Benediction Online

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

Luke 19:28-40
Luke 22:14-23:56

I have a love-hate relationship with Palm Sunday. We start the morning with the fun of a procession remembering Jesus’ triumphal entrance to Jerusalem and then almost before we know it, we’re hit with the darkness and horror of the passion gospel. It makes me want to put my hands over my ears and hum loudly [Mmm… I can’t hear you…]. It’s not what I want to hear when I come to church. I like nice uplifting readings which give me hope and joy, not this painful story of Jesus being betrayed, given a mock trial and then dying a painful shameful death. I don’t even really understand why it happened.

And it’s not in and of itself a particularly unusual story. Things like this are happening all over the world today. In Baghdad it is not unusual for people to just disappear, taken by men in the night. We are just learning of a massacre in the Congo where thousands have died in civil war. [Mmmm…] Closer to home our own country has targeted individuals and taken them to secret locations in Europe for interrogation [Mmmm…] The names Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib will live in our memories for a long time. But I don’t want to hear this stuff [Mmmm…].

I’d rather read Oprah – this month I can find out what a happy marriage looks like, what books to read and how to minimize the broken blood vessels around my nose!

So why do we focus on Jesus’ death? Can’t we just move on to the resurrection?

It seems to me that the central mysteries of our faith are Creation, Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Christians often focus on Crucifixion to the detriment of the others. According to some understandings of the gospel, we are totally without worth until redeemed by the love of God through Jesus’ work on the cross. The 18th century preacher, Jonathan Edwards, told worshipers that they were loathsome spiders held over the pit of hell by the gracious hand of an offended God. According to this view, only by accepting that Jesus died instead of us can we be saved from the pit of hell.

We have moved a long way from that perspective. We have moved instead to what has been called Home Depot Christianity; “You Can do it; We can help” - Christianity which is about being more successful, about feeling good, about being blessed by God and being thoroughly nice people.

This is as much a distortion as being loathsome spiders.

God created us and God loves us unconditionally and extravagantly. God longs for our love in return. God loves for us to live the life of the Godhead, a life full of love, praise, glorifying, and obedience. But we have to make the choice. We have to turn our lives and our wills over to the Holy Spirit, because we’re human and as humans we always tend to move away from God.

So why did Jesus die, and why did he have to suffer first? I think that Jesus died as an inevitable outcome of the life he led, and the challenge that he was not only to the authorities but also to the average middle-class Jew. He was a threat to their way of life. Peace was tenuous and they didn’t want the boat rocked.

But if Jesus’ death was the result of the way he lived and his teaching, what about the idea that he died for our sins?

I get a lot of mailings from companies who want us to buy Christian materials from them. One company sends sample nails. I can purchase these nails and give you each one to carry in your pocket throughout Lent or Holy Week as a reminder that because of your sins you are responsible for hammering the nails into Jesus’ hands.

I don’t buy that theology and I don’t buy their nails. I am sure that if humans did not sin the Jesus would not have died, and I am sure that somehow by his death and resurrection he made it possible for us to change. If we take Jesus’ life seriously then we have to change and we have to keep changing. And most of us don’t want to do that. If we want to know God then we have to change and we have to keep changing. [Mmmm…]

Jesus could have walked away. At any moment in the whole horrible story he could have walked away. But he didn’t. He didn’t because God, our God, allowed himself to be killed. He allowed us to do our worst and then, in the resurrection, he showed us that it wasn’t the end. It wasn’t the end of our relationship. Like the story of the Prodigal Son. The son does his worst and his father not only accepts him back but rejoices in his return.

Jesus died because of our sin, and through it God experienced what it means to be fully human; in his last moments upon the cross even though it is impossible for God to be separated from God, Jesus experienced himself as separate. It is that separation which is sin and which causes the activities we describe as sin. Jesus died because of our sin and through it we get to learn something totally new about God’s incredible love for us.

So it is appropriate that we meditate and dwell for a while on the darkness and suffering of the end of Jesus’ mortal life. This is the effect of our sin. This is happening today in the back alleys of our cities, in prison cells and jungle huts. Betrayal is happening today in families where children are abused, in Albania where one in three women is the victim of domestic violence, in America where those on death row are shamed and denied privacy and basic human rights, where people go hungry and cold in the richest society in the world. Reflecting on Jesus’ passion allows us to sit with the darkness which is at the core of human experience.

I don’t want to do it. But that’s one of the challenges of Jesus’ life. God looks on suffering with compassion, and with grief. God’s heart breaks at the pain caused by sin. Looking at Jesus’ passion, looking at the darkness and grief and horror which is the heart of the darkness, looking with compassion and feeling, looking without turning away… that is the calling of Holy Week.


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