The Kingdom is Within


Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Palm Sunday, April 28th, 2024 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA

Philippians 4:4-9; John 12:1-18

Today, we gather with Palms in hand to commemorate Christ’s triumphant ride into the Jerusalem. And we greet Him not only as Messiah on this feast day, but also as King! And this is an important aspect of our celebration of Palm Sunday because this is exactly how the people of Jerusalem greeted Him 2000 years ago. This crowd had just witnessed the miracle of Lazarus being raised from the dead, and for this reason they understood Jesus to be the long promised Messiah. There is also a fulfillment of a prophecy in this moment which foretold that the coming one would enter as “triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on … the foal of a donkey.” The people standing about and waving palms of victory had every reason to believe that Jesus was their promised King! But their hopes were misdirected slightly, in that they believed the coming Messiah would usher in an physical kingdom here on earth. They believed Jesus would enter Jerusalem as a conquering King. And this is where their expectation missed the mark.

From the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus consistently told those to whom he ministered that God’s Kingdom is NOT of this world. “The Kingdom does not come as something one observes,” Jesus tells a group of Pharisees in Luke 17, “For, look” the Kingdom of God is within you.” [1] Standing before Pontius Pilate in John 18, Jesus says very plainly: “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” [2] Perhaps most striking is the moment Jesus was lead into the desert to be tempted by Satan following a 40-day period of fasting. After being lead to the top of a mountain, the adversary shows Him all the kingdoms of the world shining in their glory. And very slyly, Satan leans in and whispers to Jesus, I will give you all this…. “If only you bow down and worship me.”

Now, if Jesus was truly interested in the glory of earthly Kingdoms, this story would have turned out much different. But you and i already know how the story ends. Jesus shuns the lure of earthy power, and He tells the devil to bugger off.

Now, the desert fathers and mothers of our church tell us that the adversary used these particular forms of temptation get Jesus to question His very identity as the Son of God. And likewise for us, temptation can greet us in subtle ways that might get us to question who we are as followers of Christ, perhaps even to question our understanding of God’s goodness, or what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God.

C.S. Lewis illustrates the subtleness of such tempting moments like this in his book “The Screwtape Letters,” which has largely been overlooked in Orthodox circles. In the book, Lewis creates the fictional account of an elder demon writing to a younger apprentice demon on the best methodologies for distracting Christians from the practice of their faith. In an early chapter, the elder demon tells his apprentice to remember: “…the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, [and] without signposts.” [3]

Now this fictional write-up I think this gets to the heart of the matter because it speaks to the notion of misdirection. Misdirection can greet us in ways that appear perfectly sound, but in reality is a subtle twist on the truth of things. And if we can question the truth of things slowly and over time, we might wind up further adrift from reality than we’d ever expect. Here’s another example from Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters,” that helps illustrate the point. The elder demon instructs that

“The best thing, [wherever] possible, is to keep the [human] from the serious intent of praying altogether… the simplest [way] is to turn their gaze away from [God and] towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask God for charity, let them instead start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves, and not notice that this is what they are doing… when they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling …” [4]

Now, how exactly does this relate to Palm Sunday? If we harken back to the Judeans waving Palms and cheering forth the man they expect to ride in and defeat the Romans — that is, to establish the nation of Israel here on earth, well … this expectation is a type of misdirection characterized in the Lewis quote from above: “turn their gaze away from [God and] towards themselves,” The people of Judea aren’t interested in the goodness of the Kingdom that Jesus promises. They want a messiah who will bring them political liberation. Their desire, is a god who will give them what they want — a god in their own image!

Now we don’t have to think too hard on this concept to understand it, because these same attitudes are present to us here in the Orthodox Church of today. One example is the growing devotion to Christian Nationalism here in America, which is nothing more than an distraction from, or a misdirection of the actual teachings of Jesus ABOUT the Kingdom of God. The reason we have all gathered to celebrate this day, and the reason the Church has continued to commemorate Palm Sunday for nearly 2000 years, is because we once chose faith in Christ through baptism. And we should never forget… that when we were baptized, we were baptized into our own death. And it was through baptism that we agreed to make Christ the Lord over every aspect of our lives, and therefore we cannot die to Christ and take up His Cross while swearing allegiance to earthy kingdoms.

In God’s Kingdom, by contrast, we pray for those who persecute us, we shun power, we feed the hungry, we cloth the naked, we do not take up arms against our enemies, and we see all people as fellow humans created in the image of God. There is no earthly Kingdom that upholds these practices — and make no mistake, Christian Nationalism is nothing more than a repackaged version of an earthly kingdom decorated in religious imagery. It is the very temptation Satan offered to Jesus in the wilderness.

The Apostle Paul exhorts us in today’s epistle reading to “keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. … whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure … think about these things.” This IS the Kingdom! And we must always remember that it is not WE who define these concepts. If we lean to far into what WE think is good, and true, and right, we risk being easily lead away from, or misdirected from the REAL Christ! Which is exactly what happened to those who greeted Christ with Palms 2000 years ago. Once they realized Jesus wasn’t interested in their version of the Kingdom, it takes only a few days before they begin (clamor?) cry aloud for his death!

Let us not yearn for the earthly reign of a political or religious zealot, but rather let us run to meet the TRUE Christ!

St Andrew of Crete tells us that: “He is coming who is everywhere present and pervades all things; he is coming to achieve in you his work of universal salvation… Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion… Then we shall be able to receive the Word at his coming, and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us.” [5]


1. Luke 17:20-21 - David Bentley Hart, trans., The New Testament: A Translation. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

2. John 18:36 (NRSV)

3. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company. 1961). 56.

4. Ibid, Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. 19-21.

5. Oration for Palm Sunday, St. Andrew of Crete “Oration with Palm Branches (Oration 9, PG 97, 990-994: 1002)