Palm Sunday – fling wide the gates!

This is the gate of the Lord;
those who are righteous may enter. Psalm 118:20
I imagine that most of us find a door that bears the sign ‘Private – Keep out’ intriguing. I know that if I find such a door in a National Trust house I want to turn the handle and find out what’s on the other side. Something in me wants to go where others don’t want me to. And there was once in my life when I discovered that the college I wanted to go to in Oxford still had its doors closed to women undergraduates, and so I rang them up and asked when they would be changing that.

I wonder whether you’ve had a really profound experience of finding a locked gate or a bolted door keeping you out. Many of us find in our lives that there are doors locked to keep us from something, that there are barriers keeping us back, that we are shut out of the party or the club or the conversation or the friendship, or even the church. And sometimes, perhaps to shield ourselves against a thousand possible exclusions, we take things into our own hands and we shut the doors down first ourselves. We close ourselves down, lock the gates against pain and seal ourselves up behind doors of our own making.

And sometimes people have believed that even God exists only behind doors, in a holy city perhaps or a special place. And that only the very special, the very holy, or the peculiarly righteous can go in. Those who are righteous may enter, says the Psalmist.

Looking down over Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives you can see gates in the city wall. Not many months ago I was myself caught in the crowds leaving Friday prayers from the many mosques in Jerusalem and I was squeezed along with countless others through a tiny gateway until we emerged at last into the wider streets outside the city. But there is one gate in Jerusalem that is bricked up. And the guides will tell tourists that this is the one through which the Messiah will come when he enters the holy city. Some of them will say that it was this gate through which Jesus came on the first Palm Sunday. And some will say that this gate, now bricked up, will be opened when Jesus returns in glory to claim his own. The story today is all about a Saviour who comes and opens up the doors.

Did you ever as a child or since play that game with your fingers – here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and here’s all the people? The delight on a child’s face mirrors the delight all of us feel when a closed placed is opened to us. One of the most famous paintings of Christ, Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ shows Jesus knocking on a door. And on Palm Sunday we have a tremendous and powerful story of Christ’s entry through the gates of the city and more. And today’s story is just the beginning of a story of the God who comes to open all the doors that prevent us from finding the life and joy we were made for.

The story of Palm Sunday has lots of echoes of a time long ago in Israel’s story when the people brought the ark of the covenant, carrying the very presence of God, and placed it in the Temple. They came with dancing and with joy, into their new and wonderful city. It was as though God was coming home at last to be with them. But this wonderful experience, this glorious hallowing of a city, became somehow, slowly, something else. Gradually, over time, the doors of the Temple and even the gates of the city came to be shut against some of the people of God. Only the priest, and only then once a year, could go into the Holy of Holies and be in the very presence of God. And though the people came on pilgrimage several times a year to the holy city, it was as though God was there behind the city walls for most of their lives while they had to live in other places; harassed by the Romans, laden with guilt over their sins, troubled by all the things that torment human lives still.

And this little story of Jesus, the prophet from Galilee, from a place as apparently godless as Nazareth, tells us about the God who comes and enters the city with his rag tag collection of followers, who worries not at all if they are pure enough or holy enough or sinless enough, who just comes into the city and goes straight to the holy place, to the Temple. And the Gospel tells us that he didn’t only enter the city, he entered the Temple too. Every word here is freighted with meaning. He entered. He went in. He went in through the gates and through the doors. And when he got there he changed things.

Just a bit later on in the story the writer of Matthew’s Gospel tells us what happened at the very moment when Jesus died. The curtain of the Temple – the one that kept the people out of the Holy of holies – was torn in two from top to bottom. Jesus, somehow, broke down that door too – and on behalf of all of us found his way in to the very presence of God. It’s not only those with clean hands and pure hearts who can stand in God’s presence – it’s all of us now, all of us who are like those first disciples in that Palm Sunday procession. The curtain between the people and the priests might has well have been a fortress but Jesus got in through that door too and took us all with him. His story tells us that we need no priests, not even purity, no status or knowledge to know God. He came to open the doors. In this sense, he is the way to God. He is the way in through all the locked doors and shut gates that there could ever be.

And very early in the early church Christians began to say that before he rose from death Jesus went and knocked down the gates of Hell and rescued the dead. On many Orthodox icons of the resurrection you can see Jesus raised in triumph and standing on a pair of doors that have clearly been knocked from their hinges and laid on the ground. Jesus enters the city through the gates on Palm Sunday, enters the Temple, tears the curtain in two and even breaks down the gates of Hell, opens up the tomb of death, and in his Ascension he storms heaven too, taking us there with him. The story of Palm Sunday, the entry into the holy city, is just the beginning of Jesus’ collection of broken down doors.

Perhaps these seem to you like ancient stories, filled with wonder, but far away from our experience. But perhaps you know what is like to feel shut out and afraid and far from God. And perhaps you look around at the world and see so many people trapped by loneliness or tragedy, shut out of life by suffering or poverty. Holiness and hope seem locked away, as though behind doors and gates. The Gospel tells us a story of the God who comes and opens the doors and flings wide the gates. Whatever door you are locked behind, whatever gates keep you from yourself or from God, Jesus can open them. Whatever pain you bear, whatever hope you long for, Jesus sets you free. Jesus shows us the God who opens doors, who unlocks hearts, who welcomes us home.

There’s a wonderful sonnet by John Donne, that says

Batter my heart, three-personed God…
I, like an usurped town to another due,
Labour to admit you’.

Donne recognised in his day that hearts and people can be locked up like cities, and that many of us are afraid to open the doors, and that it’s not always easy to let yourself be open to the presence of God. And through Holy Week, Jesus will knock at our hearts this day and through this week as we hear his story again.

So, let’s rejoice on Palm Sunday and pray that we, like the ancient city, may let him come in, so that he can sweep away what’s wrong in our lives, tear down the curtains that shut out the light, and let life begin again. That would be something at which to shout Hosanna!