Some years back a lead headline in the sports section of USA Today boldly proclaimed: “Christ The King – Ranked No.1.” Casual readers did a double take, paused, and then read on to learn the headline referred to a Roman Catholic High School in the Queens section of New York City whose girls’ basketball team was having a phenomenal season.
Christ the King – Ranked No. 1. The church’s celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem makes that bold affirmation and invests Palm Sunday with a mood of triumph, pomp, and exultation. Looking back on that event we see it as a victory parade, a kind of royal procession in which those who participated recognized Jesus as King!
Yes, the pilgrims cry, “Hosanna!” and sing of the “kingdom of our father David,” but they do not call Jesus King or the Son of David. Moreover, Mark says the acclamation for Jesus occurs outside the city, and reports that Jesus actually enters the city quietly, alone with the disciples, looks around the Temple, and then departs quickly. For Mark, Jerusalem is not a city that exuberantly welcomes Jesus, but is a city of controversy, rejection, hostility, and death for Jesus.
When Jesus is being acclaimed as King, we can more readily join the cry and sign up for the winning side and share the victor’s spoils. Palm Sunday faith actually does not require much of us. Like the disciples and the crowd, we can follow Jesus in the parade and let it go at that.
We like parades and the trappings of royalty. That is why we have created an imperial presidency in this country and why we treat our Hollywood stars, rock musicians, and athletes like royalty. (Did you read how Harry Winston, the New York jeweler, brought some of his diamond collection to Los Angeles for the Academy Awards ceremony on Monday night? He loans the diamond and emerald and ruby necklaces, tiaras, broaches, and other trinkets to film notables so they can at least look like royalty). Yes, when Jesus is hailed as King, we will be on his side, at least as long as the coronation parade lasts.
But Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” persists after the parade is over and the shouting dies away. When the crowds have dispersed and the streets are empty and the doorways are vacant, when the palm branches have withered and the bouquets are trampled, and when the night winds blow through the olive trees of Gethsemane, we remember that after Palm Sunday come Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
We also remember that Jesus said, “If you want to follow me, you must leave self behind, take up your cross daily, and become as a servant.” The question is no casual “either/or” conversation--it has the feel of “now or never” about it. To answer Jesus’ question, therefore, requires more than words. Yes, I know that some people think you can get away with a verbal answer only. A pastor friend told how it was for him:
It was at a mountain retreat to which I had gone at age 16. An evangelist held forth and graphically depicted the crucifixion of Jesus, with nails going through his hands and feet. Then the evangelist looked out on the congregation and, pointing to me, I was sure, he said, “No one stood up for Jesus? Is there anyone here who would stand up for him?” And I stood up. A few others stood up and he said, ‘Thank you, “ and we sat down.
At the conclusion of the service, a young man approached me end said, “I noticed that you stood up; would you like to know more about Jesus?” And, I having stood up, felt obligated and interested. I said, “Yes.” So we sat in the front seat of a pickup truck and he began by asking me, “Do you want eternal life?” I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about, because when I had stood up I wasn’t standing up for eternal life, I was standing up for Jesus so that Jesus wouldn’t be alone. “Why do you ask me?” He said, “So that you will go to heaven and not to hell. Do you want eternal life ?”
“Well, yes; how do you get it?”
“You say these words," he replied.
“What words?” I asked.
“I take you Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, “ he said.
I said, “You mean that is all I have to do? And I have eternal life?”
“That’s all you have to do,” he declared.
So I said the words and it seemed so easy. It seemed magic. It seemed cheap, somehow. So I said them, and it didn’t mean a whole lot to me at the time… To say words is not enough, as Peter and the others found out. Like them, we can say the words, but when we face a Jerusalem or take up our cross, we will discover words are not enough. The answer Jesus wants to his question is our lives. When we answer his question, he will tell us who we are, how much we can become, and how much we can do if we trust God and actually take the risks of love. When we say who Jesus is for us, he opens our eyes and our souls to the greatness of God and to the needs of other people, and asks us to call upon the greatness of God to serve other people in love.
When we say who Jesus is, he asks us to follow him; and when we do, we meet God and discover where God is at work in our world, for that is where Jesus leads us. As we watch Jesus humbly heal the sick, empower the weak, liberate the possessed, affirm and restore the ridiculed and marginalized, we discover God at work and are blessed with the divine presence. Heaven and earth are joined for us and life has the feel of eternity about it.
We sometimes say, “Show me, God, and I’ll believe.” In Jesus, God says to us, “Believe, follow and I’ll show you.” And God does! God does. In one of his books, Father John Powell shares how he learned this truth. He thought he had answered Jesus’ question – after all, he had entered the priesthood. But he found himself in a period of deep unsettlement and crisis when he felt he somehow had to try harder to honor Jesus, to be sure he was saying the right words, to be sure his soul was in better shape than his brother priests, to show the world that he was truly one of Jesus’ disciples.
One day, says Father Powell, he heard Jesus say to him, “John, I do not want a performance from you. What I want is an act of love!” It was the breakthrough he needed to reclaim a life of servanthood where he was concerned less about how Christian he was and more concerned about the needs of those he was called to serve in love.
As we reflect about palm branches, let us not forget that he whom we honor and acclaim comes to us as a Servant/King, who calls us to follow him with acts of love on the hurting edges of life where people cry out for someone who cares.