Whether Ahead or Behind

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-26-_-_Entry_into_Jerusalem2A sermon for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Matthew 21:1-11Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 31:9-16Philippians 2:5-11, and Matthew 27:11-54

Listen to the sermon HERE.

On Palm Sunday, we get two readings from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  The longer one, that we just heard, has to do with the final hours of Jesus’s life.  It’s referred to as the Passion of Our Lord (from the Latin, passionem, meaning “suffering” or “enduring.”) We will hear St. John’s Passion on Good Friday, but by reading the Passion on Palm Sunday, we get an overview, a reminder of where this week leads—at least until Friday.

The first Gospel is short and is known as the Palm Gospel, because it basically describes the joyful entry into Jerusalem made by Jesus and his followers. People waved branches—perhaps palms—and that’s why we do it, as well.  We participate in the retelling, in the excitement, and in the hope that Christ IS the one—the one to redeem, to one to save, to one to bring us to God.

The great gift of these scriptures recurring year after year is that while much is familiar, I always notice something new, something different.  This year, I notice a detail in the Palm Gospel.  I notice it because it really frames the invitation we have to move closer to God (this Easter, this week, this day.)

The detail I’m noticing this year is a phrase.  Matthew’s telling of the story has Jesus entering Jerusalem on the donkey, and people spread out their garments and some branches from the trees. And then Matthew writes, “The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Mt. 21:9)

Though I don’t think Matthew necessarily meant to make an enormous point out of that sentence, I find in it an expansive view of what it means to follow Jesus.  Some “go ahead.” Some “follow,” but all are welcome.  If we picture that great procession into Jerusalem, and imagine it representing the life of faith, then it’s comforting to me that no matter what my pace, whether I’m paying attention, whether strong in body, mind, and/or spirit, or weak in one area or all— there’s a place for me and there’s encouragement on every side.

Often we hear the life of faith referred to as a “walk with Christ,” or a spiritual journey.  I don’t know about you, but if I were honest (and Holy Week seems like a time for one to be honest) I would have to say there are very few times when I actually feel like I am “walking with Christ.”

Sometimes I’m running ahead.  I’m like a four year old with a two-year-old’s attention span, running ahead to whatever seems interesting to me at the moment.  I can go in all kinds of directions.  Some, not so wise or helpful.  But at other times, I can run ahead of Christ with perfectly good intentions, as in something to with church, with a sense of mission, or a sense of where God might actually want me to be running. But running, I am. And, like a little kid, I sometimes keep running until I fall, or until I become exhausted, or until I get scared. Then I stop, I turn (which theologians would call conversion, metanoia). I look for Christ and I pray.

At other times, the problem isn’t that I’m running ahead, but that I’m lagging behind.  I’m like a child that can’t keep up, or wonder if I’m in the right procession to begin with, or question whether we’re headed in the right direction.  The farther back in the crowd I am—the farther cut off from Christ—the more I have a fading memory of what he looks like, what he sounds like, how he wants to help me make it to the distance.

The entry into Jerusalem includes those that go ahead and those that follow behind, but the entry into Holy Week is a lot like that, too.  We’re all welcome to move toward God at our own pace, whether it’s fast and out front, or slower and more cautious.   This entry, this story, this narrative, this Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is so rich and deep and true that it includes all of us, wherever and whomever we may be, because to follow Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Our following, our relationship with Jesus, may seem to end at the cross, but it really begins there. Death is refocused. Life is sharpened and has new meaning.  To approach the cross and be empowered by it, we are then ready to be raised with Christ in the Resurrection.

It is a full week ahead, and I hope you can join us for some of the liturgies of this Holy Week. But if you can’t, I invite you to take a minute each day, or take five minutes, or thirty, and pray. Sit with your Prayer Book. Listen to music. Walk outside. Help someone. Or simply be silent. If you feel like you’re lagging way behind, then do something to catch up (allowing God to move you forward into his presence). If you’ve been racing ahead, perhaps it is a good time to slow down (allowing quiet into your life so that God can be heard and felt).

The Church invites us this week to enter Jerusalem, as we go into the Upper Room for the Last Supper, as we accompany Jesus to the cross on Good Friday, and as we proclaim at the Easter Vigil, we proclaim together that the light of Christ has never been fully extinguished; and in fact, will grow until it fills the world.

In the 8th century, the Bishop Andrew of Crete encouraged the faithful to “go together to meet Christ on the Mount of Olives.”  He said, “Let us spread before his [Christ’s] feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, … but ourselves, clothed in his grace.. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: ‘Blessed is [the one] who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the King of Israel.’”

May the God of Love bless us this week and always as we seek to be faithful friends and followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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