Palm Sunday is fun. At least, it begins fun. Even in a pandemic, we had our procession. And in one way, today’s procession was better than normal for me. Usually there is some time when I am out of range of the choir and what I hear is mostly my own singing. Today it was Linda all the way. Hosanna!!
I’m guessing the day itself was fun for the disciples, too. They weren’t the stars of the show—that was Jesus, riding on the colt. But the disciples were at the center of the action, right next to Jesus as the crowds cheered and waved and threw down their cloaks and palm branches to show their devotion.
But we know more than they did. What is coming next is not glory. Jesus went not up to joy, but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified. But in the excitement of the moment, the disciples forgot whatever they might have known about what Jesus was facing.
The next few days were a grim reminder. But even at Jesus’ Last Supper, they still don’t get it.
When Jesus first warns them that he will be betrayed, and by one of them, “they began to be distressed, and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’” That sounds to me a lot like they all know that, under the right circumstances, they could very well be the one. That is sad, but it is also wise. In fact, they don’t have the strength to die for Christ.
But just a few minutes later, they change their tunes. Peter promises Jesus, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of the disciples said the same.” As we heard, they were wrong about that.
Thankfully there is more to say about the disciples. But let’s stop here for a moment.
In this story, the disciples represent us. They are like a mirror held up so that we can see ourselves a little more clearly.
And what do we see? Well, first, worldly success can be deceiving and very, very fleeting. Within less than a week, the disciples go from the top of the world to serious conversations about dying horribly.
My highs are not so high—no one has ever much cheered me or anyone I’m associated with, certainly not as king. Thankfully my lows are not nearly that low. But we have all experienced that roller coaster, that move back and forth between days when everything seems great to days when nothing goes right. That move back and forth is part of life.
The question for us is, how well are we equipped to handle the bad times?
To the degree the disciples are any indication, the answer is, not all that well. And part of their problem is that they don’t know themselves. They worry about the possibility of failure even while they boast about their strength, their ability to handle anything that comes their way. Unfortunately, their worry about failure turns out to be more realistic than their boasting.
Hold that thought.
Back in the good old days, when my children thought I could do just about anything, I was a leader in Nicholas’ cub scout den. There was a pull-up bar in the room where we met and one day the den went over to give it a try.
This was a group of boys, so there was a lot of talk about just how many pull-ups each of them was going to do.
One after another, I lifted the boys up to the bar and let them hang for a few seconds. They would pull, and jiggle all around, and grunt, and raise their bodies maybe an inch.
I don’t mean to make light of a truly tragic moment, but that’s how I picture the disciples at the Last Supper: as a group of children boasting about how strong they are when in fact they can’t do anything at all. That’s not a bad way to think about our own strength too.
But—this is the good news part--but that is only true when the disciples rely on their own feeble strength. And there is a better way.
As you might guess, I didn’t just leave my cubs dangling on the pull-up bar. After giving them just enough time to realize how hard pull-up were, I gave them a hand. I boosted them up so they could get their chins over the bar.
Thankfully I was younger and stronger then than I am now because you can probably imagine how this unfolded. The first boy didn’t want to do one pull-up. He wanted to do lots. And since he wasn’t carrying his own weight, he could. When I finally got him down, the next boy wanted to do at least one more than the first boy. And so it went through the den. I got a good work out that night!
Those boys doing pull-ups are my image of the disciples a little later in the story, after Christ has died and risen again, after they have received the Holy Spirit.
It’s not like they were all that much stronger if we think only about their own strength. But now they have God carrying their weight. And then, they could do great things. Then they could set about to change the world. And then, when it came to it, they could die rather than deny their Lord. Because God was helping them.
And that, too, is a mirror for us. We sit there dangling on the pull-up bar unable to go up and afraid to drop off. And along comes God to give us the boost we need. And suddenly we can do as many pull-ups as we want, or at least as many as God wants.
And so on this Palm Sunday, as Holy Week begins, I give thanks to God for the gift of Jesus Christ. I give thanks to Christ for dying and rising for us. And I give thanks to the Holy Spirit for empowering the disciples, and empowering us, to follow Christ, even in the way of the cross. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan