Why The Sunday of the Passion Matters

Sermon delivered on Passion/Palm Sunday B, March 28, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; St. Mark 14.1-15.47.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Today is the Sunday of the Passion, better known as Palm Sunday. For those of you who love to come to church to worship (and who doesn’t?), this is your day because you get two services for the price of one, and all under two hours. For newcomers to the Christian faith—and even for mature Christians like many of you are—today’s liturgy comes as a shock because we start out on a celebratory note with the liturgy of the Palms where we commemorate our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem as Israel’s Messiah with all its anticipation and hope, but we end with his passion and death. Hope and the utter death of hope, all within a breathtakingly short span of less than a week. Can you relate? What are we to make of this? This is what I want us to look at this morning. 

We read this year’s Passion narrative from St. Mark. Tradition has it that St. Mark faithfully recorded St. Peter’s memories while they were in Rome. St. Mark, ever the masterful story teller—story meaning a faithful narration of historical events, not some made up fiction—tells how our Lord entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey in fulfillment of OT prophecy (Zechariah 9.9-12), acclaimed by the crowds as the hoped-for Messiah, only to have the crowds turn on him later in the week. The story is pretty straightforward and because it is the word of God, it is full of power, and I am content to let it speak for itself—other than to say we would all profit enormously if we returned to his Passion narrative throughout this week to plumb the depths of its richness and power, and in the process discover (or rediscover) our crucified and risen Savior. Neither do I want to spend any time looking for reasons as to why the crowds turned on Christ, other than to quickly note that Christ failed to live up to his people’s expectations for their Messiah. While he did pronounce judgment on the Temple, something the Messiah was expected to do, Christ didn’t preach rebellion against the Romans nor did he enter Jerusalem as a great warrior, something for which many of his contemporaries hoped. And we all know what happens when our expectations get violated.

Instead, I want us to begin to explore the treasures contained in St. Mark’s Passion narrative and learn to appreciate his skill as a sophisticated story-teller because in Scripture, God’s truth is contained in God’s story. At its essence, St. Mark is telling us that this is what it looks like when God fulfills his promises to return to his people. Unlike many of Christ’s contemporaries, let us not fail to recognize God’s return to us. The first thing we note is the timing for Christ revealing his true identity as God’s Messiah or anointed one. He chose the Passover to come to Jerusalem and die. St. Mark surely wants us to see that our Lord’s death would bring about the ultimate Pascha or Passover. Just as God’s destroying angel had passed over the houses of his people in Egypt marked with the blood of the slaughtered lamb, so we are marked by the blood of the Lamb of God so that we will not suffer eternal death when Christ returns to judge his world with perfect justice. 

And there’s a reason we should rejoice in this because none will be exempt from God’s perfect justice. In telling us the story of Christ’s Passion, St. Mark compels us to see human beings, God’s image-bearers, you and me, at our very worst. Here is the Son of God, God himself, God condescending to become human as St. Paul vividly proclaims in our epistle lesson, to rescue us from permanent death and utter destruction. And our response? For starters, Christ was betrayed by one of his inner circle. If you have lived long enough, you know the sting of a friend’s betrayal where you thought you could trust the person only to find out you were utterly wrong. Having suffered that kind of betrayal personally, I can tell you that it is devastating, especially when the betrayer is someone you counted as a close and intimate friend. Here St. Mark is showing us the awful predicament of the human condition and why there is so much suffering, sickness, disorder, and darkness in our lives and this world. God has returned to his people as promised and we respond by betraying him unto death. It wasn’t just Judas who did that. How many times have we betrayed our Lord in our thinking, speaking, and actions? We are no more interested in having God run our lives than many of Christ’s contemporaries were. Human pride got us kicked out of paradise and in this sad story of betrayal, we are reminded how nothing has really changed over the years. We are still hostile to God and utterly separated from him. Whatever Judas’ motives were for betraying our Lord, he clearly did not trust in or believe Jesus to be who he claimed to be. This prevented him from seeking Christ’s forgiveness and led to his own self-destruction. The same fate awaits us if we choose to imitate Judas and trust ourselves rather than Christ for our healing and salvation.

Then there was the fiasco of the kangaroo court held by the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate. The Jewish leaders weren’t interested in following God’s Truth that confronted them in Christ. They were more interested in maintaining the status quo and their position of power and privilege so they arranged for the Romans to execute this troublemaker. Pilate, of course, was caustic and cynical. Our Lord found no justice with him because Pilate wasn’t interested in justice. As soon as the mob turned against him—a mob who preferred the release of a murderer over their Messiah and threatened to riot if they didn’t get their way (sound familiar?)—he washed his hands of the situation, literally as St. Matthew reports, and condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion. 

Of all the cruel and evil ways humans have devised to kill other humans, crucifixion would be at the top of anybody’s list. None of the Evangelists were interested in reporting the gory details of crucifixion because that was not essential in telling the story of God’s rescue of us. What is important here is that crucifixion was a godforsaken and utterly degrading form of execution where victims were scourged and then nailed or tied naked to a cross for all to see and mock, and mock they did as St. Mark reports. In the spectacle of Calvary we see all the savagery and rapacity of human beings unleashed against their God, the creatures turning viciously on their Creator become human in savage rebellion in an utterly futile attempt to free themselves from God’s good control over their lives. Here St. Mark is showing us how the prophecy contained in our OT and psalm lessons played itself out as he invites us to ponder the depths of human depravity in this godforsaken spectacle. And let us not fool ourselves by thinking we are incapable of such rebellion against God and his Christ. Such thinking nails our Lord right back on the Cross. Here again in a microcosm, we see the root problem of the human condition. We are thoroughly hostile and alienated from God and each other because we are enslaved by the power of Sin, and without outside intervention from an even stronger power, we are utterly without hope. 

But we are not people who are utterly without hope because we belong to Christ. In recounting Christ’s Passion, St. Mark is proclaiming that we are people with a hope and a future because of of Christ’s saving death to free us from our slavery to Sin and the power of Death. Look at your Savior dying on the cross for you, St. Mark tells in this story, sparing you from God’s terrible judgment on your sins. Without this sacred death, none of us have reason for hope because none of us on our own are able to stand in the Presence of our Holy God so that we can live forever. And if you think otherwise, you have not yet considered the weight of sin. When Christ shouted out his terrible cry of dereliction or abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was experiencing for the first time ever the awful separation from God that you and I experience all the time because of our sins. He bears the sins of the world, your sins and mine, so that we could have the hope of being reconciled to God our Father and find real healing and our peace. How do I know this? How can we be sure of this? Not because St. Mark tells us this in a story, not because some preacher preaches it, not even one as erudite and handsome as me, but because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead! The resurrection interprets Christ’s death for us and without it Christ would have been just another nameless victim of Roman cruelty. But that must wait till next Sunday. What is critical for us to reflect on right here is the nature of Christ’s death and our role in it. In Christ’s cry of dereliction on the cross, St. Mark is telling us that God is somehow dealing forever with our sins and that we will not experience the unspeakable fate of being abandoned by our Creator forever. In this story we see that we are not alone nor has God rejected us because Christ has suffered that rejection for us out of God the Father’s great love for us. Take real hope in this and stake your very life on that hope, dear people of God!

