Lenten Evangelism #10: Palm Sunday and the City of Man

Palm Sunday in Emmaus, Pennsylvania
Palm Sunday in Emmaus, Pennsylvania

Palm Sunday, April 5, 2015
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today, the tenth and final Sunday of the Triodion, Palm Sunday, we complete our series on evangelism. And I would like for us to put a capstone on what we have been building for the past nine weeks regarding this last command of our Lord Jesus Christ to preach the Gospel and to put it especially into the context of this great feast of the Triumphal Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem.

To be a Christian in this world, especially an Orthodox Christian, is to find ourselves in a city that is not our own. We are in the world, but not of the world (John 17:15-16).

This separation that we have from the world is perhaps no more pronounced than it is during Great Lent and Holy Week. During this season, we radically change two things for ourselves which are among the most profoundly human and pervasive in their influence in our humanity—time and food.

We dedicate a lot more time to being here in church. Almost no one does Lent any more like the Orthodox. Hours and hours are spent every week during this Lent engaged in prayer. And from the Friday evening before Lazarus Saturday through Agape Vespers on Pascha, we will celebrate twenty-three services totaling somewhere between thirty and forty hours of prayer.

But it’s not just the amount of time that is changed. It is what we do with that time. We spend this time here engaged in a battle against our sinful tendencies, a battle for beauty, a battle for peace. Yes, we wage a war here during Lent, and it is a war for peace, for a paradoxical peace that cannot be given by this world. And we wage this war not just by the physical actions of prayer and concentration and bowing and prostrating, but by seeking the very face of God from our souls. We seek His face in order that we may be changed. And time itself is redeemed (Eph. 5:16).

But we also change food during this season. To whatever degree we are able to fast, we fast. And this makes no sense to the world. The world knows about diets, of course—South Beach diet, Mediterranean diet, Atkins diet, gluten-free diet, Paleo diet, etc., etc.—but the world doesn’t get fasting. The world doesn’t get that when you practice saying no to just a few things, then your will strengthens and you can say no to sin. The world isn’t interested in saying no to sin. But fasting helps you not to sin. It helps to make you strong so that you have enough strength to say yes to the presence of God.

We do not change our time and our food in order to put on a display for anyone. We do these things because we Christians are not of this world. Time and food get down to the heart of the human experience, and we change those things for ourselves for a season so that we are strengthened in our sense of being “called out” from this world.

Because that is who we are. We are “called out.” The word for the Church in the original language of Christian Scripture and theology, which is Greek, is ekklesia. And ekklesia means “called out.” The Church is the people who are called out from this world. We are not of this world. As St. Paul puts it in Hebrews 13:14, “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.”

On the one hand, there are Christians who see our being “called out” as referring perhaps only to what we do on Sunday morning or on feast days. They have little sense of separation from the world. The City of God is something that is someday to come, but in the meanwhile, we live in the City of Man, and so we naturally live according to its rules and expectations. Christians do not need to stand out from among those around them. No need to make any noise. We’ll just be religious off in the corner over here and not bother anyone.

On the other hand, the way that we as Christians sometimes attempt to live out our calling as the ones who are “called out” can instead strongly emphasize that sense of separation. As long as things are fine here inside the Church, then why should we care about what happens outside? We seek the city that is to come, the City of God, but out there is the City of Man, which is governed by passions and the brokenness that has prevailed since the Fall of Mankind.

And sometimes that separation is emphasized out of fear for what might happen to us if we try to bring our faith outside of the walls of the Church or the privacy of our homes. What happens when I try to bring the City of God out into the City of Man?

All these considerations now bring us to this holy feast which we are celebrating, Palm Sunday, the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem of the Lord Jesus Christ on the back of a donkey. The crowds are yelling “Hosanna!” and calling Him the “King of Israel.” Jesus enters into the city, and we enter with Him.

This detail cannot be overlooked. The Lord Jesus is entering into a city. Yes, it is the Holy City of Jerusalem. But it is not the City of God, the city “that is to come.” No, this is a city ruled by men, a city which today is praising Him but in just a few days will be killing Him. Jesus enters into the City of Man in order to die.

If we truly are the Body of Jesus Christ, then we are entering into that city with Him. We cannot stand outside while He goes in and does what He needs to do. If we stand outside, then we are separated from Christ.

Christ has called us to follow Him, and so we follow Him into the City of Man, which in this moment is also the city of Jerusalem, the city which kills the prophets (Matt. 23:37) and which will kill even the Son of God. But the City of Man has always killed. The very founder of the first city in human history was Cain (Gen. 4), the brother of Abel, who murdered his brother. It is not only Jerusalem Jesus is entering. He has entered into Mankind itself, the City of Man that is the whole of human history and civilization, the city built upon murder and blood. He has entered mankind, even though He knows that mankind will reject Him, that mankind will kill Him. And we enter with Him.

So much happens in our world that we may sometimes wonder how much longer the world can hold together, how much longer the City of Man will stand, whether it can stand at all. There will come a day when all the kingdoms of this world will fall and all will become the Lord’s. The Book of Revelation mentions this in its eleventh chapter: “Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!’” (Rev. 11:15).

We cannot abandon the City of Man, because the destiny of the City of Man is actually to become the City of God. When the Son of God entered into humanity, taking human nature into Himself, human nature was redeemed and became capable of being divinized, filled up with the presence of God Himself, healed and transfigured into a vessel of the glory of God. And when the Church enters with her Lord into the City of Man, that city gains the possibility of being transfigured into the City of God. The City of Man is assumed into the Church and changed into the Church as it is received.

But like our Lord, the Church has to be humble. The Church has to die. The Church has to die to the world so that the world may live. And then we who are the Church become “the fullness of Him Who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23).

So we enter the city with the Lord Jesus today. We shout out “Hosanna!” to the King of Israel. But we do so as people who will not reject Him and kill Him, but as people who have believed in Him. And when we enter the city with Him, we also will die to the world and for the world. We also will be crucified. But we also will rise again. And this is our evangelism—for the life of the world and its salvation.

And He shall reign forever and ever, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, unto ages of ages. Amen.