Sermon For Palm/Passion Sunday for April 13, 2014

Matthew 21:1-11

“Palms, Principalities & Powers, And Passion”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog:

To watch a video of this sermon, go online to:


Unknown  Ottonian, Regensburg, about 1030 - 1040  Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment

Ottonian, Regensburg, about 1030 – 1040
Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment

Palm Sunday. Exactly one week before Easter. The waving palms, the cheering crowds, the slow but steady march into a week that will be filled with passion and eternal significance. Palm Sunday and Passion Week. Filled with ritual, meaning, agony, and pain. For some traditions, the pain of Jesus is actually taken on in the life of his followers, either through some ritual action of penance and obedience by the masses, or by an individual, who reenacts the way of the cross, sometimes even to the point of scourging and wearily dragging the cross through the streets of this or that town.  [For a horribly graphic example of this, go to:]


For centuries, even millennia, this week has come to symbolize the ultimate price the Son of God paid for our sins: death, even death on a cross. For the vast majority of Christians, and many onlookers, this week answers the question, “Why did God send Jesus into the world?” with a resounding reply: “To die. And to die as the ultimate payment for the forgiveness of our sins.” Many Christians believe this, perhaps by any standard most… but not all. Not me. Not me.


I stand here before you today to proclaim that I do not believe that God sent Jesus, God’s very self, into the world with the express intention that Jesus was to die, and die a painful, agonizing, humiliating death on a wooden cross. I do not for one second believe that the creator of the universe, who we know in Holy Scripture only through hints and glimpses and the complex, twisting storylines of the people who worshipped and followed that God, sent Jesus to just to die. But before you cry out “Blasphemer!!!” hear me out.


I don’t believe God sent Jesus into this world to die because if that were true, it would spawn a wretched and epic saga of violence and brute warfare on the part of God’s followers. Which, of course, it has. Disciples scholar and preacher, Rita Nakashima Brock, is one who reminds us that for the first several centuries Christians focused not on the death of Jesus, but on the resurrection of Jesus. We JesusCatacombknow this because the artwork Christians created in those centuries closest to the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection were almost exclusively representations of a transfigured Christ or a resurrected Christ. In catacomb, tomb, house church, and then later sanctuary, basilica, and cathedral the images our forebears of the faith crafted to remind them of Jesus the Christ were without blood and were rarely of him dead on the cross. (1)


Nakashima Brock reminds us that it wasn’t until after the faith of Christianity was consumed by the power of the empire that the gory death of Jesus became frequent fodder for artists and writers. Brock writes,

On “good” Friday, in 1095, the First Crusade’s pilgrims — headed to Jerusalem to take the city back for Christ — paused in the Rhineland to slaughter 10,000 Jews as “Christ killers.” This focus on genocide against all “infidels” was supported by a new idea claiming that Jesus’ crucifixion saved sinful humanity from the penalty of sin and that dying for Christ in holy war was the best, most effective form of escape from hell. In launching the crusades as Christian holy war, Pope Urban II proclaimed, “God wills it!” He promised all who died that their sins would be totally forgiven and they would go straight to paradise, effectively making killing penance, while the early church had regarded killing as a mortal sin requiring penance for a full return to the church as the paradise in this life. (2)


It was only three years later, in 1098, that the cleric Anselm of Canterbury, would write his tome articulating the theology that claimed that the only purpose of the incarnation was for Jesus to die, a theology now called “substitutionary atonement.” Humanity’s sinfulness, so this theology says, had dishonored God and carried a magnitude of debt from sin that was impossible to pay. God sent Jesus to be tortured and murdered as the only way to deliver salvation, according to Anselm. The fear of eternal damnation and hell kept Christians in line, and remorse for what we had done to Jesus kept us in shame. Both the fear of hell and the shame of killing Jesus has provoked in those who call themselves “Christians” some horrific actions toward others, their loved ones, and even themselves.


