This sermon was given on Palm Sunday at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard by Richard Parker. Richard is a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and a member of the Chaplaincy board.
Today is Palm Sunday—and with over one billion fellow Christians worldwide, we are celebrating it, here at Christ Church, to mark the coming of Our Lord into Jerusalem. Waving our palms, shouting our hosannas, we sing: “All glory, laud, and honor--all glory, laud and honor.”
But let me ask you for just this one moment to pause, to put down your palms—and reflect with me on exactly what it is that we are celebrating.
What is it that begins today as Jesus enters Jerusalem—if not the solemn and horrifying march toward Friday, the inexorable start of his arrest, humiliation, execution and death, including his sorrowful march toward Golgotha, his painful hours on the cross, and then the overwhelming first reality of an empty tomb?
This Sunday it feels far too early to celebrate His resurrection—that will come a week from now, and is the purpose and meaning of Easter, not Palm Sunday. So instead contemplate what’s before us and before Him--the weight, the darkness, and the misery that in fact begins this Sunday--in order to see it anew.
Jesus enters Jerusalem today, knowing what unfolds next. We do too—but His disciples don’t, nor does anyone else in Israel. Indeed many at that moment of this first Palm Sunday clearly anticipate not Jesus’s death but his coronation, the embrace of this poor carpenter’s son by the multitudes, the recognition that this whispered bastard (for surely it was whispered) is, unimaginably of all people, the Messiah, the Deliverer, that Israel has so long awaited.
We as Christians must grasp something more: that at this seminal moment in the Gospels Jesus is still a Jew, and his act of entry into the Jewish capital is a sign of impending redemption for the Jews--not for us as Christians because on that first Palm Sunday there are as yet no Christians in the world.
So then if, like his followers that first Palm Sunday, we are celebrating—but know what his disciples didn’t and couldn’t have then—what, after all, are we celebrating? That’s the question I ask you to consider now in all seriousness—because the answer I’m afraid to admit is this second question: paradoxically, are we not celebrating his execution?
And if we are, to what extent are we—as much as the high priests and scribes, the Saducees, the Pharisees, and the Jewish mob are poised to do—on this Palm Sunday ourselves calling for his death?
And if that is so, are we not acting, each one of us here as--- to adapt a phrase from our own times--Jesus’s Willing Executioners?
I ask this because I’m also aware of Palm Sunday’s place in the life of a man I count a contemporary Christian saint. On Palm Sunday 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer celebrated his final communion in a Nazi concentration camp. Fellow prisoners had asked him to conduct the service, but he had initially refused because among them was an atheist, and Bonhoeffer wanted to do nothing that would exclude the man from their shared final moments.
But the atheist himself had then asked Bonhoeffer to proceed, and thus he had—and so the tiny group had knelt together that Palm Sunday, in a dank and windowless cell, knowing as surely as Christ had that first Palm Sunday what awaited them as well.
I would ask you today to hold in your minds two images.
First, consider Christ, the Son of God, entering Jerusalem, knowing that with his death on the cross, he would return to His Father.
Second, contemplate Bonhoeffer and his fellow prisoners--including the atheist, all sons of men, none a son of God--facing the same impending end of their lives on earth. Realize, then let the realization sink into you: unlike Jesus, they are united by fragile human faith, not certain divine knowing, of what is to come.
The men were hanged days later, guilty of the crime of attempting to assassinate Hitler, the man who’d instigated a war of men against men that had taken over 50,000,000 lives.
Hitler himself would be dead three weeks later, and the war in Europe over a week after that.
Two millennia ago Christ came to teach, and in our own time Bonhoeffer had tried to learn—and learning why sometimes acts of cruelty and finality are part of God’s demanding love, he had offered up his life in order to take another man’s, not for himself but for mankind. He had failed to kill that other man, so now had only his own life left to offer.
None of us here is the son or daughter of God, and so we must use the meaning of Palm Sunday to renew our understanding of what it means, in all its complexity, freed of treacly dreams, to stand in the name of God for God’s love and justice amidst our fellows and against evil.
If we do, I believe we will be able to understand what Bonhoeffer said, as the noose was placed round his neck, the end of his own Golgotha Road:
“This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”
Today, on Palm Sunday, we owe Our Savior all glory, laud, and honor for submitting to our willing execution. Today, on Palm Sunday, we no less importantly owe one another not just the promise offered but the rededication of our lives to love and justice, remembering the courage of the Bonhoeffers before us who willingly gave their own lives on the promise—without the fact—of Jesus’s return.
A coda: we owe that atheist our thoughts—and, offered silently in utmost humility, our prayers. Unnamed and today unknown, he the disbeliever, gave the followers of a god he didn’t know or believe in, something remarkable. Out of his love (that’s the only possible word here) he allowed them (and perhaps himself) needed communion that Bonhoeffer led in that prison cell. In some powerful way I can’t begin to articulate but can see, his willingness to love proved to be the manifested sign of God’s presence in plain answer to all the other men’s prayers.
And seeing that, seeing in him as much as in Bonhoeffer—perhaps as much as in Jesus the Man Who Knew He Was God’s Son---what it means to be transfigured by Faith when Love is its source, I am myself transformed.