feet. On Good Friday we are called to pay the greatest honor to Jesus’ cross – without which no resurrection could occur. On Saturday when we sit Vigil beside the grave and hear the great stories of God’s people, we are shown all the evidence for faith, and then the stone is rolled away.
When considered from a critical perspective, what the narrative tells us is: the earliest memory of what took place is that both religious and political authorities came together and Jesus was crucified. We find it plausible that the temple priesthood sensed their own fortunes could be threatened if Jesus decided to apply his popularity to an insurrection against Rome. As for Pilate, any suggestion of a possible sedition would have sealed the potential leader's fate. The sign on the cross, “Jesus King of the Jews,” is Rome's understanding of why it crucified Jesus.
Apart from these points, the details of these narratives were fashioned from knowledge of crucifixions, reflections drawn from the psalms and suffering servant songs. Perhaps some memories originated with women who watched from afar, or even with Simon the Cyrenian. . . The story, however, is for Christians a way to enter into a real event that came to be understood as salvific as well as how God has chosen to identify with all human suffering. –– Regina Boisclair
The servant described in Isaiah is a disciple of God, called by God and instructed by God. The servant faithfully executes his instructions, often suffering because of them. The servant can only endure the suffering because he is confident that God will vindicate him. God is with him, so his confidence is not in his own strength, but is in the LORD. Those who listen to God are susceptible to suffering, not because God endorses it, but because the ways of God are often in contradiction to the ways of the world. –– Jennifer Copeland
This Philippians song tells the same story that the gospels tell: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The details are missing, but the essential ingredients are here: descent, humility and servanthood, death on a cross, and exaltation “to the highest place.” It is a song, it is a story, and it was also later one of the resources for Christological debates over the nature and status of Jesus. “Being in very nature God” is how my translation (NIV) reads, while an alternative states, “in the form of God” (NAB). This is followed by “being made in human likeness” (NIV). Although it might seem that a song was a poor source for highly technical philosophical distinctions, this is one of several from which all sides in ancient theological discussions took their proof-texts.
. . . Song let Christians be daring in claims about Jesus. This and other songs opened up ways to use metaphors, to play with speech, and to draw richly on traditional resources from the Hebrew Bible's poetry. . . . Moreover, it is important to stress that the songs of the New Testament were already embedded in Christian worship before they became embedded in texts such as epistles. –– Lucy Bregman
The holy scriptures, in other words, arose from the language and patterns of worship in the early church. Let this Sunday bring the people of God in your life to the Three Days of deepened ritual signification so that the paradox of life from death can become a way of seeing and living.
Lucy Bregman, professor of religion at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the author of several books including Beyond Silence and Denial: Death and Dying Reconsidered (WJK, 1999) and Preaching Death (Baylor Univ., 2011).
Jennifer Copeland, a United Methodist ordained minister, served for 16 years as chaplain at Duke University and as director of the Duke Wesley Fellowship. She is currently executive director at North Carolina Council of Churches in Raleigh-Durham.
Regina Boisclair, a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, teaches at Alaska Pacific University, Anchorage, Alaska.
Homily Service 41, no. 2 (2008): 68-77.