Sermons That Work

Most of Us Try and Steer…, Palm Sunday (C) – 2004

April 04, 2004


Most of us try and steer clear of violent emotional swings. Elation is wonderful as long as it isn’t shattered by the cold slap in the face of disaster. Driving along a mountain road, taking in the scenery, alive with a sense of joy and wonder is one thing, but to be hit head on by a speeding SUV coming in the other direction is something else.

St. Paul wrote to the Philippian Church some years before the Gospels appeared. Paul can write lyrically about the events that begin with Palm Sunday and end on Easter Day without experiencing, first hand, the highs and lows of the Passion. That is not to say that Paul isn’t moved. The passage we have just heard contains some of the most beautiful language the apostle penned, and perhaps fragments from a very early Christian Hymn.

Paul proclaims that Jesus is “in the form of God,” is “equal with God.” That’s a hard subject for a first century Jew to contemplate let alone write about. Paul believed passionately that there is one God and one God alone. Yet here he is, through belief and experience, stating that Jesus is God: But what sort of God?

Here’s the scandal. Jesus, who is God, willingly empties himself to become a slave. It’s nearly 150 years since slavery was abolished .in the United States. None of us has any living memory of that vile institution. A slave was the lowest form of humanity, with no rights. He or she was owned as if a cow or a horse.

Imagine God as a slave. The Almighty becomes the “might-less.” In that position of utter vulnerability, he has no defense. The God who is utterly human humbles himself to death.

Almost without a pause, St. Paul jumps to the resurrection.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Perhaps you have sung that great hymn, “At the Name of Jesus” recently, even today? Yet St. Paul’s thoughts on Holy Week are so much easier to digest than St. Luke’s story we have heard today. There’s been much criticism about the violence portrayed in Mel Gibson’s movie of “The Passion”. But to hear and read the Gospel readings today, if we really listen, is to find ourselves engulfed in a brutal narrative. Those South American crucifixes streaming with blood more accurately portray the Passion than our chastely engraved crosses of gold or silver.

Nor is St. Luke’s story in the least bit anti-Semitic although it may be used in such a way by hateful people. The rogues of the story are not Jews, but some people who happen to be Jewish and some people who happen to be Roman and of course the mob. Mobs can appear in any country.

How wonderful it was for the disciples to enter Jerusalem with their King. They made such a noise that the religious folk, the Pharisees, asked Jesus to shut them up. The disciples were elated. Most of us have experienced moments of religious elation when heaven and earth seem to come together and nothing possible can ever be wrong again.

But then our readings take us swiftly down the steep slope of reality. In the garden Jesus kneels in anguish and terror as he takes in all that now will happen. He is betrayed by a disciple, arrested and dragged before cynical and important folk who will do anything to keep their jobs, preserve the status quo, and get rid of a trouble maker.

Then comes the trial before that bloody-thirsty wretch Pilate, the henchman of a disgusting paranoid Emperor, the most powerful person in the world. Then troops beat Jesus half to death. He is then burdened with the cross, made to stumble along to the hill of execution, and there killed in a brutally long execution.

St. Luke then writes: “But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

It’s the distance that is the problem. We are so used to looking at violence from a distance. We see innocent people killed and mutilated almost daily as we watch TV and chew a hamburger. Perhaps during this Holy Week we will be so far apart that we won’t even give time to be in church to keep watch as the drama of our redemption unfolds in the liturgy. Our faith calls us to get closer, to imagine the mystery of a God whose love is so great that he shares the worst that can happen to us in order to bring us to the best that can be.

Those of us who work hard to avoid suffering, who have no earthly idea how to deal with tragedy, loss, death itself, those of us who will skip Good Friday, preferring the joy of Easter Day, are challenged by these readings to come closer. We are called to stand at the foot of the Cross with Mary the Mother and St. John. We are asked to reach out and touch that Body and that Blood “given for us,” the very bread of heaven and the cup of salvation and “to feed on him in our hearts with thanksgiving.” For in a way we cannot explain, the Cross changes everything for us and for the world. Our loving God forgives us and would make us new. Perhaps all attempts to explain what we call the Atonement fail in the face of this earthy mystery. We resort to the lines from familiar hymns in faith and adoration.

He died that we might be forgiven. He died to make us good. He died that we might go to Heaven, saved by his Precious Blood.

O dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too.

And so, to return to St. Paul, we are all to bow our knees, at the Name of Jesus, and proclaim in our hearts and lives that Jesus is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father.

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