That theological innovation has now morphed into multiple complex and convoluted theologies, as we have explored the past few weeks in Mid-Week Bible Study, and worked its way into almost every hymn of our upbringing. But as I have examined these perspectives more intensely, and read the scriptures that supposedly support them, and prayed mightily for the Holy Spirit to guide me, I have heard a clearer and what I consider more faithful understanding of why God sent Jesus to us, as well as what response my faith in that Jesus could and should be.


Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Head Of Christ

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Head Of Christ

I do not believe that God sent Jesus into the world to die. Not for a minute. Rather, and confidently, I believe that God sent Jesus – or more accurately God became incarnate among us – to LIVE! God sent Jesus to live! God became incarnate in the very creation God had formed in order to grow and mature, learn and listen, teach and heal, preach and cry, dance and drink wine, laugh and love. This is what the early Christians believed, and for centuries after Jesus walked amongst them! For the earliest Christians violence was abhorrent, and going to war was against everything that Christ taught! Jesus came that we might have life, and have it more abundant! (John 10:10)


So you ask, did Jesus “have to” die? I think that is the wrong question completely, if you begin with the premise that the only thing that Jesus “had to do” was to live, and live an abundant, God-centered, faithful life – which he did! End of proposition! Did Jesus die? Now that’s a very different question. Yes! Yes Jesus died a horrible death after the betrayal of his disciples, the comedic antics of religious and political leaders, the abuse of those in power, and finally nailed to the imperial device of torture, shame, punishment, and execution: the cross. Yes, Jesus died and he died long before his time.


So then, you might ask, how could the God of the universe not know that Jesus was going to die? How could the one who was Messiah himself not know that he would be tortured and hung upon a tree? Of course they may have expected, assumed, anticipated, even known! But that is an entirely different proposition than saying “God sent Jesus to die!”


So the second part of my theological stand is this: God became incarnate amongst us as Jesus the Christ in order to live! But knowing well how life amongst us humans is, it would be expected that one who lived a faithful life would come up against misunderstanding, opposition, hostility, even violence. And furthermore, one who lived a life in tandem with God so closely, so purely, so honestly as the Messiah would, therefore inevitably would encounter all the more the antagonism of those in power who had the most to lose because of their investment in the ways not of God! God sent Jesus to live life abundant, and this pissed off those in power!


Entry into Jerusalem, Sadao Watanabe, 1976, stencil

Entry into Jerusalem, Sadao Watanabe, 1976, stencil

MandateToDifferenceAnd this is where Palm Sunday comes into play! It is no accident that Jesus chose Jerusalem as the location into which he would enter to confront the powers that be with the God-life that he was living! Walter Brueggemann, in his brilliant book Mandate To Difference: An Invitation To The Contemporary Church, reminds us that Jerusalem had become the symbol of all that was wrong with the world in that day. Since David’s conquering of the old Canaanite city of Jebus (2 Sam. 5:6-10) it became a symbol larger than itself. But it was under his son, Solomon, that the city became a place of royal power and compromising ethics. Quickly it moved from being sacred center of the humble nation of the Hebrews to a symbol of royal power, wealth, and grandeur – built on the backs of the peasants of the countryside from whom Solomon extracted enormous taxes to pay for his opulence. (1 Kings 10:11, 25) It quickly became a fortified city with a standing army, forced labor, and highly dubious political-economic arrangements, including sexual politics! (4)


We know this to be true because of the heavily negative associations with Jerusalem by the prophets of ancient Israel. Micah declares, “Hear this, you rulers… who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!” (3:9-10). Isaiah is scathing when he intones, “How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her… but now murderers,… thieves!” (1:21) Jeremiah hauntingly proclaims regarding Jerusalem, “This is the city that must be punished; there is nothing but oppression within her.” (6:6)


And it is no accident that Jesus would enter Jerusalem on this very day! Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their pivotal book,The Last Week: What The TheLastWeekGospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days In Jerusalem (5), reminds us unequivocally that on that fateful day there were not one, but two processions into Jerusalem. From the west rode Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of the area, in a regal procession with all the accouterments of control, power, and domination in full view: soldiers decked out in armor, cavalry horses stirring up dust, armaments glistening in the sun, and Pilate held high and aloft. All of this pomp and circumstance echoed on the eve of the Passover, when thousands of faithful pilgrims were entering the city for their observance of their faith. Thousands of the faithful recoiled in horror, being reminded in no uncertain terms that though the Passover recalled a day when the Hebrew children got the best of one potentate, they should have no schemes to try to do the same for this one! That day or any day!


