Church Explainer: Palm Sunday

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For the full text of the sermon, read on!

Hello, friends, and welcome back. I’m the Rev. Sare Liz Anuszkiewicz and this is the Sunday Sermon. If you’re looking for the bits of the bible I’ve referenced in this sermon, you can find the link right here on the website where you found this audio file. For the nerds in the know, this is Palm Sunday, and here’s the sermon I preached on Sunday, April 2, 2023. 

Good morning. As we just read the entire Passion together, I will keep it light today. I’m going to address the timeline of what we just heard and how it relates to the next seven days. Now, this can be confusing, so let me clarify a few things, because we have entered the Reenactment Zone and for better or for worse, this is what the Church does every spring. 

So, the Sunday before the Jewish festival of Passover, we have Palm Sunday, today, and reenactment-wise, that was just the beginning of the service. This is to remember Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey, with palms waving in people’s hands (and thus perhaps giving shade, though for that you have to imagine an entire branch rather than a single frond like this), and palms strewn on the path like a red carpet today. And that’s Sunday. Of course, we don’t end our liturgy on this happy, high note, and more on that in a minute.

Then on Thursday, Jesus’ students ask him where he wants to celebrate the Passover which is coming the next day, so Jesus tells them and they go make preparations. (And I always think about Peter knocking on some guy’s door saying, ‘Great news! The Teacher will celebrate Passover with you! And he’s bringing twenty-three guests!’ I’d freak out.) Anyway, Thursday night, Jesus sits down to dinner, has discussions about who will or wont betray him to the temple authorities who really want him dead at this point, and that’s no secret.

And then, right there at dinner, Jesus institutes what we call Communion, or Holy Eucharist. He takes the bread, breaks it, gives them a useful metaphor and tells them to remember every time they break bread apart to eat it. Then he takes the cup of wine and offers his own glass to everyone, and again with the useful metaphor, and again he tells them to remember what he’s done and what he’s doing every time you drink something.

And so that’s Maundy Thursday, and why we always have dinner right before our evening service, because Jesus had dinner – oh, but we’re not done yet. After dinner he goes for a walk, has some prayer time in a garden, and then is captured by the temple authorities.

And it’s still Thursday. Jesus is taken to the High Priest who interrogates him and finds him guilty as blasphemy. Which for the ancient Jews is a killing offense – the proper way to carry out the death penalty is stoning, actually – oh, but there’s a problem with that. This is Israel under Ancient Roman Occupation, and the Ancient Romans let people self-govern (sort of, to a degree), but one of the things the local authorities were no longer allowed to do was enact the death penalty. So… if they wanted Jesus dead, they had to send him to the Roman Governor.

So Jesus doesn’t just die late in the night on Thursday.

Bright and early Friday morning, Jesus is sent over to the Roman Governor. Meanwhile, Judas his betrayer has an attack of conscience perhaps because this was all getting a bit more serious than he’d intended. And the Roman Governor Pilate is bemused by Jesus during interrogation and tries to release him, which fails, and instead has him flogged and sent out to be crucified.

Which he is. At about noon. He dies at about three. Which is why Good Friday services happen at inconvenient times the Friday before Easter. And it’s also why Friday the 13th is unlucky, and why the number 13 in general in the Western World is considered unlucky. Because it’s the day we accidentally/on-purpose killed our God.

And then the next day, which we observe as Holy Saturday, a guard is sent to make sure no one steals Jesus’ body from the tomb in which it was placed.

Now, we don’t read about it right now, but the reason we can celebrate Easter either on Sunday morning, or Saturday night at the Vigil, is because according to modern convention, the day begins at midnight, or more practically speaking, whenever you wake up in the morning, before or after dawn. Oh, but according to the Jewish custom, the day begins and ends with nightfall. So as soon as night has fallen, it’s Easter already.

Now, that’s all well and good, but if we have Holy Week services, services like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, why do we go through everything on Palm Sunday, more than just what happened on the Sunday before Passover? The bit with the palms?

It’s so anyone who misses the Holy Week services has some kind of context for Easter Sunday. Because Jesus didn’t just have a triumphant entry into Jerusalem and then seven days later was Resurrected. Rather important bits happened in between, on Thursday and Friday and Saturday.

Jesus was busy dying for our sins, and that’s not something we get to skip, even if we only come to church on Sundays in the spring.


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