Brief synopsis of the readings: Every year we read an account of Jesus’ passion; this year we read from Luke’s Gospel. The Gospel begins with Jesus leading the Passover Meal, what we have come to call the Last Supper. After blessing the bread and the wine he foretold that Peter would deny him three times before tomorrow’s sunrise. He then led them to the Mount of Olives and went off to pray by himself. On his return his disciples were asleep and he woke them. Shortly after that Judas arrived with a group of men. One of Jesus’ disciples then took a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant; Jesus then picked up the ear and reattached it. The crowd then took Jesus to the home of the high priest. Huddled outside, Peter was approached three times by someone who identified him as a follower of Jesus, but three times he swore he didn’t know Jesus. At daybreak Jesus was taken to a meeting of Jewish elders who accused him of blasphemy. They then took him to the Roman prefect Pilate and asked that Jesus be executed. At first Pilate refused, but then changed his mind because the crowd that wanted Jesus crucified got more and more vocal. Jesus was then beaten and crucified between two criminals.
Today we celebrate Palm (or Passion) Sunday. Today’s readings are much longer than usual and most preachers will shorten their homily so as not to overly extend the time of the mass. I tried to shorten this, but alas, all good things…. If you’re using this in your own preaching, please feel free to edit.
Last month I spoke of the book Letters From an Understanding Friend. It’s a small book intended to guide someone through Lent by commenting on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel. Even if you don’t read this book, Luke’s Gospel takes us on Jesus’ journey, beginning in chapter 9, verse 51: “As the time approached when he was to be taken from this world, [Jesus] firmly resolved to proceed toward Jerusalem.”
Reading this section of Luke allows us to hear the drumbeats of Jesus’ journey toward his passion, death, and resurrection. And it calls us to ask the question: how much did everyone know of the path of this journey?
For most of those who journeyed to Jerusalem, this year didn’t differ from every other year. Hundreds of years before, when they escaped from slavery from Egypt, they all settled in Jerusalem. But by the time of Jesus many Jews lived far away from Jerusalem and traveled to the Temple only on Passover. As a matter of fact, we see this in Luke 2:41-52 where we have the only account of Jesus as a child: They traveled to Jerusalem for Passover, and on the way home Jesus stayed behind to teach in the Temple.
We often look at Palm Sunday as nothing more than a foreshadow to Easter but I think Palm Sunday deserves a place of its own. When we read Luke’s account we should ask ourselves what its followers knew and when they knew it.
As I said earlier, most Jews of that year journeyed to Jerusalem, entered the Temple, paid for their sacrifice, and ate from the lamb. They did this every year and most didn’t think this year was any different.
But for Jesus, his disciples, and the rest of us, this year made all the difference in the world. This year Passover wasn’t simply about what happened in Egypt in the past, it was about what was going to happen to Jesus and all those who follow him, even to us to this day.
Adam and Eve had a journey. Abraham had a journey. Moses had a journey. You get the point: all of us who find ourselves alive have a journey but we find our journey in God’s plan for us. We call it “salvation history” and other things, but if we believe what we are told, we believe that at the end of our lives we will be saved into a place that includes us and excludes suffering, death, and suffering.
But because our journey has a happy ending, it doesn’t mean that it won’t take a few difficult and unforeseen turns. I’ve thought a great deal this week about Jesus’ journey and I have to take the coward’s way out and not focus on it. Perhaps with a few more years’ experience I can comment on this, but not this year.
Let’s look instead at his followers, and it’s not a pretty sight. They do well when things are good, when they’re feasting at Passover. But when Jesus takes them to the Mount of Olives and goes off by himself, they fall asleep. Jesus prays in anguish, asking God to “take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine.” No sooner does Jesus wake his disciples, when Judas came with a group, and Peter then tries to pick a fight. Then, when Jesus was taken away, Peter tried to tell anyone who would listen that he never knew Jesus. All of the men gathered around Jesus did the same thing: they abandoned him.
I think many of us grew up with horrible descriptions of crucifixion, and it was horrible. Sometimes it took someone a few days of unthinkable agony to die, and the purpose of crucifixion was not only to kill someone, but to teach a lesson to those gathered. Don’t do what he did, or this will happen to you. When we think about the pain Jesus endured we tend to think only in terms of physical pain. But I have to believe that Jesus, aware that his friends scattered out of a selfish fear of being identified as a disciple, also felt the pain of abandonment. I pray that none of us experience anything close to the physical pain Jesus suffered, but I have to say in my own life that my most painful experiences were those times I felt alone and abandoned. After Jesus rose from the dead he forgave his followers and granted them a place in his Kingdom and I have to say this was an incredible and heroic act of forgiveness.
And our journey? We all know where we will end up, but not where we are going. We can look back at times of our lives where we’ve been blessed, and times where we’ve acted on our best instincts. And we can look with shame at times when we’ve fallen short, in small things and large. Times when we were certain we were even stretching God’s willingness to forgive.
When I look at Passion Sunday I can’t help but root for Peter, that this year the Gospel will be different and he’ll step up. I want to tell him that his glory, even 2000 years later, will be great and that he doesn’t need to abandon Jesus. I want to tell him that his courage will do him well and his cowardice will not.
Perhaps we can walk away from this Passion narrative recognizing that if our life has a happy ending we can make the next right decision. We can choose courage over popularity, and the right over the easy. I hope we can.
And next week we get to celebrate Jesus’ happy ending that allows all of us a similar happy ending.