The King Comes to the City

I pastor a congregation of people who clap their hands a lot. We clap while singing. We clap when fellow worshipers speak a word of testimony and mutual encouragement. Once in a while the congregation even claps when I make a strong point in my sermon.

We have no prescribed pattern for clapping, no rules for when it is or is not appropriate. But I can think of at least one time when it would be impossible and wrong for us not to clap…

Let me back up a little. Ten years ago, on Palm Sunday, we had our first worship service here at Roseland Christian Ministries Center (RCMC) on Chicago’s south side. We’re located in a neighborhood that has been severely ravaged during the last decade. (Even today there are twenty-three boarded up, abandoned houses within two blocks of where I sit to write this.) Because we minister to many harassed and helpless sheep, we stay open seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, from November to April. The Black Gangster Disciple Nation and the El Rukns are both on our turf. (Last evening four of our teens got stomped on and beat up by thirty BGDN members.) We’ve had a murder —not in the cathedral, but in the parking lot outside. And last winter four of our families were without heat. It’s tough.

But the people know how to clap.

Every year it’s the Palm Sunday clapping that sends shivers up my spine. On that day I think it’d be wrong for the people not to clap their hands. The applause, I say, makes them participants in the drama of Christ the King entering the city.

The service begins with the children. They come in waving palm branches and singing “Hallelujah! King Jesus!” They do so both in anticipation of the day when we will all stand before the throne, holding palm branches in our hands (Rev. 7:9), and in remembrance of the first Palm Sunday celebration.

But in this special service we do more than anticipate and remember. We reenact the drama of redemption and act out the present ongoing work of redemption in the city. The movement within the service keeps working that theme of the reality of the kingship of Jesus. Psalm 24 is read as high drama. The gospel choir, with piano and drums and tambourine, leads the congregation in songs of praise. RCMC’s birthday anniversary turns into a celebration of Christ in the concrete city.

Palm Sunday is also the one time during the year when I preach a first-person-singular sermon. One time I was a twelve-year-old boy who was present in Jerusalem when Jesus wept over the city (Luke 19:41). I saw him sobbing. I saw the dirty tracks running down his face. I heard the disciples and the children shout their hosannas. I saw the Pharisees become incensed. I heard Jesus announce that somebody or something in creation would shout—no matter what. It couldn’t be any other way. And then I, a grinning twelve-year-old kid with a chick tucked under my arm (“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I wanted to gather your children as a hen gathers her chicks…”), walked up to the donkey Jesus was riding on, slapped it on the rear end, and shouted, "Ride on, King Jesus!"

And that’s when the congregation spontaneously broke into applause. And I felt that if they had been quiet, the stones would have shouted. The people were not only an audience listening to a sermon but participants in the ongoing drama of redemption.They had a sense that Jesus was coming, as King, to Chicago— and that the celebration would continue on into the Holy City of God.

I’d like to tell you how we, as a Reformed church, then moved on in the liturgy to “Words of Testimony and Mutual Encouragement.” Clapping in church, on Palm Sunday, is a testimony and an encouragement.

The people clap their hands a lot.

Anthony Van Zanten is a retired pastor of Roseland Christian Ministries Center in Chicago.