Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Palm Sunday: Philippians 2:5-11 & Luke 19:28-40
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
April 10, 2022
Good morning St. Aidan’s, and welcome to Palm Sunday. Today we step into the new and culminating chapter of a journey we have been making all through Lent. We do not arrive at it-- we step into it, we join it. This whole day is presented to us a flow that we are invited to engage especially through imagery and practice of procession. Beginning in our driveway, standing before our doorway, we have spliced contexts over a two-thousand-year stretch. We blessed palms and essentially quoted our passage from the gospel of Luke, declaring “blessed is the king who comes in the name of our God. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” Then we processed from the driveway into the sanctuary—both we who walked the odd interval through the narthex and we who were carried along for the ride through Zoom. Churches all over the world engage in palm processions in various forms today, some even with a donkey to signify Jesus own ride on this humble animal. Palm Sunday brings us through what is known as Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, into the series of scenes that ultimately lead to Jesus’ death and resurrection, scenes stitched together in what is known as a “Passion Narrative.” As in years past, we’ll narrate that story together at the close of today’s service, setting our face toward the journey of Holy Week and the series of services that will zoom in, bringing us into particular scenes in that story. But today we step intentionally into the whole as into a procession, a peculiar flow we know will bring us rapidly to the very heart and depth, the mystery of our faith.
This year at the approach of this day, I have been struck by the intensity of this processional invitation, and I have wondered how to approach it. All through Lent our worship has been framed with a particular focus on stillness. Each week up until today we have either spoken or sung a rendition of Psalm 46, letting God’s voice resound in us, saying “be still and know that I am God.” Don’t suddenly jump in reaction to any number of compelling realities, but be still. In our conversation leading up to Lent, the worship committee intentionally chose this emphasis, aware of fear and anxiety reverberating in our world as we hold the accumulation of two plus years of pandemic with all its disproportional impacts; aware of the need to continue reckoning with and eradicating racism; with our climate crisis; with the devastation of the war in Ukraine—indeed with increasing awareness this week of the toll on civilians. The framing of our worship through this message, “be still,” has sought to bring a contemplative dimension to our awareness, to assist us in our prayer and to lend greater depth to our varied responses to the needs of our world. Coming into this season at whose close we now stand, we sought for the stillness of God to ground us at our very core as we made our way in the wilderness. And now, from that stillness, we are given an image of movement, of procession, offered to us as an invitation. How might hear and respond to it?
The first invitation, from Luke’s gospel, is to understand that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem – often referred to as his “triumphal entry”— denounces worldly power. Triumphal entries in and beyond Jesus’ ancient context were symbols of imperial authority. To process into a city such as Jerusalem was to display victorious power. If you were an emperor, you might ride in on a large horse. If you conquered some far away land, you had a procession behind or before you of people holding goods taken from those lands. Look how strong and powerful I am, such processions conveyed. This empire and my leadership is invincible. Don’t even think about pushing back against my power—this procession consolidates it. Perhaps you’ve seen the Arc de Triumph in Paris—a massive arch with carved imagery of triumphal procession on it. Jesus’ procession is very intentionally nothing like this. It evokes the genre in order to subvert it, and to say something very critical about how Jesus sits in relation to the flow of worldly power. He rides not an adult horse but a colt, a young donkey. Matthew’s version of this story adds that this action fulfilled the prophetic utterance, “‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Matthew 21:4-5). This was no last-minute substitute—no “oops, we couldn’t find a large white horse, Jesus, so this is what you get.” Jesus tells his disciples exactly how and where to find it (Luke 19:30-31). In this somewhat absurd manner, Jesus rides into Jerusalem as cloaks are spread in the road before him as a kind of red carpet, and branches are cut from the trees to wave at him, as other versions of this story and the opening words of our worship emphasize. He attracts lots of dangerous attention, and when he is advised to dispel it, he refuses, knowing this wave will lead to a final collision course with imperial Roman power. And indeed, just after our passage he weeps for Jerusalem (19:41).
