Sermon 3/28/10, Luke 19:28-40, Luke 22:14-23:56
Palm/Passion Sunday Meditation
Today we celebrate Palm/Passion Sunday. Passion Sunday used to be celebrated as its own Sunday during the fifth week of Lent, before Palm Sunday. But when the common lectionary was developed, the common set of texts we use each week, Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday were joined together in one Sunday, for a few reasons. First, a practical reason: these days, less and less people celebrate the full Holy Week - people might attend on the Sundays: Palm Sunday, and then Easter. However, missing Holy Week - Maundy Thursday and Good Friday - means missing the middle and very important part of the story - the trial and crucifixion. How can you have Jesus' resurrection without his death? If you go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter, from triumph to triumph, you miss a lot of the reason for the celebration next Sunday. Celebrating Palm/Passion Sunday together means you get the whole story.
But I think there's a deeper reason to have these two themes share the same Sunday morning space. They are poignant enough alone, full of meaning. But together, with their stark contrasts, these texts hit even harder. Palm/Passion Sunday together is a day of irony, of juxtaposition, of bringing two things together that don’t seem like they should go together. Irony is when there is a contradiction between an action or expression, and the context in which the action or expression occurs. The two passages, then, that we read today, are full of irony. Contradictions. We find disciples who were following Jesus’ command, coming into Jerusalem with him, and those same disciples denying and betraying him as soon as things got too difficult. We find crowds with Jesus in both passages, crowds shouting. First, “Hosanna,” but then, “crucify him!” We find powerful leaders – Pharisees and High Priests – seemingly scared of Jesus and the power this man from Nazareth seems to have – and yet they were the ones with the power to arrest Jesus and put him on trial. We find Jesus called a king – first a king who is blessed because he comes in God’s name, and then a king of the Jews, those very words serving as his death sentence. We find Jesus, condemned and killed as a criminal offering forgiveness from the death chamber, the cross. We find speakers of truth, people strangely aware of who Jesus really was, in a thief on another cross, and in a centurion, a Roman participating in the crucifixion. Contradictions. Irony.
We’ve been living with these contradictions and juxtapositions throughout Lent. Why do you labor for that which does not satisfy? Isaiah wonders. We seek abundance, and we seek to be filled, but we continually try to fill ourselves with things that have proven again and again to leave us empty. Why? We want to be disciples but we’re unwilling to actually follow where Jesus leads, always sure we’re heading the right direction already on our own. We’ll spend our heart and soul treasuring things that wear out, but we count the cost the God asks – those same hearts and souls – as too high, even for the real life God offers. We deeply need to be forgiven for our sins, yet we hold on to the sins of others so tightly, resenting God’s free love, as if it might run out. We are full of contradictions.
I’ve always thought that Jesus got himself crucified because he refused to be the kind of Messiah the people expected him to be. They wanted a revolutionary, didn’t they? Someone who would come in and free the Jews from Roman occupation. Someone who could be a grand king in the line of David, their favorite king in their history. I thought that they just didn’t get what kind of Messiah Jesus was saying he was. I thought it was a case of mistaken identity. Jesus is not who they, or who we, thought he was. But if this were the case – if they wanted Jesus to be a certain kind of Messiah – if they were trying to force his hand – wouldn’t they realize sooner than his crucifixion that Jesus was not responding in the way they had hoped? If Jesus wasn’t the Messiah they were looking for, couldn’t they just ignore him? Couldn’t they just let him fade out of focus? Why did they act with such violence? Why was there no voice – no voice – standing up as an advocate for Jesus – no one who tried to save him from this death?
The more I think about it, the more I mull over the events of Jesus’ life in my mind, the more convinced I become that the reason we go so quickly from the crowds welcoming Jesus to the crowds yelling for his death is because they knew, and we know, exactly who Jesus is. For once, it seems everyone in the story is united in their actions towards Jesus. All of them, all of them, are united in their abandonment and rejection of Jesus. It is not just the Jews who act against him, but also the Romans. Not just the religious leaders, but also the common ‘regular’ people. Not just Judas, who we can readily write off as corrupted and evil, but also Peter, the faithful disciple, and the others, who never even get mentioned during all of Jesus’ trial, beatings, and crucifixion. Not one who Jesus healed, not one who Jesus forgave, not one who Jesus broke bread with speaks for him, acts on his behalf, save perhaps one of the criminals crucified alongside him, until it is too late.
I often wish I could have lived in Jesus’ day – sat on the mountain to hear him preach, traveled with him as he visited places where others would not go, helped him share God’s love. I like to think that surely, surely I would not be part of the crowds yelling for his death. But what reason do we have to think otherwise? Honestly, I think we’d like to get rid of Jesus, even still, even today. Not because he’s not who we want him to be. But because we’re afraid we know exactly who he is.
This Jesus we crucify is one who just won’t let us be. And that is the most logical reason for us, with those we read about, to want to put Jesus to death. After all, Jesus is only a threat, a real threat, if he is who he claims to be – the Messiah, the one anointed to bring good news, preach repentance, and announce that God’s kingdom is already here on earth, right now. If Jesus is wrong, or lying, or crazy – he’s not a threat. It is because we believe him that he frightens us, and we seek to get his voice out of our heads and hearts any way we can.
If Jesus is the Messiah, then we really are supposed to love our enemies, count as our neighbors those who we think little of. If Jesus is the Messiah, then we really are called to give up the material things that we call treasures, and trade them for treasures of a different kind. If Jesus is the Messiah, then we really are supposed to go where God calls us, follow where God leads, no matter how inconvenient it is, how difficult it is, how painful it is. If Jesus really is the Messiah, then we’ve got to make changes to our lives, right now.
Theologian Dorothy Sayers writes, "I know that I can stand in here and sing praises to Jesus one day, and walk by on the other side of the road as he lies in a gutter the next. I know that I can be lost in wonder and praise at the gracious mercy of God one day, and then turn around and make the most callous judgment of someone the next day, just writing them off, rejecting them entirely without showing any sign that the grace I have been shown has begun to rub off on me. I know that some days I can sing in here "Brother, sister let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you," and then walk out and treat you as though I was born to rule and you're lucky to have me in your company." If Jesus is the Messiah, then we have to face all the contradictions we’ve built up in our lives.
So wouldn’t it be easier, much easier, to get rid of Jesus? Wouldn’t be easier just to live as we’re living, as basically good people, without worrying about all those changes that will just make people think we’re behaving strangely anyway? Wouldn’t be easier to turn Jesus in to the authorities, and let them take care of it? Wouldn’t it be easier to pretend that we never knew Jesus? Wouldn’t it be easier to fade out of the story? Wouldn’t be easier to blend in with the crowd?
“Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!”
Let us pray: …