A Sermon for Palm Sunday
April 2, 2023 at Holy Communion
Matthew 21:1–11, Isaiah 49:1–9, Philippians 2:5–11
“Though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3–4). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
This week at the Thursday choir rehearsal, we were taken by how lovely the words of our final hymn are. They are on the last pages of your bulletin, if you care to look at them. The hymn is an ancient one, from the sixth century. It was composed for use on Good Friday, but was so beautiful that in medieval worship it was ultimately appointed to be sung at Morning and Evening Prayer every day from Passion Sunday (that is, last Sunday) until Easter. Let me read a few verses.
As royal banners are unfurled,
the cross displays its mystery:
the Maker of our flesh, in flesh,
impaled and hanging helplessly.
Already deeply wounded: see
his side now riven by a spear,
and all our sins are swept away
by blood and water flowing here.
See everything the prophets wrote
fulfilled in its totality,
and tell the nations of the world
our God is reigning from the tree.
One of the things that is so remarkable about this hymn is that it both speaks about the suffering and death of Christ with visceral clarity—we hear about Jesus “impaled and hanging helplessly”—and also has an exalted, triumphant, and regal tone. It opens with the proclamation that “royal banners are unfurled.” And it says that on the cross “God is reigning from the tree.” This hymn proclaims the mystery that Christ’s humiliation is his regal glory, that his unresisting submission to suffering is a display of strength, and that his death is his ultimate victory.
This is the mystery of Holy Week. Jesus Christ does battle with the powers of sin and death by submitting to them with total and perfect humility. He triumphs over sin by forgiving when he is abused. He triumphs over death not by resisting death, but by dying and yet living again.
Our Old Testament Lesson uses language about warfare too to describe the mission of God’s chosen servant. This passage is the first of the “suffering servant” poems in Isaiah, which are read from Sunday to Wednesday in Holy Week, prophesying a Messiah whose mission would be to suffer to deliver the people from the forces of darkness. The servant of the Lord has “a mouth like a sharp sword.” He is like “a polished arrow” hidden in the Lord’s quiver. When he is sent forth he will be a conqueror before whom “princes shall prostrate themselves.” But the Messiah is also “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation.” The Messiah will conquer nations by submitting to their hatred. He is conquering sword will not be in his hand, but in his mouth, speaking words which cut to the quick, “dividing even the soul and spirit” (Hebrews 4:12).
Of course this is the meaning of Jesus’ Palm Sunday triumph as well. He arrives in Jerusalem, and is celebrated by the crowds as the coming king. He rides into the city to take possession of it as a conqueror. But how does he do so? “Humble, and mounted on a donkey.” He doesn’t conquer Jerusalem on a stallion bred for war, but on an ass bred for service. And he doesn’t march into Pilate’s palace and cast him out, but he marches into the temple and reconsecrates it as a place of prayer. In a purified temple, all the nations of the world will prostrate themselves before the Lord and his Anointed.
Palm Sunday is a liturgy with two opposite tones. It begins with celebration, and it ends with mourning. It begins with triumph, and it ends with sorrow. But the message of the two halves of the liturgy is the same. In the Service of Palms, Jesus triumphs by humility. And in the Service of the Passion, Jesus triumphs by humility.
Our Epistle reading describes what is happening theologically. The crucifixion is the fulfillment of Jesus’ trajectory of humility which began at his incarnation at Christmas. “Though he was in the form of God, Christ did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8). The eternal Word of God perfects his voluntary humiliation by mounting the cross. Yet because of this “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9). The glory of the eternal Word consists in his ability and willingness not only to remain the holy God, which he was already, but to submit to human flesh and human death. The only glory the Godhead stands to gain is the the glory of humility, as he breaks the limits even of his own majesty.
These same readings teach us our lesson very clearly. The words from Philippians which I just read begin, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Christ’s triumph through humility demonstrates a mode of life which is ours if we are members of Christ. For a Christian, the way to glory is down—down with Christ to the cross and grave, and only then upward.
The Collect makes this entirely explicit. We pray to our Father who “sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon himself our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us an example of his great humility,” and we ask “that we may follow the example of his patience.” As we will hear again on Maundy Thursday, in Holy Week Jesus says, “I have given you an example, that you should do likewise.” Jesus’ example of victory through meekness will be set before us again at every Holy Week service.
St Paul says that “though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3–4). The Christian warfare against the world, the flesh, and devil—our daily struggle—is not won by strength, but by meekness; not by control, but by release of control; not by the vindication of the righteous, but by the forgiveness of the guilty. May we have the grace to follow where Christ unfurls his banner.