This sermon was written for a double celebration; Palm Sunday itself and admitting a number of our children to Communion. And as we celebrated and received our palm crosses we were reminded of the pain in the midst of the celebrations…
This week we have seen massed crowds gathering, celebrating, welcoming a new pope, and a new Archbishop of Canterbury. People have celebrated, have welcomed their first sermons, have dared to hope that this is a new start, that things will be different and better now. So, it seems appropriate that their first Sunday since their official start is Palm Sunday.
We begin Holy Week, as we will end it, in triumph and celebration. We can cheer along with the crowds today as they welcome Jesus into Jerusalem and we can celebrate with the disciples as they have their Lord and their God restored to them in resurrection glory on Easter Sunday.
But, as no doubt both Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin will find, being the one on whom many people’s hopes are pinned is difficult. Being the one whom people expect to save the world makes you enemies as well as friends, particularly when you’re not saving the world in the way which people think you should be.
And, as the reading from Luke reminded us, Jesus was very definitely not saving the world in the way that people expected him to. A week, we’re told, is a long time in politics, and the final week of Jesus’ earthly life was a very long time indeed: hope, triumph, fear, despair, betrayal, confusion, excitement.
Lent is when we remember the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness, wrestling with temptation. The temptations that Jesus faced are, in some form or other, the ones that we face. Jesus was tempted to assert his independence from God, to take shortcuts to spirituality, to define his life by material things. But, Jesus refused and instead defined his life by his relationship to God. It is this that led people to misunderstand him, to have false expectations of him, that led to him being crucified. As his followers, these are the same temptations we face: we are tempted to assert our independence from God, we are tempted to take shortcuts to spirituality, to take shortcuts in our relationship with God, and to define our life by material things. And, in some small measure, the challenges that Jesus faced, we may face.
But, just as God’s transforming power gave us all new life through Jesus’ resurrection, that same transforming power, in the person of the Holy Spirit, is at work in us.
We heard verses from Psalm 118, which would have been sung by pilgrims gathering in Jerusalem for the Passover. Over the last few weeks it’s been a privilege to prepare some of our young people for their Admission to Communion. And we started this preparation by looking at Passover. Passover, the annual meal of lamb, bread without yeast and bitter herbs to celebrate Moses leading God’s people into freedom. And as they celebrated this freedom, the pilgrims would sing Psalm 118. It is a psalm of thanksgiving and confidence, of hope in God’s future and thankfulness that God has restored Israel. By Jesus’ time, it was understood as a psalm predicting the coming of the Messiah, who once again would triumph in God’s name and would freedom and restoration to Israel.
So, at Passover, the pilgrims remembered God’s freeing of the captives in Egypt and sang this psalm which speaks of God’s continuing faithfulness and of the future hope of salvation. And, as the pilgrims remembered all that God had done and promised he would do for them, as the pilgrims remembered all this, the excitement and expectation of the coming of the Messiah ran high.
This meant that when Jesus comes riding on a donkey, claiming the prophecies of the Messiah as his own, the pilgrims would have known what he was doing, and used the words from this psalm to affirm their belief in what he was doing. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
But, the freedom and liberation that Jesus was offering, was not freedom from the Romans and liberation of the country of Israel. It was freedom from all forms of evil and oppression and liberation from sin and death. And because this was more than the crowd hoped for, and not what they were expecting, very soon they turned on him.
In the second week of preparation for the children’s Admission to Communion we thought about the Holy Spirit. Because God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to us is a key part of our liberation. We thought about how Jesus received the Holy Spirit when he was baptised, and how we receive the Holy Spirit when we are baptised, when we become members of God’s family. We also thought about how when we are confirmed, when we become full members of the Church of England, the bishop will pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us again.
Because, Christianity isn’t a private club, or even an individual activity. It’s about becoming part of God’s kingdom, part of God’s family. Which is why when the children are admitted to Communion later in this service I will ask you “Will you support these children on their continuing journey of faith with your friendship and prayers?” And you will, I hope, reply “We will.” We will. Together, as part of God’s family.
It’s also why things like joining the Electoral Roll and coming to the Annual Parochial Meeting are actually important. It’s about being part of our shared life, about being part of the body of Christ in this place. So, if you haven’t already, please do fill in an Electoral Roll form. And please think about coming to the Annual Meeting on 16th April.
Also, there is a Deanery confirmation service coming up at Pentecost, the day we celebrate God sending the Holy Spirit on the church. So, if you haven’t been confirmed, if you haven’t made the promises made at your baptism for yourself, then please talk to me.
So, the Holy Spirit, who comes on us at our baptism, who helps us and transforms us. The Holy Spirit, who grows in our lives the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Holy Spirit, who gives us all different gifts so that we can show God’s love and care for those around us, and so that we need to work together so that God’s kingdom grows in our communities.
One way of keeping Holy Week is to try and journey through it with Jesus and the first disciples. This can take many forms, but one of the simplest is to read a bit of the events of Holy Week each day. Why not, this week, start reading the Gospel of Luke from where our reading stopped. If you do this, imagine what it would have been like to be there at each point along the way. What would you be thinking? How would you be feeling? Live the story, and let the Holy Spirit guide you.
Christ came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and changed people’s lives. His death and resurrection have opened up the way to God for all of us, and have given us all the gift of the of the Holy Spirit, which can transform us. But, even before that, Christ healed the blind and the lame, restoring them to the worshipping community, which had excluded them because of their disabilities. If you carry on reading Luke, then one of the first things you will read about is that Christ overturned the tables of the money-changers. These tables were in the Outer Court, the only part of the Temple where Gentiles were allowed to worship. Worship of God was taking second place to religious activity. Religious activity was preventing people from worshipping God. And that’s one of the temptations that the church can so often fall into. We focus on activity, not on worshipping God, not on growing as children of God.
The third week of preparation for the children’s Admission to Communion was of course focused on the Last Supper. The Last Supper, when Jesus took the celebration of Passover and changed it into a celebration of his death and resurrection, which we still celebrate as Holy Communion. We’ll be thinking about that more on Maundy Thursday, so do come along as we journey together through that, through the pain and loss of Good Friday, before the celebration of Easter Sunday.
And above all this Holy Week, let us clear our whole bodies, the Temples of the Holy Spirit, from those things that prevent us from worshipping God and being transformed by him. Let us welcome king Jesus into our lives again and let us “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Amen.