Why? Because if we believe this, everything changes for us. Because we belong to Christ we have hope for the future and strength to bear our present trials because we have this eternal hope. If God is for us, who or what can ever be against us? There is now no condemnation for us who put our hope and trust in Christ, believing that the Father and the Son accomplished what needed to be accomplished on our behalf to rescue us from our exile from God. In practical terms, this means we can bring our guilt and our shame to the foot of the cross and know we are forgiven and therefore it is possible for us to be healed of our sin sickness and self-loathing. We no longer have to fear God’s rejection of us or doubt that God loves us. We no longer have to listen to voices of condemnation, either from our enemies or from within ourselves. They are simply lies because Christ has suffered our condemnation and reconciled us to God. We don’t need to prove ourselves worthy because God has already declared us to be worthy despite our unworthiness. It means that despite the hurt we have caused, the evil we have been party to, and the damage we have done in our lives, we are forgiven and loved by God because of what Christ did for us. If this does not cause us to give our lives totally to Christ so that our thinking, doing, speaking, and values all flow from him and his teaching, it means either we have not come to grips with our new reality or we do not believe it. But we have no reason not  to believe it because as our baptism testifies, we now share in Christ’s death so that we can share in his resurrection. We are no longer our own; we now belong to Christ. Our old filthy rags, what the NT refers to as our Old Man, our sinful, fallen self, are replaced by the white garments of Christ, the New Man. Satan’s power over us has been broken and we are no longer his slaves or slaves to Sin and Evil, and therefore our destiny is no longer Death. We are no longer utterly undone and without hope. No matter the state of our self-loathing or how much others may despise us for our faith, no matter how imperfect our faith is or how imperfectly we live it, when we give our lives to Christ in thanksgiving for his life-giving death for us, we become God’s beloved, plain and simple, and not even the powers of Hell can separate us from Christ’s love. This is the result of Christ’s Passion, my beloved, and why we must focus on the events of this coming Holy Week, reflecting on Christ’s great love for us and our response to that great love.

Start by reading and meditating on the Passion narratives on your own this week and then come with our Lord to the Upper Room Thursday night where he will give his disciples a meal as the means to help them understand what his impending passion and death is all about. Watch with him in the garden as he struggles and shrinks from the gigantic task of allowing the powers of Evil to do their worst to him, and the prospect of having to bear the judgment of God for the sins of the entire world, your sins and mine. Our own personal sins can be a terrible burden to us. Try to imagine having to bear the sins of the entire world and looking into the face of the Devil while you do! With that in mind, come and venerate the cross on Good Friday as you ponder and contemplate the presence of God among us in the death of his Son for your sake and the sake of the world. Such contemplation demands silence, desolation, humility, and honest confession that your sins and mine are also responsible for the godforsaken death of our Lord. Was there ever any suffering like our Lord’s (and if you answer yes to this question, there’s a good chance you don’t really understand the magnitude of what happened on Good Friday!)? Grieve with his first followers as they laid his crucified and dead body in the tomb with no expectation of Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday is the time to do just that, culminating with the Easter Vigil and the reading of the story of God’s salvation on Saturday evening. It simply won’t do to observe any of this from afar. It’s as unedifying as listening to any of the other priests’ sermons. Everything has changed because of Christ crucified and raised from the dead. That’s why we call it the Good News of Jesus Christ! We are no longer dead people walking, but rather Christ’s own forever, sealed with his precious blood and confirmed every time we come to the Table to feed on his body and blood. No, if you really love your Lord and have even an inkling as to what great love has effected your salvation and changed the course of history forever, how can you possibly stay away from our Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil services? You will rob Easter Sunday of its great power and joy if you fail to participate in these saving events. And on an even more somber note, if you are unwilling to give Christ your all as you are able, especially this week, you are likely living a lie and a delusion regarding your relationship with Christ and you probably need to take it up with him in prayer. So let none of us be too hasty to celebrate the Pascha next Sunday without first pondering and agonizing and reflecting on the great and astonishing love of God that flows from God’s very heart, a heart that was pierced by a Roman soldier’s spear, a heart through which a saving love was poured out for you and your salvation. To be sure, this isn’t a pretty or fun thing to do or contemplate. But if you commit yourself to walking with Jesus this Holy Week it will change you in ways you cannot imagine or envision, and for the good. It will change you because it is the Good News of our salvation, now and for all eternity. May we all observe a blessed Holy Week together as God’s people at St. Augustine’s. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.