Worship Resources for April 2nd, 2023—Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday

Revised Common Lectionary
Palm Sunday: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11
Passion Sunday: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66 or 27:11-54

Narrative Lectionary: Triumphal Entry, Matthew 21:1-17 (Psalm 118:25-29)

We have drawn near the end of the season of Lent with the beginning of Holy Week. The Revised Common Lectionary offers two choices, either the Liturgy of the Palms, or the Liturgy of the Passion.

For Palm Sunday, the lectionary begins with the processional call to worship of Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29. This portion of the psalm was probably used by the worship leader as they entered the temple. Rejected by the world, exiled into Babylon, the people chosen by God, to reveal who God is to the world, have returned home and have restored the temple. The people rejected are now the chief cornerstone. The psalmist leads the people into worship through the temple gates, up to the altar, giving thanks and praise to God for this day of celebration, and calling upon God to continually save the people.

Jesus entered Jerusalem in Matthew 21:1-11. The writer of Matthew’s gospel, while Jewish, was not as familiar with Hebrew poetry and misinterpreted Zechariah 9:9 in his understanding of the humble leader riding on a donkey. Therefore, Matthew wrote of Jesus riding on a donkey and its colt, rather than understanding the second line of “on a colt, the foal of a donkey” as an emphasis of the first line, “humble and riding on a donkey.” The crowds cried out “Hosanna, save us!” as Jesus entered the city, and the crowds quoted Psalm 118, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Perhaps this misunderstanding of Zechariah helps us understand why the crowds and the disciples misunderstood Jesus, and their expectations of God’s anointed one.

For Passion Sunday, the lectionary begins with one of the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah in 50:4-9a. The prophet Isaiah personified Israel as a suffering servant, which Christians later looked back upon and found connections with in terms of Christ’s suffering on the cross. Israel knows that God is with them despite what they have suffered, through the exile and return, for God is the one who knows they are innocent and will vindicate them. The prophet, speaking as the suffering servant, knows God’s faithfulness and assurance of deliverance.

Psalm 31:9-16 is the middle portion of the psalm, and the author is in distress, both physically and mentally. No one around them will help them, but they reach out to God, for they trust in God’s faithfulness. Despite how everyone else has turned away from them, they rest assured of God’s commitment. They pray for God’s deliverance from their enemies and their suffering.

Philippians 2:5-11, part of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, is an ancient church confession. Christ was fully divine, yet also fully human. He emptied himself of all divine power and followed God’s will, even to die on the cross. Because of his fulfillment of God’s will, Christ was exalted so that everyone would know and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to give glory and honor to God.

The longer selection of the Gospel lesson in Matthew begins at 26:14 and concludes at 27:66. 26:14-26:75 are all the events that took place the night before Christ’s death: Judas went to the chief priests, Jesus and the disciples observed a meal together as part of Passover (though not a seder meal as celebrated today, see this article for more information), and then Jesus went out to pray with a few of the disciples, where he was betrayed by Judas. Jesus was arrested, accused by the high priest, and Peter, keeping watch in the courtyard, denied he ever knew Jesus. Chapter 27 begins on the morning of Jesus’s death, when he was handed over to Pilate. Unique to Matthew’s account, Judas, seeing that Jesus was condemned to Pilate (for Judas only gave Jesus over to the priests, who could not sentence Jesus to death), repented, and gave back the silver, but the chief priests and elders didn’t care that Judas confessed that Jesus was innocent. Judas then hung himself. Both the writer of Matthew and of Luke-Acts link the death of Judas to a place called the “Field of Blood,” referenced by both Zechariah and Jeremiah, but Judas’ death is accidental in Acts 1.

27:11 (where the shorter selection for the Passion begins) picks up with Jesus before Pilate, and in verse 15, Pilate went before the crowds, ready to release a prisoner as custom during the Passover to help keep the Jewish population satisfied under the control of Rome. In Matthew’s account, the other prisoner, Barabbas, is also known as Jesus Barabbas. Pilate gave the crowds a choice: Jesus the insurrectionist, or Jesus called the anointed one of God? Also unique to Matthew’s account, Pilate’s wife had a dream and warned Pilate to leave Jesus the Christ alone, but the crowds, urged on by the religious leaders, called for Jesus Barabbas to be released and Jesus Christ to be crucified.

Again, unique to Matthew was the response of the crowd to take upon the guilt of Jesus’ death, something later Christians used to condemn all Jewish people. These passages must be read carefully and understood that all the Gospel writers were Jewish, along with Paul and all the New Testament writers—as well as Jesus himself—but the belief that this passage condemns all Jewish people is at least as old as the second century. Instead, the writer of Matthew may be interpreting this as accepting Jesus’s sacrifice for all people, including the crowds that condemned him, even when they did not know what they were doing.

The narrative shifts to Jesus’s crucifixion in 27:33, with Simon of Cyrene compelled to carry Jesus’s cross. Like Luke, in Matthew’s account Jesus was crucified with two others, probably political prisoners, and Jesus was mocked upon the cross. Vs. 45-56 contain Jesus’s death. There was an earthquake, and the curtain of the temple torn after Jesus’s last breath. The centurion and other guards who witnessed his death declared he was truly God’s son. The women who followed Jesus watched from a distance (and the shorter selection of the Gospel lesson ends here).

