The Palm Sunday service is one of my favorites. Every year the children gather at the Baptist church on South Street where they begin their procession marching through town carrying palm branches until they reach our church on Queens Terrace. Upon entering the church, they and the choir lead the entire congregation out and around the church singing and waving palm fronds or crosses made out of palm leaves.
One of the things that I love most about my church here is all of the participatory elements of the services such as this Palm Sunday procession. They not only include us in Christ’s body now, but in some amazing way, I think these elements remind us that we were included in Christ’s life then, and will be included in His kingdom to come. Just as I believe Jesus’ own triumphant entry into Jerusalem was a proleptic event signifying the celebrations that are to come with the final recognition of His lordship, so too was our joyful procession just a sampling of future joys. We were celebrating the King who brings in the kingdom of God just as people did 2,000 years ago and as surely as the entire world will one day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
That strange tension of the "already and not yet" of God’s kingdom was portrayed within the Palm Sunday service, for while we were joyfully celebrating the triumphant entry of His kingdom, we were also remembering the great evil of our world that crucified the very King who ushered in that kingdom. This year, we again had a dramatized reading of Matthew 26:3-27:66, and I was privileged to read one of the most poignant lines of the narrative when the centurion declares at the foot of the cross, "Truly this was the Son of God!" Herein again lay a great irony and a great tension. While we acknowledged His divinity and His kingship with our procession and with the centurion’s words, we also acknowledged our own culpability in denying that lordship, for all of the congregation together read the lines of the crowd shouting, "Crucify Him; crucify Him!"
This act of participating in the condemnation of Jesus always shocks me into awareness that we truly are responsible for His death. So much time and energy over the centuries have been spent trying to answer the question: "Who killed Jesus?" Unfortunately, a great deal of anti-Semitism has arisen from these questions, but if anyone really wants to know who killed Jesus, then I think the proper way to discover that answer is to sit in a congregation on Palm Sunday and to shout those ancient lines along with friends and neighbors. In doing this, we realize that we all were responsible for His death just as much as Rome or the chief priests were. All of our sins cried out together to demand His crucifixion. All of humanity shouted together, "His blood shall be on us and on our children!" And thank God that it is on us!
Later in the service, we again participated in His death as we ate the bread and drank the wine. I could not help but remember those words that we shouted earlier, "Crucify Him; crucify Him," because with each crunch of the bread, it was as if I was breaking his body. With each stinging taste of the wine, it was as if I was piercing his side.
Richard Bauckham, who preached yesterday’s sermon and gave a talk on the atonement afterwards, mentioned the old spiritual "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" In shouting those lines and in grinding that bread, I was there. In some strange mystical way, we were all there, just as I believe that all our sins were there hanging upon Him and hanging Him to that cross. Despite the anti-Semitic comments that Mel Gibson made in the past, I think that he grasped the truth that each of us is guilty, each responsible, for putting Jesus on that cross. One of the most striking features of The Passion was that he cast himself in the role of the soldier who hammered the nails into Jesus’ wrists and feet. He understood that in some way, we each shouted with the crowd and nailed Jesus to that tree, for we have each denied His lordship and so sent Him to death by our own sins.
Lent is a time for reflections and a time for facing our own guilt and sins. So before we linger too long over the joyful procession into Jerusalem or rush ahead to the triumph of Easter morning, let us answer the old spiritual’s question with a resounding "Yes!" as we reflect on our own culpability and repent of our sins.