Palm Sunday 2016 A+D
The Passion according to St. Matthew 26:1-27:66
Historically, the Matthew 21 account of Our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem stands on its own on the First Sunday in Advent, not on Palm Sunday. On Advent 1 we enter into the Church year with our eyes firmly fixed not on Bethlehem but on Jerusalem, not on angels sweetly singing to shepherds as the world expects, but on demons filling Judas and sending the Sacrifice to the Cross. We begin the Church Year with the beginning of Holy Week. We start our year together contemplating the Lord’s humble entrance into Jerusalem to die with the liturgical song from Psalm 118 and Zechariah in His ears. The Church Year, like Christianity itself, is obsessed with the death and resurrection of Jesus and it relates everything to it.
What we began commemorating then, all the way back at the beginning of December, is coming to its crescendo this week. It is the capstone event of Christianity and of history: not Easter, but Good Friday. The death of Jesus is the decisive moment, the eternal and defining moment, of history. The glorious self-giving of God into death and His enthronement on the cross to spare us from death defines all other things, people, and events.
This isn’t downplaying Easter. Easter is essential. It is the denouement of Jesus’ Ministry. The Resurrection is the resolution and consequence of what happened on the cross. The chronology goes like this: the Lord lays down His life and the devil is defeated on Friday, the 6th day of creation. It is finished. Then He rests in the tomb on the final Sabbath and on Sunday, three days later, He rises from the dead and places everything back into proper order. Creation is restored. The days stop counting in the way of the Law. The devil loses his claim upon us. We belong to God. The devil doesn’t rise from the battle. His skull is crushed. The Living Lord of the Living does rise. He is Life itself. Death cannot hold Him because death has nothing left. All its accusations have been met. Its claim is gone. Its champion is spent. Our sins are forgiven and paid for and there is nothing left. We are declared righteous and holy. With nothing left to pay for or die for. It is finished. So Jesus rises.
That is the chronology, the history of what happened. But we aren’t in the chronology, and there is never a surprise ending. No one starts this journey in the Church without knowing where it ends. We know and confess that the crucified Lord, the One who died for us, lives. That reality is always in view in the Church. It stands behind every feast or festival that we observe. It is at play at every service and it is behind all our ceremonies. Jesus lives. This is also what fills and gives authority to our sacraments. We do not eat the dead Flesh of Jesus: we eat His risen, live Body. We drink His risen, living Blood. We would not put statues of babies into mangers if Jesus did not live. We would not light candles or put ashes on our heads or process with palms if Jesus did not live. And we would not strip the altar or lie prostrate before the cross or listen to His Words if Jesus did not live.
Jesus does live and we re-live this essential event – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – every time we kneel for confession and rise as the newly absolved, every time we baptize a baby, every time we repent and ask for forgiveness, every time we receive the Lord’s Supper, say the Lord’s Prayer, or praise God. We are always in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
This week contains our holiest days, the most somber and serious, the most potent and pointed. In some sense this is what we are always about and always commemorating and observing, but these are the days are set aside to especially celebrate and confess the sacrifice of Christ, His betrayal and torture and death, by which He has made us His. And part of what marks these days as particularly holy is the reading of the Passion.
Most of you will probably be back here on Friday. At that time you will hear the whole Passion again, that time from John’s Gospel, instead of Matthew. If you come on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, you will also hear it from Mark and then from Luke. It is long every time, somewhat painful, perhaps even tedious. And all four times the Passion has ceremonies distinct from a normal Gospel in the Divine Service even though it sits in the place of the normal Gospel and is written in a Gospel. In the first place, it isn’t introduced or ended in the normal way. It is bare, stark. We sit rather than stand, mainly as a matter of convenience, but that convenience is itself a ceremony. For the Passion is too burdensome to stand through. We want to give it our attention and not be wiggling about or shifting from foot to foot. The narrator and voice of Christ are distinct from one another. The pastor that speaks the Lord’s words in the Passion speaks them again at the altar. We want to tie the words of Jesus at the altar, to the words He spoke in the upper room, to His words in the garden, at His trial, and on the cross. They are, in a sense, the same words. So also, when the Passion is chanted, as it will be on Friday, the words of Jesus are sung to the same tone we use year round for the words of Institution. Finally, in the most somber moment of reflection, we pause and kneel while the bell is tolled thirty-three times after we’ve been told that Jesus yielded up His spirit and died.
