The Lectionary provides Palm Sunday options for churches that are not offering Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, or who expect very small attendance relative to a Sunday service. In addition to the Gospel reading specifically focused on Palm Sunday there are two options for instead reading Luke’s passion narrative: the two versions of the “Liturgy of the Passion.”
- There is the super-dooper long version (Luke 22:14-23:56).
- And for the faint of heart there is the merely super-long version (Luke 23:1-49).
In either option a preacher faces an insurmountable challenge. There are too many scenes, too much action, too much evocative dialogue, and all of it pointing to the core events of salvation history.
A preacher needs to be able to focus in on one point, one narrative turn or evocative saying.
The Liturgy of the Passion
But in these huge texts of the Passion one sermon can barely recite the outline:
- 22:14-20: The Last Supper
- 22:21-38: Conversations after Supper
- 22:39-46: Mount of Olives (Gethsemane)
- 22:47-53: Arrest
- 22:54-62: Peter’s denials.
- 22:73-71: Beaten and tried by the Council.
- 23:1-12: Before Pilate and Herod.
- 23:13-25: Pilate sentences Jesus to death.
- 23:26-31: On the road to the Cross.
- 23:32-43: Crucified between criminals.
- 23:44-49 : Jesus’ death and responses.
- 23:50-56: Joseph buries Jesus’ body.
As a Pastor: The Reader’s Theatre Option
But then, when it comes to the Passion story, the text speaks powerfully on its own — more powerfully that a sermon by just about any pastor.
We somehow assume that we are only being biblical preachers if we say our own piece interpreting Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. We think that was Paul’s approach because he said
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2 NRSV)
but that text is not about preaching. It is about how a Christian knows a community.
Yes, Paul did
…proclaim Christ crucified…” (1 Corinthians 1:23 NRSV)
but that doesn’t mean every sermon was about the Passion narrative. It is a statement that he does proclaim the effective work of Christ on the Cross.
No, I think if on Palm Sunday you need to use the “Liturgy of the Passion,” either the long or the short version of Luke’s Passion narrative, you would do best to let the text itself be in the foreground.
I suspect that unless you are really very skilled at oral interpretation (like trained in it, enthusiastic about it, and well received when you do it) that it is not a good idea to read the whole thing yourself.
Better to present it as “reader’s theatre.” That’s when you divide the reading of the text up among a number of readers, each of whom voices a particular part, or character. One reads the narrator, one reads Jesus, one reads Pilate, etc.
Now in Luke’s passion narrative you need quite a few people to pull this off. If you have about three disciples and about three members of the Council, then let the servants who question Peter double up as crowd voices, criminals, and soldiers you would need about twelve. (Maybe seven with the shorter reading.) But you can divvy up the parts the way you want.
Sometimes churches have the whole congregation voice the crowd bits, guiding them with a bulletin insert — and I tell you, it is moving, heartbreaking, to have to shout out
Crucify! Crucify him!
Really, even badly done reader’s theatre is better than a just okay solo reading — if the measure is whether people really hear the story and get engaged.
As a Christian: A Series of Evocative Moments
But as a Christian meditating on this lengthy narrative on my own, I’m led to ponder a rich series of evocative moments.
Every one of the twelve sections in my outline above would be fodder for a mediation and fill a blog post. But I’m not going to go there with this post.
Instead I’ll just note briefly some of the fascinating smaller moments woven into the big picture outline.
1. The first cup
In Luke 22, unlike the other versions of the Last Supper, Jesus offers two cups of wine — one before the bread and one after. The first cup (22:17-18) comes with a pledge that Jesus will not drink wine again until the kingdom comes.
It is an evocative difference. Multiple cups makes it sound even more like a Passover seder, and his promise of abstinence makes the coming kingdom feel even more imminent.
When and how does he conceive the kingdom of God coming? He’s said much about it in parables. It seems to be already present, and it seems to be still to come. It seems to come with Easter, then even more at Pentecost, and yet seems to be about his eventual return.
2. Bickering Disciples
I really love how Luke presents the conversation after Jesus says one of them will betray him (22:21-24).
First they go into an apoplexy of self doubt.
Is it me? Could I be the one who will betray him?
Why ask? Wouldn’t they know?
But then if I look in the mirror I inevitably encounter someone who could totally fail my Lord. And who has. And who will. So,
Is it I Lord?
But then, in the very next phrase, the conversation flows seamlessly from self-accusation to self-aggrandizement.
Again they argue about who is the greatest — territory they’d already covered back in chapter 9.
And isn’t that the way it works? Inside I bounce back and forth between ridiculous extremes of doubt and pride. And I don’t even notice the transition.
Jesus response is consistent: Focus instead on helping others. That’s the greatness he values.
3. The Kingdom Promise
After settling that dispute, Jesus makes the big reveal: He tells the Apostles what is in store for them in God’s kingdom (22:28-30)
It’s a pretty dramatic, radical set of rewards:
- They get a kingdom of their own.
- They get to sit at Jesus’ table.
- They will be the judges of Israel’s twelve tribes.
Gotta say, the only one that really sounds good to me is the second one. I never wanted to be in charge of a kingdom, and I never wanted to sit in judgment.
Actually I’m plenty judgmental, but it’s something I try to fight against. And most of the tribes of Israel were long since lost to history.
But I know Jesus meant well.
He is really honoring the Apostles, lifting them up to places of honor and authority — and those words “honor” and “authority,” as a hope and a promise, are powerful.
His words indicate that the Apostles (and, by connection, we ourselves) have been given Jesus’ genuine respect. May I become worthy of that respect in time.
4. The Disciples and Violence
When the promises had been made, and Peter had been encouraged to support the others after they all fell away from him, Jesus announces a change of strategy.
No more traveling light:
- Bring your money.
- Bring an extra bag.
- Bring your coat.
And none of this swords into plowshares stuff:
- Buy a sword.
But then they take him literally. And twice he has to reign them in about it.
Nobody got excited about the call to bring money and an extra bag and a coat. No: the boys were into the weapons.
Somebody looked around. It turns out two of the Apostles were already packing.
Lord, look, here are two swords!” (Luke 22:38 NRSV — I added the exclamation point.)
Why am I not surprised?
Jesus had just told them all to get swords but he must have meant it metaphorically. It turns out two was plenty:
He replied, ‘It is enough.’” (Luke 22:38 NRSV)
Alrighty then. Put the dangerous toys away, gentlemen.
But did they get the point, as it were? No.
When they came to arrest Jesus, somebody in the Apostolic band thought
This is it! Let’s do this thing!
Or as the text puts it,
they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ (Luke 22:49 NRSV)
Well at least somebody asked. But somebody didn’t wait for an answer:
Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear.” (Luke 22:50 NRSV)
They should all have waited. The answer was apparently an exasperated sigh:
But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:51 NRSV)
So maybe those who use this passage as justification for Christians bearing arms should keep this in mind: To be really biblical about it they also need to be able to heal the injuries they inflict.
5. The Pathos and Compassion
One thing I love in this passage is the deep feeling, both pathos and compassion, woven in throughout.
- Jesus in the garden is so stressed that he sweats blood. (22:44)
- When Peter fulfills Jesus’ sad prediction of betrayal, Luke notes that Jesus turned and looked him in the eye — which broke Peter’s heart. (22:61-62)
- As Jesus walked toward his execution, he took a moment to speak comfort and warning to the women in the crowd. (23:28-31)
- And as he hung from spikes driven through his hands and feet, Jesus had the presence of mind and the depth of soul to forgive his killers and promise a penitent criminal entry to paradise. (23:34-43)
There is of course much more. But these are the little between-the-lines moments that capture my mind and heart as I spend time this week in these weighty stories.
May your Holy Week provide you opportunities for rich worship and meditation on these events which made our salvation possible and which give our new life sober hope and complicated meaning.
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