The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – April 13, 2014
The Liturgy of the Palms: Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 27-11-54
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Good morning, and welcome to St. Michael’s on this Palm Sunday, as we embark on the most important week of the Christian year. Our liturgy for this day always feels a little, well, schizophrenic to me. I had a conversation with St. Michael’s parishioner Bob Fisher this week in which he referred to this day as, “a double-edged sword of festivity and political theater.” We begin on a high, celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And then we plunge immediately down into Holy Week with the recitation of Christ’s Passion.
As a child growing up in the United Methodist Church, we lingered longer on the Palm Sunday story. We used full palms for waving – not just single palm fronds. If we didn’t have those palms readily available, a little green construction paper, some scissors, and imagination did the trick. The children led the procession, and we waved our palms, putting ourselves on that dusty road at the entrance gate to Jerusalem. It was a great celebration, imagining that we were shouting for joy at the passing king!
I have to say, I miss that. After all the introspection of Lent, I liked living in the moment of those Hosannas, and dreaming that maybe, just maybe, things might turn out differently.
But of course, they don’t. And even though we know the story’s triumphal ending, we cannot help but be weighed down by the details of Jesus’ suffering and death.
I always find it somewhat painful to hear this story. And Matthew seems to carry this same burden. Through the story, Jesus is abandoned by those around him. First by the disciples who are unable to stay awake as he prays in the garden; then, of course, by Judas, betrays him to the authorities; then by the High Priest, unable to believe it possible that he might really be the Son of God. Then by Peter’s denial of their relationship. Then by the crowd, who exchange their Hosannas for cries of , “Let him be crucified.” And on and on it goes.
It almost seems that Christ’s crucifixion is not enough punishment; Matthew also wants us to understand that he has been forsaken by everyone. It seems clear that, like us, he is nagged by a basic underlying question: Why? Why would Jesus’ own disciples betray him? Why would the people let the opportunity to save him slip through their fingers? Why did Jesus suffer so? Why was he subjected to such a painful and shameful death?
Throughout the history of the Church, we have struggled to answer this question. Our theological explanations are called theories of atonement. “These theories attempt to address the ‘why’ question by describing Christ’s death as a substitution for our own, or of Christ satisfying God’s requirement for holiness, or of Christ paying the penalty for sin, or of the example Christ’s death sets for us, or even of the victory Christ wins over death and the devil.”[i]
But if I am honest, all these theories fall a little flat when I am faced with the details of Holy Week and Christ’s agonizing death. How could our God give his only son over to such suffering? Why couldn’t God accomplish these same ends without such horrifying events?
And, of course, these whys find resonance in the questions of our own lives. Why do we, or the ones we love sometimes have to suffer in the agony of physical or mental illness, in the throes of addiction, in the pain of unjust treatment by others, in the bleakness of mourning, or in the cruelty of death? Why does God allow such suffering to occur?
Now this is the place where I should have a simple, elegant answer to the question. But I don’t. Why we and the ones we love suffer, and why God allowed his only Son to suffer through the agony and shame of crucifixion—these are mysteries. They confused the disciples; they confused the first Christians; and they confuse us today still.
But theologian David Lose, one of my go-to guys for untangling the complexities of the scriptures, says this:
“Perhaps this confusion isn’t really the [people’s] fault in the end or, truth be told, ours. For while Jesus may have predicted his passion, he never went into great detail to explain its meaning; he never, that is, got around to explaining why.
“And yet…and yet, Jesus does address another, and I think perhaps more important, question.”[ii]
Immediately before we picked up the story in our reading of the Passion, Jesus gathered with his disciples for the Passover meal. And on that night he, “took bread, and when he had given thanks…, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you.’”[iii]
Do you hear that? “For you.” While we don’t get the answer to the question, “why,” we do get the answer to a deeper question: “for whom?” Jesus is very clear that he willingly goes to his suffering and death for us. He bears the brunt of this agony because of a deep and profound love for humankind.
And why is that a deeper question? I turn again to Mr. Lose. “Though we can surely never fully comprehend the ‘why’ of God’s unfathomable commitment to us, when we see the form of Christ on the cross we can never doubt God’s profound love for us. And knowing this makes all the difference!”
As we enter into this Holy Week, I challenge you to put yourself in the story. To understand that you are not just an observer, an onlooker, but rather that you are one of the primary characters. Perhaps the greatest mystery and wonder of Christ’s death and resurrection is that it is all for us. Christ willingly goes to death for you and for me. This is not just a dusty story of the past; this story makes a claim on our very souls.
See yourself in that upper room, trying to understand the mysterious words of the master. Feel your tired eyes trying to stay open in the dark of the garden. Experience the gut-wrenching fear that makes you deny the very man who would do anything for you. Hear the crowd crying for his death, and your own voice joining in the frenzy. Know the heartbreak of seeing your friend humiliated and tortured. Feel the pain of seeing him suffer and die on a cross.
Just as in life we must experience the highs and lows, so we must experience all of this story too. While we may only want to wave palms and shout hosannas to welcome the King of Kings, we must also travel the road of pain and suffering that lies beyond the gates of the city. This Holy Week, as we hear again the story of the Passion, may we allow it to overtake our hearts, and after experiencing the pain, may we also celebrate with abandon, knowing the full joy of heaven as it shines out through the empty tomb. Amen.
[i] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=677. Accessed 3/23.2013.
[iii] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979. Holy Eucharist II, Prayer A, p. 362.