Note: After preaching on Sunday 20 March, but not only for that reason, I have decided to revise what I have written below in order that it be better fitted for the next time these readings (and newly attended ones below) occur, i.e. in 2019.
Palm Sunday for many Anglicans (including myself) is focused on "Palm" Sunday: celebrating and remembering Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, with the readings coherent around the gospel story of that entry - a story told in all four gospels. But Palm Sunday can also be celebrated and commemorated as a combination of two liturgies, "Liturgy of the Palms" and "Liturgy of the Passion" (with readings as provided for by the lectionary).
Liturgy of the Palms readings (and, if only "Palm" Sunday is focused on)
Theme: When Jesus rides into our lives
Sentence: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! (Matthew 21:9) [NZPB, p. 580]
Collect: Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem
The people waved palms
With shouts of acclamation.
Grant that when the shouting dies
We may still walk beside you even to a cross.
Hear this prayer for your love’s sake. Amen. [NZPB, p.580].
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
In one sense the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem as a 'king' is a surprise in Luke's gospel reading for this Sunday, 19:28-40. The intentional journey of Jesus to Jerusalem (go back to Luke 9:51 for the start of this) has been a journey in which Jesus has taught his disciples how to be disciples and touched the lives of people in need with transformations (e.g. healing for some, change of life for Zacchaeus).
But this has not been the journey of a king preparing for enthronement in the usual sense of the word 'king.' To an extent Luke prepares his readers for the kingly passage of Jesus into Jerusalem by telling them, immediately before the entry, the parable of the nobleman who goes to a far country to get royal power for himself (Luke 19:11-27, which we also know as the Parable of the Pounds).
Another surprise is that Jesus should be greeted by 'multitudes of disciples' (19:37). We have not formed the impression during the journey told in 9:51-19:27 that Jesus has attracted to himself lots and lots of disciples! (John's Gospel may help us here as he explains that the raising of Lazarus from the dead had made Jesus very popular in the days before the entry to Jerusalem, John 12:9-19).
With those observations made, what is at the heart of this unexpected story?
The citation of Psalm 118 (Luke 19:38a = Psalm 118:26, with substitution of 'king' for 'one') furnishes a clue. Luke bears witness (with the other gospel writers) to the multitude's interpretation of Jesus as the one sent by God to take up a kingly role in the rule of Israel. In the context of an imminent festival, Passover, and on the edge of Jerusalem city of David, it is natural for this scripturally informed multitude to acclaim Jesus with familiar words from an appropriate psalm.
By including the word 'king' in the citation, Luke ensures a connection between the end of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the end of his life: the charge against him which leads to his death is his claim to be 'king' (Luke 23:2). (Incidentally, Luke furnishes in 19:38b words which take us back to the birth of the king, 'Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven', see 2:14).
At the heart of the story, then, is Jesus' arrival in several senses of that word as 'king'. But the question raised by the story, for example, by the humility of the means of transport, is 'what kind of king?' When Jesus is charged and convicted of being 'king' the level of understanding concerns human power. There can only be one 'king', the Roman Caesar. Jesus as king is a seditious revolutionary who must be dealt with.
But Luke is telling his readers that there is another level of understanding: Jesus' kingship comes from heaven, his arrival is part of a heavenly plan for human history, and when he acts as king it is God's own power and authority which he represents to the world. Some king!
Thus while the story has a dark shadow, the shadow of the cross, it is a story which looks ahead to the triumphant rule of God over history. The seed of that rule is here, the fruit is after the resurrection. Rightly our response, to which we could go back again to Psalm 118, is joyful praise.
An additional comment, reflecting on events in 2016
The world continues to appreciate significant human figures who offer political hope and salvation. The unexpected popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the Republican and Democratic primaries in the USA seems to represent US citizens looking for a political saviour who will lift the US economy out of the doldrums (Trump and Sanders both offer solutions) and, for Republican voters, a lift in US status and standing around the globe seems important and they are responding to Trump saying he will make America great again.
Jesus entering Jerusalem to popular acclaim on Palm Sunday seems to be a piece with this kind of human expectation. A few days later the crowd will no longer support Jesus because being crucified on a cross is not their idea of a successful king who will lift Israel out of the doldrums of continued oppression by foreign rulers. For Christians - with the gift of (theological) hindsight - we see that in fact Jesus wrought new political possibilities through the way of suffering rather than the way of might. But that same way to victory through suffering and death is easily forgotten: Christians all too often have left Jesus the Saviour at church in order to acclaim X the Political Saviour in the ballot box or in a public rally. Most tragic and disturbing in the 20th century were the many Christians in Germany who acclaimed and supported Hitler. It is troubling in the 21st century to read reports of "Evangelicals Voting for X" in US primaries, where the latest outburst of X may have been some xenophobic diatribe or chilling remark suggesting certain drastic if not hate-filled approaches to complex human dilemmas.
Liturgy of the Passion
Theme: Jesus suffers
Sentence: see above
Collect: see above
Luke 22:14-23:56 or
At this stage (late on Palm Sunday 2013) I am not offering comments on these readings, save to observe that in the Liturgy of the Passion, it is important to let the readings "tell the story".
The gospel reading speaks for itself: it tells the story of the ending of Jesus' life with its attendant suffering,humiliation and pain.
The Isaiah reading, with Christian hindsight, is a foretelling of the Passion.
The Philippians reading, with Christian insight, is a theological setting of the suffering of Jesus in the larger cosmic story of Jesus descending from heaven and ascending again to heaven, with a specific "kenotic" theme, the emptying of Jesus' glory and honour as God's Son.