Palm Sunday Year B

Reflection on Mark 11:1-11a, by John Gibbs, PhD

When I was growing up in a small North Carolina town, there was a lady there who seemed on the surface to be naïve.  Though she contemplated running for the school board once, and though she was a Girl Scout leader for decades, she was not a participant in power politics anywhere.  Though she came from a Georgia family of high culture, and took some courses at Juilliard, her life was dedicated to teaching piano (and other musical instruments) to young people who had never heard of Beethoven.  They would carry what she taught them into Sunday Schools and local service groups.  Though she bought tuxedos for her college-going sons, she herself dressed simply while taking care to ‘match colors.”

As it turned out, however, she was not naïve.  Her commitments were profound, as her five children know from experience still today.  She was at home in the mountains where she hiked and camped nearby, and as well on the sands of Myrtle Beach. All nature was her true home. The bankers and business people (among whom were founders of Lowe’s hardware stores) were no more and no less her friends than the folks she came upon in the remotest Depression-era mountain cabin.  In her eyes they were equally God’s children, worthy of our respect and understanding compassion.

My mother’s influence was subtle rather than spectacular, close and personal rather than an exercise of strategic power over others.  I mention her in the expectation that you also will recall someone you know whose personal presence of compassionate integrity was (or is) wise and effective in its straightforward simplicity.

Where do such qualities of character come from?  There is, as it seems to me, a kind of egalitarian apostolic succession.  Jesus’ self-authenticating presence that captured the apostles has been communicated no less and for centuries to ordinary people.  These are the folks who make history without being written up in the history books.  These are the people who might best be able to get a glimpse of what Jesus was up to on Palm Sunday.

Jesus’ entry into his capital city is an enacted parable.  It stands in sharpest contrast to the pomp and circumstance of presidential inaugurations.  He came with a different agenda, and therefore chose to enter not on a royal chariot but on a borrowed donkey that had no saddle.  He came not to elevate himself above ordinary people, but to identify with them (whose clothes draped on the donkey substituted for the expected saddle) and to elevate their needs before God.  [John Calvin’s comments on one page are extraordinarily perceptive: A Harmony of the Gospels (Tr. T. H. L. Parker), vol. 2, p. 291; Eerdmans, 1972.]

His entry might seem triumphal in Resurrection retrospect, but at the time Jesus purposely chose actions that would emphasize humility.  There is, his actions said, a power in unpretentious genuineness that stands in dramatic contrast to capital splendor.  Humility so understood is not self-denigration, not poor self-image, not servility, for it gives no quarter to tyranny.  Humility is the opposite of hot air, and has no need for bombast.  The power of humility, as Jesus lived it, comes from within its undeniable integrity that brought amazing grace into others’ lives.

The first Palm Sunday was an enacted parable that played out variations on a theme of Zechariah (9:9): “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Unlike Alexander the Great’s conquests after 333 BCE, the  Prince of Peace “comes as a humble and peaceful monarch” (note on 9:1-8 in Oxford Annotated NRSV).  This One rules by serving, as Paul’s Christological hymn insists (Phil. 2:5-11).

So what about the palm branches?  Luke does not mention them.  Matthew has “branches from the trees” (21:8).  Mark has “leafy branches that they had cut in the fields” (11:8).  Only John specifies “branches of palm trees” in his account of Palm Sunday (12:13), and John is the gospel of unexpected reversals.  God raised up what the powers had condemned to death (3:14, etc.).  Only through descent does ascension come (3:13, etc.).  Palm branches that symbolized triumph and victory (see Rev. 7:9) are used by John to introduce Passion Week and point not to celebration but to crucifixion.

The appearance of celebratory palm branches belies the reality of imminent defeat.  In all four gospels a week that began with uncomprehending popular acclaim ended in abject loneliness before a crowd of onlookers and Roman soldiers, and even the feeling of being abandoned by God.

Yet, on the other hand, only those who do not hunger and thirst for power can be trusted with it.  Heaven help the cosmos if it is not ruled by the character of One who chose a donkey over a chariot, and who enacted the kind of genuine humility that evokes humanity’s Hosannas.  (Hebrew hoshianna means “save us.”)

Heaven help all earth’s creatures if the character of the crucified Risen One is not extended, as in an egalitarian apostolic succession, through all God’s People into the capitals of political and economic power, where decisions can be made and enacted to protect the poor and the defenseless, and safeguard fragile spaceship earth for generations yet to come.

