Palm Sunday and Good Friday mark the points in the year where, we, as a church with a liturgical calendar (in this context, means the readings are preset), read the most amount of the Gospel. If you haven’t read one of the Gospels cover to cover (so we say), go ahead and do so. The shortest Gospel is Mark, so if you are trying to just get one done, start there. Anyway, you notice when we manage to read a large chunk of Gospel lectionary, we have a lot with which to deal.
Over the millennia, people much more intelligent than I have spent a lot thought around this narrative, trying to make sense of Jesus’ death and then resurrection, in other words salvation and/or atonement. Most likely I have nothing new under the sun to pass onto you. (But then since we are the recipients of a holy tradition of interpretation, novelty is not exactly the point anyway.) Our readings for Palm Sunday and Good Friday seem to cover the death (after all, they are the Passion narratives) and then Easter covers the resurrection. Of course, this is not play acting, we don’t pretend that Jesus dies on the earlier days and is raised on the third. Jesus has far as we are concerned always died and always been resurrected and we celebrate this all the time. In fact, every Sunday can be viewed as a mini-Easter.
I have a distinct memory I want to share. I was a preteen when we started using the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and we had a young associate priest who introduced the Maundy Thursday liturgy to our congregation. I’m quite sure we did not have a foot-washing service. The church where we attended was not ready for that. I remember the first time I experienced the stripping of the altar, boo-hooing away in the pew with my family. And the lights were dimmed, and we left in silence. I remember thinking “why did he have to die?” Although you could wonder out loud whether if Jesus had died of natural causes, would we celebrate his death and resurrection to such extent? These memories paired temporally but also theologically with the sorts of hymns like, “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” And I’m not saying you can’t sing those hymns, but as a church we as priests have tried to move our congregations away from these hymns. They may be old favorites; please know that I understand that, but they also can lean into antisemitism. We start to think it was only the Jews who killed Jesus. And you may add, “oh, it was the Romans too…” we will get to that.
Then you have the larger question of “why did God have to have Jesus die?” Clearly, God could have changed the course of history with a word. But Jesus finds himself in just that predicament, and he prays to God to let this cup pass from his lips (in other words, that he not have to die, because Jesus knew what was coming down the pike), and I just do not believe that Jesus prayed for show. That doesn’t seem very Jesus-like. Quite frankly it also is not God-like to “kill” Jesus, although it is God-like to provide the resurrection.
This predicament brings us right to the passage we read from Philippians today.
“though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.”
So it is that Jesus died, went all the way to death in his self-emptying love. So did we kill Jesus? This option probably provides the most truth. Now I don’t mean “we”, like you and I actually killed Jesus. But surely we, as representatives of humanity, in our inexplicable tendency to resist what God gives, we all kill and killed Jesus.
As much as we call Jesus as King or Lord, or if you don’t like that language, ruler, leader, or the one we follow, even as we say this, we also don’t want this all the time. Harkening back to last week’s sermon, we have yet to have the covenant permanently in our heart or our gut. We need instruction. And so like moth to a flame, we want Jesus and we don’t.
I became a John Prine fan in college, which now seems like a lifetime away. I was probably destined for priesthood in some sense; my favorite John Prine song has always been Jesus, the Missing Years.
Some of the most poignant lyrics of the song are:
“Jesus said, “God”
Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?
I’m a human corkscrew, all my wine is blood
They’re gonna kill me mama, they don’t like me bud.”
Maybe John Prine’s lyrics more simply show us a Jesus who knew what was coming, who prayed, and who sensed we would be resistant to his message. We do resist Jesus. But then, the meaning of the death of Jesus is not EXHAUSTED by our understanding of our own resistance to God. There is more here: there is something made visible in Jesus’ death… this truth: that to give ourselves away, without reserve, with the abandon that love requires, no matter what it costs…THAT is, paradoxically, the very life of God, our very participation IN the life of God.
And so we live in a mystery: It is Jesus’ death, which shows us that God is more important and more powerful than death itself, not matter WHAT its cause. It is in his death that we recognize the Paschal mystery that God is in the business of self-emptying. It is in God, in Jesus’ giving away of life that we find life. And we too only receive when we give.
You know, there was a longstanding argument in the middle ages about the Incarnation. The question was: if we had not sinned, would God have come into the world in human form anyway? Or did the divine make itself known in the human world only because we sinned?
I’m inclined to think God would have been incarnate in our world regardless of whether we sinned – just to show and embody the deep love God has for the world no matter what. And that deep love involves living with open hands, with open hearts, and invites us to enter it as well. We empty ourselves, and find ourselves full. We give of ourselves, and find ourselves receiving. It is the paschal logic of life, the logic of the cross and resurrection. And so it is our deepest calling to let nothing stand in the way of servant love, and to follow our self-emptying Lord of Love into Life. This is time, this is the Holy Week, when we enter this mystery once again.
The Liturgy of the Palms
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word