Palm Sunday: "What's in a Name?"
It’s wonderful to see you all here this morning. Despite our weather not cooperating how we would like, it is a joyous day of celebration in the church. Today marks the beginning of a week long celebration--the start of our Holy Week observance. If you are new to the church or perhaps have not experienced Holy Week before, this is a time in which we observe Jesus’ humble beginning towards his final days in Jerusalem. We will journey with Christ through his last supper, his trial, crucifixion, and of course, come back together next Sunday for the long awaited resurrection day. It’s a busy time in the church year but one that culminates out of our time of reflection and introspection during the Lenten Season.
Amidst the busyness of this time, I was thinking the other day about this process that we go through in the church. Through this week, and particularly next Sunday, many individuals in this church will be making things ready, planning and implementing all the bells and whistles that often accompany such a special time. But I was also thinking about Jesus’ humble entry on a colt, I was thinking about what he would say about the church’s practices during Holy Week, about how Christ himself spent his last final days and what he would want us to do during this time.
Really, Palm Sunday and Easter are the pinnacle of the Christian year. Although Christmas is dear to our hearts, it is the Easter Season and the preceding week that defines what it is we believe as Christians. But I want to make sure that we give enough time, enough space, for this Palm Sunday because we are so quick to jump to next week, to look forward to the coming resurrection day, to jump to the end of the story.
I was talking to a friend of mine in ministry and I was asking about what they are doing during this week. Of course they are observing the normal Holy Days but I then asked on what day they would be reading the crucifixion story. He told me they weren’t. He said that nowadays, people don’t want to hear about the crucifixion, they simply want to focus on Easter, on the new life of the resurrection. I wish I could say this wasn’t the norm but I think more and more, as our world becomes an increasingly difficult place to cope with, people are needing, more than ever, that hope that the resurrection provides. But I began to wonder how complete our story could be without including all of the events of the passion story. I wondered if we could truly have life without first having some kind of death. After all, every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
It is perhaps our human natures to want to go straight there, to want to focus on the good and forget about what came before, about what got us there in the first place. We often minimize the part of our Gospel story where Jesus knew of the coming final events of his life. We forget that just as there was power in his death, there was just as much, if not more power in his life. It is why Palm Sunday is so special. Because instead of being wrapped up in complicated Christological meanings behind resurrections, we are confronted with a man, a human, who knows what is to come in his future, and yet continues anyway. Our writer of Philippians recognizes this as he speaks of a man who was so humble, "he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but chose to empty himself, being obedient to the point of death."
Because of this we proclaim a name above all names, in Greek Iesus, in Hebrew Yeshua. We see as Jesus asks his disciples to get him a colt, a crowd gathers, spreading their cloaks, and in other Gospel accounts, waving Palms, as praises were heard, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" These were big claims, powerful names to be used for someone with the social status of Christ.
At the same time, at a gate in the city opposite of the one Jesus was entering, would have been Pilate’s procession, one of horses and chariots, armored men, one of power. Pilate would come into town during the Holy festival season because now more than ever was a time when a revolt was most likely to happen. Shouts of Lord and King would have been heard at this procession also. So we must look at the impact of a name, at the complications that such a claim for Jesus would have brought on. It is why we see some of the Pharisees in the crowd asking Jesus to tell his disciples to stop. This was a humble entry, but it was also a political statement.
It was a challenge to the power structure in Rome, it was a challenge to the religious elite that said “no longer shall my people have to suffer—no longer shall my people be under the oppressive rule of an Emperor who demeans us for who we are.” This, in all ways, shapes, and form, was a protest against the atrocities of a conquering regime. So for Jesus to be called Lord, to be called King so openly, was to directly challenge the status quo. It was to say the kingdom of God was at hand and even if these people were to be silent, “the very stones would shout out.”
We give power to the way we name things in our lives. The way we talk about good or evil, saints or sin, gives a certain status to those things. Because of this, it deeply matters not only what we think on the inside, but also what we do and proclaim on the outside. As Christians, the message that we proclaim to our community and to the world might even matter the most, because it is this that defines us as either agents of change, agents of transformation, or agents of keeping the status quo. So we have to ask ourselves, what is the message that we are loudly proclaiming? What is the message ultimately proclaimed through the whole Jesus story, not just his death or resurrection, but also his life? What did Jesus do and how can we seek to be more Christ-like, welcoming and loving people from all walks of life?
When I was in seminary, we were challenged to look at Christ and the names that we proclaimed not only for him, but for God. Because to proclaim such names, would also be to proclaim a certain ethic for ourselves. If Christ is the breaker of chains, the liberator, the one who cares for the poor and needy, the one who saves and redeems, teacher, friend, mentor, if Christ represents these things, then we as Christians must also be embodiments of these traits. For to be in Christ is to be like Christ and that is a challenge—against any who try to misuse the name of Jesus to bring about violence, or discrimination, racism, xenophobia, or sexism. These are not names that I associate with Jesus.
I wanted to invite you this week, to really take this call to heart—to be reflective during this Holy Week on what your faith means to you and how you put that into practice during your everyday life. This Thursday, we will be holding a Maundy Thursday service, where we will read through the passion account. On Friday, from noon to three, the church sanctuary will be open for a prayer vigil, where I invite you to come and reflect, sit, and pray with others during this time. Through this week, I invite you to experience the entire journey as Christ makes his way into Jerusalem and begins the final week of his life. It is through this account, this story, this proclamation, that we see not only new life given, but a chance for real human redemption. We see the opportunity to really make a change in the world. We see the transformation that is given in the promise of the resurrection, where we can exalt the name above all other names. The name of love and justice. The name of mercy and compassion. The name of new life and new beginnings. Thanks be to God.