Reflection on Philippians 2: 5-11, by John G. Gibbs, PhD

At first sight it may not be apparent that this text could be relevant to Palm Sunday, or to how Christ is related to the creation, or how Christian faith relates to the creation. But further examination of the text in its context will lead us in all 3 directions.

1 – The text in its context. This famous Christological Hymn is a paradigm of Lordship, and its context applies that paradigm to discipleship. Whether written by the apostle Paul at some earlier time and incorporated in this letter, or (as is more likely) written by someone else and quoted to fit his own purpose, the hymn speaks the mind of Paul about who Jesus was and who we are to become.

The humility of Christ is the example for all Christians, both individually and collectively. Paul introduces the hymn in such a way as to make that clear: “Let the same mind be in you [each one, and you all] that was in Christ Jesus…” The hymn follows in the next words: “…who, though he was in the form of God…emptied himself…” After the hymn “therefore” is the first word: “Therefore…work out your own salvation…, for it is God who is at work in you…” Accordingly, the context of this hymn (before and after) emphasizes the pastoral use to which Paul applies the hymn. His meaning is clear: as Christ was, so are you [and now we] to be.

So who was Christ? Christ was strong and faithful enough to “empty” himself. He was the exemplary “servant” (doulos, “slave”) of God’s will. That service brought him to the ultimate sacrifice, “to the point of death,” namely capital punishment by crucifixion. Because he made that deepest descent, “Therefore God also highly exalted him…” That is the briefest outline of the life of Jesus the Christ. The outline looks like the Greek letter “X” (Chi), so the hymn is in “chiastic form” as the descending line (Jesus) and the ascending line (Christ) cross one another.

Christ is the sovereign who rules by serving. The term “Lord,” which is no longer part of everyday vocabulary, bespeaks order, administration, management in such a way that “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Christ is sovereign in his self-giving not only to the Church and all her members, but also to all things. His lordship is what keeps us all, together with the whole creation, from flying apart.

Who, then, are Christ’s disciples? They also take the life of strong self-giving descent, leaving to God the outcome. These are people whose ultimate citizenship is “in heaven” (Philippians. 3:20), and who subordinate all other allegiances to that one loyalty. Whatever other sovereigns expect, this Lord’s disciples give the interests of others higher priority than self-interest (Philippians 2:4).

This Lord’s disciples are empowered people, folks who are active in working out the meaning and reality of healthy wholeness (“salvation,” 2:12). They can do that because God is at work in them “enabling” them to want and to work for God’s “good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).

Discipleship is less a matter of imitating Christ than a matter of being responsible for our own thoughts and actions, running our own races (3:12ff), doing all things “through him who strengthens [us]” (4:13), and if need be “sharing his [Christ’s] sufferings” (3:10). This Lord’s disciples, by thus investing themselves in God’s good pleasure for humanity and for the creation, “shine like stars in the world” (2:15).

2 – Palm Sunday. That chiastic development is precisely what took place on Palm Sunday, but with a twist. If the crowds, with their branches and Hosannas, took a premature line of ascent toward a Davidic King (Psalm 118:26 in Mark 11:9f), on the other hand Jesus took the faithful line of descent by choosing a donkey rather than a chariot for his dramatic entrance into his capital city. He thereby enacted prophetic expectation (Zech. 9:9) of a “humble” king mounted on a donkey (Matthew 21:5; John 12:15). That he did so was not yet clear even to his disciples (John 12:16). Only after the Resurrection “when Jesus was glorified” did they discover the deeper meaning of what Jesus had done.

Only when Jesus loved us to the uttermost, “to the end” (John 13:1), in the darkest hour did the glory of God within him become unmistakable. At Easter that exaltation became resplendent, so much so that in retrospect all gospel writers see that glory reflected backward into Jesus’ life all along the way.

Even the crowds who extolled Jesus did more than they knew, say the gospels, by making the first subdued trumpet calls of a theme more majestic than any of them could imagine. In the perspective of all four gospels, the Hosannas raised by crowds of humanity on Palm Sunday, enthusiastic as they were, would pale in comparison to the exuberant chorus yet to come when, as was later said, “at the name of Jesus every knew shall bend, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10f).

3 – Christ and Creation. The movement toward Christ is never a movement away from the creation. The incarnation, if nothing else, forbids any dichotomy between Christ and the cosmic totality. The hymn’s line of descent begins with the incarnation: “being born in human likeness” and “taking the form of a slave.” Escape from the world is no part of Christ’s life and work, and no part of Christian existence today.

Not only the incarnation, but also the exaltation takes place in and for the whole creation. “Every name,” “every knee,” and “every tongue” are no more literal than the heavens “telling” and the firmament “proclaiming” God’s handiwork (Psalm 19). “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (19:3-4). Accordingly, the hymn envisions a universal acclamation as the whole creation responds to God’s work in Christ.