Vs. 57-61 contain the story of Jesus’s burial by Joseph, a rich man who was a disciple of Jesus from Arimathea. He had Jesus’s body placed in his own tomb, carved out of the rock, and a stone rolled in front of the tomb, where Mary Magdalene and the other Mary sat. Vs. 62-66 take place on Saturday, in which the chief priests and other religious leaders went to Pilate and told him to place guards around the tomb because they were afraid that people would say he rose from the dead, since that’s what Jesus told them. These verses, paired with 28:11-15, are meant to counter any stories that Jesus’s own disciples took his body and lied that he rose from the dead. While the writer set out to prove that Jesus rose from the dead within this narrative, these verses have also been used, like 27:25, to cast blame on Jewish people for Jesus’s death and to say that Jewish people lied about Jesus. Again, we must remember that Jesus and all the disciples were Jewish, and the only people who actually put Jesus to death were Pilate and the Roman soldiers and authorities, not the Jewish leaders or the Jewish people. The Gospel accounts were written at least forty years after Jesus’s death, when there was significant division between the followers of Jesus and others in the Jewish community—a division that wasn’t the case when Jesus and his disciples lived.

The Narrative Lectionary is the same as the Revised Common Lectionary for Palm Sunday lesson of Matthew 21 with the addition of verses 12-17, in which Jesus visited the temple. The first thing he did was to throw out the sellers and overturn the tables of the moneychangers. While he was there, people came to Jesus to be healed, and the religious leaders were angry that children praised Jesus and called him the Son of David. In response, Jesus quoted Psalm 8:3, that out of the mouths of children and infants would come praise for God. While the writer of Matthew quoted Hebrew scripture to prove Jesus was the Messiah, the author also used scripture to show that the people’s idea of the Messiah would be different. Jesus did not arrive as a warrior on a white horse, but humble, on a donkey and its colt. The people shouted Hosanna and praise for one entering a temple, who then went not to worship and be anointed, but to overturn the systems he saw as corrupt. He did not go to the religious leaders for wisdom or praise, but instead turned to those in need of healing and received praise from children, and the author of Matthew backs all of that up with scripture.

The supplemental scripture is also a portion of the Revised Common Lectionary for Palm Sunday, Psalm 118:25-29. These four verses emphasize the calling out to God by the psalmist to save the people, and blessing the one who comes in the name of the Lord. The psalmist brings the worship to the altar, and gives thanks to God, whose steadfast love endures forever.

From Palms to Passion, from triumphal entry to death on the cross, from hope to loss—the fullness of Holy Week is hard to express in one worship service, let alone a week of services. What we learn from the Gospel writers and all the stories, from the people coming out of exile, to the women at the tomb, is that God continues to do the unexpected. Even in the most difficult times, like the women who followed Jesus, sometimes all we can do is wait upon God. Wait and keep an active watch, for God will not keep silent.

Call to Worship (from Psalm 118:1-2, 24, 26)
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good;
God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Let all the people say,
God’s steadfast love endures forever.
This is the day that the Lord has made,
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,
May we bless one another, and our God, in this time of worship.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
God of all peoples, across all times, we come before You confessing that at times we hear what we want to hear. We listen for stories and scriptures and songs that affirm our view of the world and that we are on the right side. We confess that at times we have misheard and distorted the words passed down to us, believing we have the truth and others do not. We recognize that throughout history those with power and privilege have twisted accounts to shape their worldview, scapegoating and demonizing others. Forgive us, O God, for our pride, our selfishness, and our greed. Forgive us for the times we have demonized and scapegoated groups of people. Forgive us, most of all, for the ways we have minimized Jesus’s own identity as a Middle Easter Jewish man under the oppression of the Roman Empire, and the ways we have forgotten our own places of power and privilege. Call us into accountability to tell the truth of our shared history as Christians, and as followers of one who died for us all. We confess and pray, God of all the nations. Amen.

The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. All of the times you have felt rejected, discarded, minimalized, and left out—you are God’s cornerstone. You are God’s beloved and are wondrous in God’s view. Know your worth, that you are loved beyond measure. Christ is the cornerstone of Your life. Build your foundation upon Christ’s love for you, a love so strong that death could not stop it—and know that you are forgiven, loved, and restored. Amen.

God of all seasons, we come to You at the beginning of this Holy Week, a reminder of the fullness of Christ’s life and death. We know that while we shout “Hosanna!” and wave our palms to remember Your Son entering Jerusalem, we also remember the authorities closing in, that Jesus’s friends betrayed him and denied him, and in at the end of the week, he was killed among the other political criminals. We know that this week will get worse. When we know that things are going to get worse, it gets so much harder to hold on to hope. We feel the shadows closing in and despair crawling closer. The hope we hold on to this day is not for next Sunday, not the hope of resurrection and restoration, but right now, the hope that Jesus knows our most desperate moments. Jesus knows the very shadows we have faced. Jesus knows our loneliness, our despair, our hopelessness. Jesus knows the emptiness of the tomb. In that we find our hope and our life, for there is nothing we have been through that Christ, the Word Incarnate, has not also lived through. The hope found in this week is that even at our loneliest point, Jesus knows, and we are never truly alone. We thank You, Loving God of all seasons, for not letting us be alone, and for being with us in every moment, even the most difficult ones. Amen.

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