Palms, photo by Allen V. Harris

Palms, photo by Allen V. Harris

On the other side of town, to the east, rode Jesus, humble and on donkey – and even a female donkey with her colt by her side – to perhaps a few hundred of those who had heard his words, seen his miracles, felt his holy presence. They cheered with what they literally had at hand: the branches of palm trees that were within reach, and even the top cloaks of the outfits they were wearing. On one side of town a monarch who ruled by fear and shame; on the other a sovereign who ruled through love and sacrifice.


Yes, Jesus did come to live and to live life abundant. But this was no silly Messiah, this was no inattentive God. They knew that a life lived in accordance with scripture, a life lived in tune with the holy, a life lived completely devoted not to the rulers of this world but the one who created life itself would rile the powers and anger the principalities.   How many of us who say that we follow Christ have never even gotten one other person agitated or even miffed? But it is what might be expected from a life lived in line with the justice, righteousness, holiness of God. To me this is salvation: to live life as Christ lived life, to walk in the way of Christ, to live life so holy as to risk infuriating principalities and powers. His life of atonement – at-one-ment with God – calls me to this and no less.


So let me tell you what I believe this theology of atonement calls me to during this week of Passion. First and foremost it calls me to live out John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in Jesus may not perish but may have eternal life.” not interpreting “gave” as “gave up to die,” but “gave God’s only Son” as “gave to live life abundant!” (6)


Next, every day this week, I am going to remember the Passion of Jesus Christ by remembering something during his LIFE that he was passionate about!


> Today, Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem I am going to remember Jesus’ humble entry into this world in his birth to Mary and Joseph, in a stable, laying in a manger.

> On Monday, as we remember Jesus driving out the moneychangers from the temple, I am going to remember Jesus’ reading scripture in the synagogue reminding them and us, of his mandate to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of God’s favor.

> On Wednesday, when Jesus was tested again and again, being tempted to indict himself, I am going to remember Jesus’ many confrontations with the religious leaders of his day – Saducees, Pharisees, and Scribes – calling into question their collusion with imperial domination.

> On Thursday, when Jesus gathered with his disciples and broke bread, shared the cup, and blessed them I am going to remember all the times in Jesus’ life where he fed people, literally and spiritually, taking what seemed like scarcity and making abundance a reality.

> On Friday, when we recall the trial, scourging, and crucifixion of Jesus, I am going to remember Jesus’ taking children into his lap, calling short tax collectors down from trees, eating with prostitutes, and treating demoniacs as children of God, and all those actions that stand up against the way things are and the way people think things ought to be.

> On Saturday, when our rituals call us to a day of silence and reflection while Jesus’ lifeless body lay in a borrowed tomb, I will choose to remember all those moments of silence and reflection in Jesus’ life: when he crossed the sea, crossed the hillside, went to a garden to pray… but most especially I will remember those few seconds as Jesus knelt down and drew in the sand with a stick, before looking at the woman almost stoned to death, saying “Woman, where are your accusers?”

> And on Sunday… Easter day… well, on that day I think we will all join together and remember one thing. Life.



(1) Atonement Theology: The Ideological Root of Christian Terrorismby Rita Nakashima Brock,

(2) Ibid.

(3) Mandate To Difference: An Invitation To The Contemporary Church by Walter Brueggemann (2007, John Knox Press, Louiseville)

(4) Ibid., pp. 16-24

(5) The Last Week: What The Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days In Jerusalem by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (2006, HarperCollins, New York).

(6) Dr. Marcus J. Borg – On John 3:16


To hear John Dominic Crossan talk about the original Palm Sunday, go online to: