Palm/Passion Sunday presents a dilemma for clergy. On the one hand, we want to reenact the celebrative spirit of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. On the other hand, we know that the shouts of “Hosanna!” soon become shouts of “Crucify him!” Even the name of this sacred Sunday—“Palm/Passion” Sunday—underscores the dilemma. Do we focus on the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, or do we focus on Jesus’ suffering and death? Adding to the dilemma is the fact that most of our congregation, in spite of our best efforts to convince them otherwise, will not attend Holy Thursday and/or Good Friday services. The end result is that the majority of our congregation move directly from the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to the resurrection on Easter Sunday, without making a visit to the crucified God on Good Friday.
Last year, we tried to have it both ways at my congregation. We began the service with the joyful celebration of the triumphal entry, complete with palm branches, an adult and children’s choir processional, and the joyful voices of our children’s choir singing special music for the occasion, including “We’re Leading the Way for the King of Kings.” But a little later in the service we made a shift, moving away from the praise of our Lord to the passion of our Lord. Although it wasn’t a perfect solution to the annual dilemma, it seemed to work well. The following ideas will help you create a similar service at your church. (If your Holy Thursday or Good Friday services are well attended and you don’t wish to blend both themes into Palm Sunday, these ideas would work just as well later in the week.)
1. Two-Section Worship Outline
Our printed bulletin clearly distinguished the two sections of the service: “The Praise of our Lord” and “The Passion of our Lord,” with the various elements of worship that fell under that portion of the service. Each section had a guiding Scripture to set the tone.
The Praise of our Lord
“A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
The Passion of our Lord
“Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” So … after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.”
2. Dramatic Monologues
We began the service with a brief dramatic monologue in costume by a fictional bystander from Jerusalem on the day that Jesus entered the city. Then, after a set of celebrative songs, a Scripture reading about the triumphal entry, the children’s choir specials, and the offering/offertory—a joyful Palm Sunday anthem by the adult choir—this same bystander gave another brief monologue, which served as the shift from the praise to the passion.
Although I wrote the monologues, I secured a member of the congregation with strong acting skills to perform them. The two brief monologues follow.
First Monologue: “The Day Jesus Came to Town”
It was an exciting week in Jerusalem. Rumors had been circulating for days that Jesus was coming to our city. We had heard many things about Jesus of Nazareth—about his miracles, about his teachings, and about his love for people. Many people believed that he was a prophet, and some even believed that he was the promised Messiah. I didn’t know what to think about Jesus. But I was excited to hear he would soon arrive in Jerusalem. Like many others, I was curious to see this man that all of Israel was talking about. I vividly remember the day that Jesus came to town. It was the Sunday before Passover. I was working in my shop when I began to hear all kinds of commotion. Hundreds of people began flocking to the streets. They began to shout, “Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming!” People began to break palm branches from trees, and threw them on the road as Jesus passed by. A few moments later I saw Jesus, riding on a donkey. Electricity was in the air. People were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” The children got especially excited about Jesus’ arrival. Up and down the street, I saw children waving palm branches and crying out, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” Finally, Jesus passed right by my shop. I only got a quick glance at him. But he looked right at me, and he smiled.
Second Monologue: “Five Days Later”
I’ll never forget that week in Jerusalem. Everywhere I went people were talking about Jesus. But each day the mood was changing. Instead of praising Jesus, people began to criticize him. I don’t know the details, but Jesus got into some kind of trouble with the authorities, and they put him on trial. Finally, on Friday, Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd. He offered to release Jesus, but the people wanted him killed. I couldn’t understand it. Just five days earlier, people were shouting, “Hosanna!” to Jesus. But now, those same people were shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And that’s just what they did. The soldiers beat him and mocked him, then they took him outside of the city, and they executed him on a cross.
I preached a sermon called “The Crucified God” that focused on Jesus’ death. The sermon reminded the congregation that God is a God of suffering who enters human suffering and ultimately redeems it. (A complete manuscript of the sermon is available on my website, www.gettingreadyforsunday.com.)
4. Holy Communion
After the sermon we observed communion, focusing on the death of Christ, primarily by singing songs and hymns about Christ’s death while we served the elements. Although we usually observe Holy Communion with an upbeat and celebrative tone, the mood for this service was far more somber, setting the stage for a Holy Week commemorating Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The celebration of Easter Sunday is even more jubilant when we’ve recognized the despair that preceded the glorious resurrection.
Martin Thielen serves as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Lebanon, Tennessee. His preaching and worship Web site, including sermons and series, is www.GettingReadyForSunday.com. Martin’s most recent book is “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” A Guide to What Matters Most. Complete information about the book, including a free Leader’s Guide, can be found at http://thielen.wjkbooks.com.