The most striking thing, though, is that when we read it, as we did today, the words of the people are put into your mouths. You are the synagoga, the people gathered around Jesus at His death, and it isn’t pretty. You say what the chief priests and Caiaphas said, what the apostles said, and even what Judas said. You ask with the apostles at the Last Supper if you are the one who will betray the Lord. You boast with Peter and then fail in the courtyard and swear you don’t know Him. You bear false witness against Him at His trial in front of the priests. You mock Him with the soldiers. You play the role of Pilate the coward and also of the crowd that chooses Barabbas. You yell “crucify” and you say “Let His blood be on us and our children.”
When I was young in the Ministry I thought you might resent all that, that you might be insulted by this. But year after year I’ve watched and listened to the gusto with which you have said these lines and to my knowledge no one has ever misunderstood this or been offended by it. Rather you’ve spoken them as a confession. Some of you are practically yelling. You confess that you are guilty of these things and you own it. Your thoughts and desires and actions have been soiled with sin. In character, in morality and intellect, in courage and commitment, you are no different than the sinners that caused the death of Jesus directly and in a very real way you are responsible for His death. You accept that, maybe with tears, maybe with some shame and regret, but you do not shrink from it. You confess it, often loudly. You own it.
Here is what amazes me the most and that which I find so profound: you don’t want to be Jesus or a hero in the story. You identify with the sinners. I can’t imagine the Romans re-enacting the story of Hercules and not wanting to be Hercules or any little boy who doesn’t want to be Superman, but you don’t want to be the hero in this story – not just because of the terrible suffering and sorrow that He will endure – for terrible suffering and sorrow come also upon His people and in this event, in the reading of the Passion, I sense that you’re ready for that. No, you don’t want to be Jesus because you want to be loved by Him. You want to be precisely whom He calls you to be, whom He makes you: His bride, His beneficiary, the forgiven saints who marvel with the holy angels at how God loves the world by laying down His life as a ransom for the unworthy. You want to be Barabbas who is freed by Christ, Peter who is welcomed back into the fold, and Mary who is given a family at the cross.
And you do get to say, at the end, with the centurion: “Truly this was the Son of God.” And that makes it all worth it. You confess not just your sins and your part in the Lord’s sorrows, but you confess also His love. That is what the word “passion” means. It comes from the Latin word for suffering but it doesn’t mean suffering. It means love. A crime of passion is a crime committed for the sake of love. A person with a passion for peanut M&Ms loves peanut M&Ms. We call these chapters of the Gospels the Lord’s Passion because this is how He loved the world, how He loved you, and this is why you love Him.
The Passions are the most sacred texts in all of Holy Scripture. They recall and bear witness to central event of Christianity, of history, of creation. In depicting those packed hours from Our Lord’s arrest to His death they gives us the essence not simply of what we believe and who God is for us, but also who we are in Him, what we are worth to Him. We are the ones for whom Jesus suffered and died, who should bear the guilt and shame, but upon whom the Blood of Jesus rests and washes clean. We are those who are unashamed of their failures because we bask in the certainty and confidence of His unflinching love for and His commitment to us.
This is a love story, and there has never been a bride who played hard to get harder than we did. And now that we’ve been caught, bound to Him in marital love and promised to Him for eternity by water and blood, we never tire of the story of the Lord’s pursuit, of how He overcame every obstacle to have us, even the obstacle of ourselves, even death, and how He defeated the enemy that tried to steal us in order to win us back. He does not hold the slightest grudge nor take any less pleasure in rehearsing the story yet again. He has no second-thoughts or regrets: we were worth it. You were worth it. He rejoices to have us as we rejoice to be had. He is ours, we are His.
So it is that the Holy Supper is the Marriage Supper and was instituted on the night in which He was betrayed. It is most fit for Palm Sunday, the best way to celebrate and receive His love, while we wait for the consummation and completion of what He has begun in us in the waters of Holy Baptism. Here, in the Sacrament, the crucified and risen Lord, the Lord of the Passion, meets His Bride and enters her and prepares her to face life and death.
The ceremonies of this week are somber, jolting at times. Our sadness over our sins is real. The difficulty of the Passion, its length, its content, is real. But we do not mourn for Jesus. These are holy days and in them we rejoice. Nor do we leave Jesus in the tomb. Jesus lives. And therein is our hope.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.