Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day dedicated to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem for the final time just days before he is hung upon the cross.
We’re all familiar with the story. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem with his disciples, he sends two of them ahead of the group with instructions to bring back a donkey and her colt for him to ride on, a detail as described by Matthew that fulfills what was spoken through the prophets Isaiah and Zechariah.
As we would expect, the disciples follow Jesus’ instructions, and upon their return he climbs on the donkey, colt by their side, and rides into Jerusalem where he is greeted by crowds of people who grace his path with cloaks and palm branches, shouting with all their voice, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!”
For many in the crowds who gathered, it was a day of celebration in recognition of Jesus as the messianic king, the rightful king of Israel, the Son of David, the promised Anointed One. It was the day that they had been waiting for. The dawn of a new day, a new future. Not one of Roman oppression, or any other foreign oppression for that matter, but of freedom under the leadership of a new king, of their king.
In addition to it being the weekend we celebrate Palm Sunday, because of the way our church calendar works, this weekend also marks the day we commemorate one of histories most influential churchman… pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
For those unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer, he was a German Lutheran pastor, who, during the rise and reign of Adolf Hitler, went on to become a founding member of the Confessing Church and a leader in the resistance against the Nazis. As we would guess, decisions made with great risk, and risk, which, for Bonhoeffer, like so many others who fought against the Nazis, became reality.
In 1943, after a failed assassination attempt against Hitler himself, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned, and then, roughly a year and a half later, was transferred to Flossenburg concentration camp where he was executed by hanging on April 9th, 1945, just two weeks before the camp was liberated by the United States military.
In his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author Eric Metaxas, discusses an experience that Bonhoeffer had on Palm Sunday while in Rome studying theology prior to his decision to enter into the ministry and become a pastor.
So, white German Lutheran, who has only ever experienced white German Lutheran Church, travels to the epicenter of the Catholic Church, Rome, and makes his way to maybe the holiest of sites within the Catholic Church, St. Peters Cathedral, in order to celebrate mass on Palm Sunday. Here’s what he had to say of this experience:
“The universality of the church was illustrated in a marvelously effective manner. White, black, yellow members of religious orders… everyone was in clerical robes united under the Church. It truly seems ideal.”
Metaxas goes on to describe, that it was with this experience that Bonhoeffer begins to reflect on the question, “What is the church?”, and more specifically, “What is God’s idea of the church?”
While there are undoubtedly a wide variety of responses to this question, with each of us brining in our own individual nuances and opinions, truth be told we’ll never really know the answer to God’s idea of the church, at least not in this life. But what better a time to ask this question, and to reflect on what God would want the Church to be, of what God wants each of us to be as members of the Church, than as we enter into the Holiest week of the church year?
As Jesus entered into Jerusalem, Matthew tells us he is met with shouts of Hosanna. While we don’t have one exact translation of Hosanna, it’s understood as a transliteration that most closely means, save, rescue, or help, or as we find in Psalm 118, “O Lord, save us”.
As we look back to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, we know that the manner in which Jesus responds to this plea for salvation is far different than what the crowds had in mind. That instead of creating a new kingdom in the here and now, Jesus would go on to give his life in order to create a new kingdom in a whole different way. With this, underneath the excitement and celebration of this new kings arrival, we can’t escape the emotions of Good Friday, those of fear, sadness, and uncertainty.
If you ask Tim, our very own liturgical mastermind here at St. James (don’t tell him I said that!), he’s very clear that Palm Sunday must be a day that sets the tone for our holiest week of the year. That we can’t understand the events of Palm Sunday without keeping in mind the events of the days that follow. I think most of us would agree.
Legend has it, that just before being executed in Flossenburg Concentration Camp, Dietrich Bonheoffer offered these final words, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”
Today, Jesus enters Jerusalem, fulfilling the prophecy, gentle and riding on a donkey with his disciples behind him. He doesn’t do so robed in purple, draped with jewels, and on the back of a majestic horse, but rather in a way just as simple as those who stood along the road… as each of us… yet still, he was treated as royalty, with cloaks and palms laid on the ground before him.
From a lowly manger, to his criminal like death on the cross, Christ the King receives his royal status, not through wealth or fame, but through the ways in which he lived his life, through the healings and miracles he preformed, through his selfless acts of love for a world filled with brokenness… none of which more selfless and more filled with love than that of the day we deem Good.
So while today, the crowds shout Hosanna, the same will soon shout out crucify. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know that in our sin we do the same. We have all proclaimed Christ as Lord and turned around to lift up everything but, as king. We have all failed to respond to God’s abundant grace, to sacrifice of our possessions, to give of our palms and of our cloaks, so that the sacrificial love of Christ might be known by those who amongst us who continue to ask, “Who is this?” when they meet Jesus face to face for themselves.
Yet thanks be to God… for those of us who place our faith in Christ, our hope echoes in those words expressed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer just before his final breath. That while this life will without a doubt come to an end; it’s in that moment when true life begins.
That through Christ entering Jerusalem for this final time, knowing all too well of the suffering to come, we are given the assurance that he enters into the suffering of our lives as well and opens wide the gates of everlasting life. And so, with this, we lift our palms high in the air, and we join our voices to those from so long ago, trusting that our cries for God’s saving grace will be heard, “Hosanna to the Son David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Thanks be to God. AMEN.
~Pastor Andrew Geib