We don’t observe the season of Lent to seek redemption from our broken nature; that’s already been accomplished. And we don’t observe Lent to practice some stricter rules for Christian life; authentic Christianity is not about following any rules. We observe Lent because we want the experience of being fully alive and fully human.1 We want to experience the abundant life Jesus offered – “real and eternal life,” he called it, “more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of” (John 10:10 The Message). And Palm Sunday helps show us how to experience that kind of life.
As Luke tells it (Luke 19:28-40), Palm Sunday began when Jesus came to the Mount of Olives and prepared to enter Jerusalem. But this life-giving confrontation between the reign of God and the powers of this world began much earlier, in a wilderness of choices. After Jesus was baptized (Luke 3:21-22), he was tested in the wilderness – perhaps somewhere in the Judean desert, though the wilderness could have been an inner condition of spiritual confusion and uncertainty – tested to see how he would choose. He had to be tried and proven in the laboratory of real-life choices to see what his values and priorities really were and whether he was up to the task God set for him (Luke 4:1-12). It was testing that would continue throughout his life (v. 13).
The larger Palm Sunday story continued on the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus had his transforming encounter with God and with Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36). Just before this encounter, he uttered some of his clearest teaching about the high cost of following the way of life he had chosen (9:21-27). Perhaps on the mountain he accepted that cost more deeply and personally, not as a possibility but as the real and looming outcome of his way of life. And just after that experience, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51) – “he gathered up his courage and steeled himself” (The Message) to go where he would complete his journey of faith and meet his death.
Then came Palm Sunday itself, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where he “emptied himself,” stripped himself of his entire reputation, and took on the characteristics of the lowest person in the social order, a slave. He humbled himself, surrendering his life – psuche is the Greek word: his identity, all the distinctive social and psychological characteristics of his personality – he humbled himself “and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). And that, according to Paul, is why God exalted him and gave him the title “Christ,” and it’s why we confess him as Lord today (vv. 10-11).
So how does that story show us how to experience more and better life than we ever dreamed of having? I believe we don’t want merely a life of good experiences. As New York Times columnist David Brooks said, we want “a life of meaning, and we’re willing to give up some happiness for some holiness, whether you’re religious or not. People are willing to endure suffering for something they really believe in. If you ask anybody, ‘What’s the activity that you had that made you who you are?’ no one says, ‘You know I had a really great vacation in Hawaii.’ No one says that. They say, ‘I had a period of struggle. And that period of struggle or that period of toughness made me who I am.’”2
“The distresses of choice,” W.H. Auden wrote, “are our chance to be blessed.” Like Jesus in the wilderness, our identity is revealed and proven, our life is shaped, our destiny affirmed, by the choices we make – not the easy choices between good and bad but the difficult, distressing choices between good and better, or the most distressing choices of all between better and best. Learning how to choose with integrity around a holy center of values is the first leg of our journey toward more and better life than we ever dreamed of. The first stage of discipleship is learning how to choose faithfully.
Our journey toward that abundant, eternal life continues, as it did for Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, when we stop talking about the cost of discipleship and make the radical, transforming commitment to pay the price of the way of life we’ve chosen. It continues when we come down off the mountain into the hard reality of daily life in this world and set our face to go to Jerusalem; to gather up our courage and steel ourselves to go the distance; to trust no longer in the cross Jesus bore but to take up our own cross every day and follow the way he marked out.
Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ” (The Cost of Discipleship). Jesus did not say, follow me until your journey ends at the cross; he said, take up your cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23). Every moment and every situation in our lives challenges us to decision and discipleship, to action and obedience, to unqualified, unrestrained love, without discrimination and without any expectation of return. “And if we answer the call to discipleship,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “where will it end? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer this question we shall have to go to [Jesus], for only he knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end.”
And here was the journey’s end for Jesus, at least the beginning of the end: his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. To complete his life’s work and fulfill his faith, he would have to go where the best and the worst of life were found side by side, where the highest ideals and lowest distortions of life lived in the same place, where good and evil existed together, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder. And he would go there not to defeat evil, not to get rid of all that is hard and bad in life, but to surrender to it and submit himself to the will of God. While the crowds welcomed him in triumph, he was going there to die.
The older I grow, the less I know with certainty about the particulars of God’s will, the less I’m able to separate the weeds from the wheat in life clearly and unambiguously. The older I grow, the more I sense there’s a place and a time for opposites – a time to be born and a time to die; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; and that God has made everything suitable for its time. (Eccles. 3:1-8, 11 sel.).
So even though on Palm Sunday Jesus entered Jerusalem to face his death, I can imagine joining the crowd to celebrate his arrival at that place where he could surrender to and embrace the polarities of God, where for him “The wolf [finally] shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together” (Isa. 11:6). I can imagine living in a condition where my experience of the wholeness and integrity of life is restored, and where “real and eternal life, more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of” – already spread unseen upon the earth – is no longer an object of hope but becomes the experienced reality in which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
In plunging to the heart of the polarities of good and evil that exist side by side in our lives and in the life of the world, facing them together unflinchingly, and there abandoning ourselves completely to God’s will in radical faith and love, we will know the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding.
Notes — 1. Joseph Campbell wrote, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” ▪ 2. Quoted by Ashley Hamilton in “What’s the Key to a Meaningful Life? You Might Not Like the Answer,” Oprah Winfrey Network via Huffington Post, 15 March 2016.