That flow of tears leads into our passage from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Known as a hymn, it is likely a liturgical passage of some sort, prayed by the earliest followers of the way of Jesus, to convey how Jesus stood in the flow of God’s power. “Though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” (Philippians 2:6-7) the Greek verb ἐκένωσεν here has led scholars to refer to this self-emptying with the noun kenosis, long associated with a willing posture of vulnerability. Divine exaltation comes not in the form of worldly, imperial power but in service to and solidarity with the most oppressed in our world. And in response to this divestment from worldly power, unexpectedly, knees bend in homage (Philippians 2:10). This pattern of kenosis points forward to the cross itself in all its paradoxical power, which has been written about with particular power in Black and Womanist theology. One example is Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (which we have talked about previously in various settings here) writes,
On the cross, Jesus fully divests himself of all pretensions to power, privilege, and exceptionalism, even as the incarnate revelation of God. What is clear is Jesus’ free and steadfast identification with crucified bodies. It is no wonder then that the Christ hymn in Philippians (2:5-11) is a text often recited in various black churches. Growing up in the black church, I learned this text before I knew where it came from because members of my congregation so often quoted a version of it. ‘Jesus thought it not robbery to be equal with God,’ they would say, ‘he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even unto the cross.’ Theologians have referred to Jesus’ self-emptying as kenosis, which indicates his sacrificial obedience to God. However, when understood in the context of Jesus’ full ministry as it led to his crucifixion, this self-emptying indicates his ‘letting go’ of anything that would compromise his absolute alliance with those of the crucified class.
We are to let this vision of divine power in Jesus, to “let this same mind” (Philippians 2:5) be in us. We are to step into this flow and to follow Jesus in “letting go,” as Douglas puts it, of anything that gets in the way of our solidarity with all who are oppressed in our world. This is the flow of movement into which we are invited to step on this day.
Which brings us back to God’s stillness. How can this call to join in procession, to movement, coexist with our call to stillness, to knowing that God is God? How can we bring the depth of God’s peace we have sought in our wilderness sojourn into this Holy Week at this tumultuous moment in the life of the world and in whatever we may be carrying in our lives? As I reflected on this question, a particular phrase came to my mind from the seventh century monastic, Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor: “ever-moving rest” (or conversely “stationary eternal movement”). Maximus was deeply influenced by the fourth century Cappadocian theologian Gregory of Nyssa who had written of spiritual life as a process of eternal growth or progress. Gregory’s most well-known term for this continual stretching forth, ἐπέκτασις, reflected the insight that as God lovingly responds to our desire for God, our capacity for God is continuously expanded, because God in God’s infinite goodness can never be contained. Maximus refined Gregory’s vision with careful emphasis on the promise of eternal rest, the completion or sabbath toward which all things move.
While Maximus was writing with a cosmic, monastic emphasis on the end of all things, this vision of ever-moving rest also reflects back upon spiritual life in the here and now, as we make our way through the tumult of this moment in time. God, in God’s stillness does indeed call us into movement and, on this day in particular, into procession. We are invited to wave our palm branches as bearers of God’s Good News proclaimed in the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who poured himself out into a deeply unjust world, turning its notions of power on their head. We are urged to manifest God’s kingdom, participating in its work of repair and restoration in the midst of deep challenge. And God calls us into stillness, into sabbath, into rest. God graces us with an ultimate vision of gathering with all creation in its beauty and wholeness, beating with undying love in what Maximus called “the infinity that is around God.” As we make our way into this holiest week of the year, processing into the events at the very heart of our faith, this vision of ever-moving rest can accompany us, taking us to the living stillness of the God who made and redeemed us, who leads us into newness of life and calls creation home.
 Inspired by the resource from the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, “Keeping the Feast: Reimagining Holy Week.”  Justo Gonzalez, Luke: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 226.  Justo Gonzalez emphasizes the connection between Jesus’ entry and his weeping in Luke: A Theological Commentary, 227: “Only Luke among the canonical Gospels includes the scene of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. It is an important counterpart to the triumphal march, and a correction to an overly simplistic interpretation of it. (And probably should be included in our Palm Sunday readings, so as to avoid many a triumphalistic celebration of that day.)”  On Phil 2:5-11: “Most think that Paul wrote but did not create these lines; they are probably a prePauline hymn that the Philippians knew and that Paul may have taught them at the time of his first visit.” Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 489-493.  Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015), 177.  Maximus the Confessor, Quaestiones ad Thalassium 65, as cited in Paul Blowers, “Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Concept of ‘Perpetual Progress’” in Vigiliae Christianae 46 (1992), 159. Also, Ambiguum 67 in trans. Nicholas Constas, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua. Vol. 2 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 297.  The biblical passage that primarily lies behind this concept is Paul’s phrase in Philippians 3:12-14 (which was our second reading last week, as it so happens): “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward (ἐπεκτεινόμενος) to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  Though as Blowers notes, Gregory most often used various forms of the verb ἐπεκτείνειν, and only uses the noun form in his 6thhomily on the Song of Songs. “The Concept of ‘Perpetual Progress,’” p. 154.  Maximus the Confessor, Ambiguum 15.9 in trans Nicholas Constas, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua. Vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 373. As cited by Blowers in “The Concept of ‘Perpetual Progress,’” p. 159.