Since this hymn likely predates Paul, it is clear that the work of Christ in creation was part of earliest Christian perception. Similarly Paul quotes an ancient Christian confession of faith in his letter to the Church in Corinth (I Cor. 8:6): “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” That is a tightly constructed statement, the meaning of which hinges on the prepositions “from,” “for,” and “through.” God is the origin [“from”] of all things, and Christ is the Mediator [“through”] of all things. God is our destiny [“for whom we exist”], and Christ is the Mediator of our existence.

From very earliest Christian times Christ was understood to be the Mediator of both Creation and Redemption. That understanding underlies this Christological Hymn. It also underlies Paul’s use of the hymn to encourage a lifestyle of responsibility within and for the whole creation. The power of “the Savior” (Philippians 3:20) which “makes all things subject to himself” (3:21), also transforms our life of descent (“humiliation”) so that we run our races, and live our lives in the direction of the Savior’s “glory” (3:21).

4 – Church and Creation. If the Church has within it “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus,” she will of necessity care for the creation. Environmental stewardship will be as much part of the Church’s life as works of social justice and personal healing. If the Church’s true homeland is “in heaven,” and if her loyalties serve citizenship “there,” then her life in the world can not be exploitative, nor heedless of God’s gifts of wilderness and garden alike — gifts that are intended for all generations, not merely our own.

If the management style (“lordship”) that “holds all things together” is not one of Davidic might that lords it over the environment, but rather one of self-giving for the sake of others, then the Church today will do what she can to preserve both wilderness and garden (agricultural resources of land and water and air) in a way that tends to their long-term needs and not only to our short-term wants.

Just because the Church is concerned about “salvation,” which is wholeness of health and restoration of all malaise and brokenness, the Church will be mindful of the groaning and travail within the creation (Romans 8:22), and she will live as if the fate of Christian and the fate of creature were intimately tied together.

We who pray “give us this day our daily bread” are called by the One to whom we pray to be preservers and conservers of those gifts from God that all humanity needs and depends upon. Bread alone is enough to make us safeguard all that ministers to bread: water, sun shining through our air, earth, a world in balance rather than a globe warming.
Let us then take care for what we wave our palm branches, toward what governance and order we choose to move both our selves and our institutions. Let Palm Sunday point toward Easter, with its new beginnings in human undertakings, and its new promise for the cosmic totality.

[Note: Those interested in researching further could consult John Gibbs’ monograph Creation and Redemption: A study in Pauline Theology (Supplements to Novum Testamentum, vol. 26; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), especially pp. 73-92.]

Reflection on Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29, by John G. Gibbs, PhD

Makers of lectionaries see connections (usually) between the texts that are read together on a particular day. This psalm shares a theme with Palm Sunday: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (111:22). No first century earthly ruler would prefer a donkey to a chariot for use on coronation day. Minor League player Israel would not be used in the Big Leagues. But the Builder of the universe saw things differently. The psalmist saw God already making Israel to be the “chief cornerstone” in God’s building project.

What the powers that be regard as useless and naïve turns out to be the “sine qua non,” the absolutely essential component, of ordered dependable existence (“righteousness,” 111:19-20). What really holds the world together is not struggling contesting powers (military, economic, psychological), but the truly “righteous” person whom Judaism prizes, or to put it another way, the person of true “humility” whose unassuming genuineness glues together what has been wrongly torn asunder.

Palm Sunday is a time to reflect on relations between power structures and the strength of genuine humility, between appearance and reality, between what is transitory and what endures. A major challenge for us in the 21st Century is to make the move from charisma to institution building without diminishing or losing the originating charisma. That is true of churches no less than political and other institutions.

Let the spirit of beggar Jesus on a donkey pervade corporate board rooms and government regulatory agencies and ecclesiastical bureaucracies until justice flows down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream – until what has been widely rejected becomes the chief cornerstone of  new environmental safeguards, merciful social safety nets, and economic justice for all.

Some Theses on Preaching Creation Care on Passion Sunday, by Robert Saler

Excerpt:

4) In the same way, it is not enough to praise nature’s beauty. The beauty of nature is generally taken for granted to the point where it is almost cliché; however, the fact that we generally find nature beautiful clearly is not sufficient motivation for us to preserve it from degradation. In contrast to Plato and others, aesthetics cannot in and of themselves be the primary basis for ethics. “Beauty cannot save us,” either theologically or ecologically.

Read the complete article.