Here is the sermon transcript from our Eucharist for Palm Sunday by Canon Angela Tilby. You may also download here.

Addresses for Holy Week 2019 by Angela Tilby

Palm Sunday 14th April


Palm Sunday – the beginning of the week which marks the end of Jesus Christ’s earthly life and the beginning of the Christian faith. We will have travelled a long way by this time next Sunday. I’ll have quite a lot I hope to share to with you this week about the death of Jesus and the beginning of the new faith. But tonight I want to remind myself and all of us that we always hear the Holy Week story at a particular time in the history of our society, our country and of the world. I don’t think I am unique in reading this time as one of foreboding, where there is a sense that much of what we have most treasured and valued in our history is under threat. Democracy, culture, civilisation, even basic human decency. I don’t think I am just a disgruntled old miseryboots in this – I hear it from the young as well as the old, from the left and right in politics, from the reasonably well off to those who are struggling.

And into all this comes the memory of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and being acclaimed by the crowds. This procession through the streets, these loud acclamations, these outpourings of emotion are things we know about, things we have seen. In our context we might call it populism. It recalls other more recent demonstrations in this country and elsewhere when crowds of people come out on the streets to register their concerns, their protests, to hail their champions and to condemn their enemies. Jesus rides into the crowd as one who promises a new beginning, who looks and behaves like a Messiah. Jesus not only rides into it; he draws out the longings of the crowd, making manifest both their potency and their pathos.

There are many ways in which Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem has been interpreted. There’s the version which one sometimes finds among critics of the Christian faith which runs like this: Jesus got caught up in a demo he did not orchestrate – he was simply the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And there’s the opposite version which states that Jesus deliberately acted out the prophecy that the Son of David would enter Jerusalem in triumph to the chorus of loud hosannas. And if you take that view then there are two different ways you can interpret Jesus’s decision. The first would be to say that Jesus meant to provoke. He was launching an assault on Roman rule and Jewish establishment. And the other softer version of that, that he entered Jerusalem on a donkey to remind his people that their notions of leadership are all wrong. Jesus comes as king, yes, but he comes not in grandeur but in humility. Innocence, a bid for power, an attack on power – all these motives for Jesus’s actions hover at the start of Holy Week.

And we are present to those motives in ourselves, in our hopes and desires and fears about our own lives, in our hopes and desires and fears about our world. This is the beginning of the end of the road for Jesus and the road is familiar to us whether we are disciples or critics or bystanders. We have seen passionate crowds in Sudan, in Algeria, in Venezuala, in Paris, in London, with their hopes of salvation; it is all very familiar. I think this should tell us three things at the beginning of Holy Week.

First that there is an unquenchable human desire for fulfilment. Those Biblical crowds, and our modern crowds, are, at their best, longing for justice, freedom and fairness. We are not satisfied with versions of what it is to be human which write us off as ‘the masses’, or as the ignorant, or as consumers, or as data on social media. Crowds followed Jesus all his life because he saw something more in them than a mob. He did not flatter them or wind them up. He taught them to love God and do justice. Basic old-fashioned values. And he fed them in the desert and healed them one by one.

The second thing we can see at the start of Holy Week is that the instincts we have towards a better and truer life are evidence of a kind of faith. We have within ourselves a sense of what human life should be about and are justly angry when it is thwarted. Christ too was angry at ruined lives. Four times in the New Testament Jesus is said to have ‘snorted’ with indignation (the Greek is literally ‘snorted like a horse’) at being confronted with human indignity. How often he said to those he healed, ‘Your faith has healed you’. That faith is where we are most true to what we are created to be.

The third thing we see turns the spotlight on us more sharply. The desires that we have that bring us out on the streets, or make us curse politicians, are not pure. Popular perception is not always accurate or true even when it is ranged against injustice. The ‘will of the people’ can be disastrous. Sermons in Holy Week often make a rhetorical point that the crowds which shout ‘Hosanna’ today, will later shout ‘Crucify!’ The point is well made. Human desire is fickle. Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is not just challenging the authorities. He is also challenging his would-be supporters, drawing out their fantasies, exposing the craving for vengeance and the humiliation of enemies which lies behind their protests.

In my talks and sermons this week I want to say something about the decline of faith and the reasons for it. I also want to say why belief in God and in Christ might actually be, especially now, a rational, wise and life-giving response to the world in which we live. Today I would simply point to the fact that the worst crimes against humanity in the last century, and perhaps in this one also, have been committed by regimes that have rejected religion. The millions murdered by the Nazis, the even greater numbers starved, killed, driven mad and locked away in the Soviet Union, and even today in China and in North Korea, are testimony to what happens when human beings replace a notion of God with the Dear Leader, the Chairman, the Sacred Tribal monarch, the endlessly re-elected President; all forms of what has come to be known as the Strong Man.

A famous study of Mark’s Gospel is called ‘Binding the Strong Man’, (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 1988) because the author claims that this is what Jesus actually set out to do (Mark 3.27) – he saw himself as ‘binding the strong man’ by liberating people from those who exploit their desires. In Holy Week we see Jesus provoking the powerful, but also questioning those who feel powerless and want revenge. According to a poll last week over half of us in this country want to replace our present government with a strong leader who is willing to break the rules. That’s where we are at.

The challenge of Holy Week is to discover what it is to have God on our side; God who knows both our desire for the good life and the ambivalence of our hearts. God who desires our from those who claim to know what’s best for us, and also from the blind fury of our own instincts. This is the same God who is both hidden and manifest in nature; hidden and manifest in history; hidden and manifest in Jesus Christ; hidden and manifest in human experience. We should be, could be so much more curious about all this.

I want to suggest to you that the Christian way makes sense: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. That Holy Week calls us from madness to sanity; from conformity to the true humanity of the children of God.

It is all there in that Palm Sunday procession coming to the end of the road. Christ, the Word of God, comes into the human world, comes into this most pious and violent of cities and is at first adored, then challenged, then judged and then rejected. At the end when we have recognised once again the worst that we are capable of we find that we are not abandoned, the one we followed with palm branches and then betrayed is mysteriously returned to us; now the first-begotten of the dead. The end of the road is an end. But it is also a beginning.

Portsmouth Cathedral