Taking A Lesson From Palm Sunday

Does the way we think about Palm Sunday reflect what Jesus was actually trying to do? Or do our hearts reflect the mistaken assumptions of the crowds at the gates?

This Sunday is Palm Sunday, so millions of Christians are going to leave church carrying dried palm leaves folded into small crosses. At my home church, we will start the worship service with a crowd of children waving palm leaves in the air during the hymn that opens our worship service. 

This is all to commemorate an event known as The Triumphal Entry: Jesus was heading to Jerusalem for the Passover feast (and to his execution). He had been teaching and performing miracles for just a few short years, yet there were people in every village and city around Jerusalem that recognized him as the messiah, and a crowd of them had gathered at the city gate to welcome him. They didn’t have a red carpet to roll out for him, so as he approached on a donkey, they carpeted the street leading into the city gate with leaves from nearby palm trees and even their own shirts, coats and robes—quite a sacrifice, since many of them likely had only one set of clothes.

Their enthusiasm is understandable, because they knew enough to expect that when Jesus got to Jerusalem, something big was going to happen. They knew that the messiah was supposed to usher in a new kingdom, and they expected that Jesus was going to raise a rebellion against Rome that week and start a new Israelite monarchy.

Of course, something bigger happened that week than most of them expected. Jesus was executed and resurrected, and extended the invitation into his coming kingdom not just to Jews but to the occupying Romans and to gentiles as well. The crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem was expecting a military coup, because that was their only frame of reference for how the world around them could be changed. Rather than becoming a competing power, though, Jesus showed the world that there is a transcendent power. His life testifies to the fact that that power is dedicated to renewal, not domination.

Until the heavens and earth are divinely renewed, Jesus’ followers are supposed to live their lives in ways that give the world around us a taste of what that future kingdom will be like. We should be as eager and enthusiastic about that privilege as the Israelites who laid their only shirts in the dirt to be walked on by a donkey. But we also need to remember that we aren’t yet made perfect. Despite the beautiful, compelling vision the Bible has for healing and flourishing in our world, we’re still just as prone to short-sightedness and mis-understanding as the crowd who welcomed Jesus to his final Passover.

The crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem was filled with people who could not have conceived of a scenario in which God’s will prevailed in the universe without their local and national political questions being resolved in the fashion they wanted. In their hearts, they didn’t believe that shalom (flourishing) and tikkun (the mending of things that are broken) could spread in the world without their political victory.

As we leave our churches this weekend, we will be obligated to carry the message of the gospel back back into the cities and towns and nation around us. Pray for the Holy Spirit to empower you to enter the world around you as God’s herald and celebrator, demonstrating in your words, deeds and disposition that you trust your King’s power and timing more than you trust your own judgment.

If you’d like to share how your church commemorates Palm Sunday or how the gospel has challenged the way you approach politics, please join us in the comments below.

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  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

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