The story of Palm Sunday is featured in all four gospels. The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, with the humble beast, the shouting crowds, the branches, the coats and cloaks spread on the road … this story has center stage in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Making the cut in all four gospels is a big biblical deal.
Christmas didn’t make it into all four gospels. Two of the gospels make no mention of the pregnant Mary or shepherds abiding or angels singing, or the star, or the wise men, or the babe.
Christmas only makes the cut in two gospels.
The Lord’s Prayer didn’t make it into all four gospels. The prayer that Jesus taught his followers; the prayer the church has recited over the course of two millennia – the prayer recited alike in Kenyan huts and European basilicas, recited by Catholic and Orthodox, by Protestant and Pentecostal – Jesus’s own prayer only made the cut in two.
The parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son appear in but one gospel.
The Beatitudes (blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor) made it into only two gospels.
But the Palm Sunday story – the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – has pride of place in all four gospels.
Which makes me wonder if we’ve had something wrong all along. All along Christians have regarded Pentecost as the beginning of the church, the church’s birthday, the day the church was born in wind and fire.
I wonder. I wonder if Palm Sunday isn’t the church’s real birthday.
Palm Sunday is the day Jesus’ followers stepped out onto the world stage … stepped out in earnest and assumed their roles as players and protagonists in the kingdom of God.
Until this day, this moment, until right now, the followers of Jesus had been just that: followers. They had traipsed after Jesus all over Palestine.
When he argued with civil and religious officials, they watched, tense and riveted. When he defended a prostitute, they gasped. When he conversed in public with a woman from Samaria, they winced. When he defied the Sabbath laws, they cringed. When he declared that the last shall be first, the first last, and the rich poor, they glanced around guardedly, to see who was listening.
When he kissed lepers and healed those of broken body, they whispered in fascinated awe.
Until this day, this moment, until right now, the followers of Jesus had been just that: followers.
But on Palm Sunday a shift occurs, a transformation begins. And the shift is seismic.
Let’s set the scene. The ancient city of Jerusalem during the annual Passover festival is a lot like Boston at the time of the Boston Marathon. The city swells with visitors from all over the world. Every possible room is rented at a premium price. Grocers have stocked their shelves to capacity.
The weather has turned and everyone is out of doors … the sidewalks swollen with pedestrians. Visitors and pilgrims are readily identifiable by their clothing and by their manners … by the extra bags hanging off their shoulders, and the way they meander up and down the streets, pausing, gazing and pointing.
Merchants sell their wares – exotic foods, trinkets, souvenirs – on street corners and in public squares. Musicians and street performers gather knots of people who gape and laugh and applaud.
The atmosphere sizzles and pulses. It’s as if the whole exotic world has come to Jerusalem. Expectation is in the air.
And, to keep the peace, soldiers are everywhere, on every corner. Helmeted, armed, armor gleaming, astride steeds or on foot – They patrol the streets in pairs of two.
As Jesus and his paltry band of followers enter the city, soldiers gather to investigate the fuss: steeds snorting, armor gleaming, swords flashing, and this: crests bearing Caesar’s proud and commanding image.
It is against this display of power and authority – against and in defiance of it – that the followers of Jesus stage a street drama announcing that their hearts, their allegiance, their fealty belong, not to Caesar, not to the Emperor of Rome – not to that pretender god – but to Jesus, Prince of Peace.
On the streets of Jerusalem – in front of God and Rome and everybody – they announce and proclaim that they do homage, not to the Pax Romana (an uneasy peace achieved and held by coercive force) but to Pax Christi, a peace to which we are invited, but never coerced … a peace which emanates from the very heart of God; a peace that passes all human understanding.
This is the day they shout in public that they belong to God and not to Caesar … which, in their case, is nothing less than an act of sedition.
What’s more, for the past three years – from the day Jesus called them from their fishing nets until this moment – the commitment to follow Jesus had been personal … had been intimate and private.
But today, this day, Palm Sunday, the commitment to follow Jesus becomes public and it becomes political.
Palm Sunday has pride of place in all four gospels because this is the day Jesus’ followers become leaders in their own right. This is the day the church distances itself from the state, from all worldly power. This is the day the church takes up and wields its own unearthly powers: love of enemies … forgiveness of sinners … grace to the unworthy … mercy to the guilty … welcome to the stranger, to the immigrant and the alien … turning the other cheek … and this: freely, generously, feeding the hungry (for the simple fact of their hunger) and healing those who are broken in body, mind, or spirit (for the simple fact of their brokenness).
It was on Palm Sunday – against and in defiance of empire – that the followers of Jesus took their stand with the Prince of Peace.
I submit that Palm Sunday has pride of place in all four gospels because it was on Palm Sunday that the church was born (not in wind and fire) but in courage and conviction, in compassion and in mercy. Palm Sunday has pride of place in the Gospels, because it was on this day that the followers of Jesus pledged allegiance and swore fealty the Prince of Peace.