On Palm Sunday – and all the gatherings we celebrate throughout Holy Week – there are multiple truths and symbols being shared that offer us a variety of insights. There are messages of forgiveness and hope taking place that illuminate both personal and political sin. There is the counter-cultural wisdom of God expressed in these words: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, 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.
There is a summons to follow Jesus by living as a servant to all. There is a description of what happens to innocent people when we cast our fears and hatred upon a scapegoat. And there is a complex and compelling description of human nature that illuminates how God is present in our journey from bravado to betrayal into the beautiful embrace of the Lord’s grace beyond all sin.
It is a universal story that encompasses all of creation. That’s why it takes a week to tell it: seven days to listen and seven days to wrestle with what we’ve heard. Seven days that become a symbolic journey between one Sabbath and another and seven days for entering the mysteries of the Cross. Today we begin again our entrance into these seven days by joining with Christ as he enters into the city of Jerusalem. It is a ceremony that has been taking place in Christ’s church since the fourth century of the Common Era – and for nearly 1200 years has happened in much the same way – with the blessings of the Palms and a procession in the morning followed by an extended reading following the last days of Jesus on earth.
As you prepare to listen to the ancient story made new for our generation, ask yourself: How did it come to pass that in just five days the crowd that began by cheering “Hosanna” turned into a mob screaming “Crucify?” Listen now for the word of the Lord… (we read aloud from Matthew's gospel about the disciples' promise to never betray Jesus.)
Part One of the Passion speaks to us of betrayal and bravado – it is something we all know about – it is something we have all done and probably will do again. In this, we’re reminded that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Peter as well as Judas, soon all the disciples as well as the religious scholars and soldier: ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
+ One of the essential truths of this story that we are asked to make our own is that NO ONE is to be singled out for blame here: not the Jews, not the Romans, not the Priests or the Crowd or the Disciples.
+ As the French scholar, Rene Girard, has noted: “Blaming anyone is completely beside the point of this whole story… for when we try to blame anyone, we are missing the exact point.” The Christian gospel, you see, isn’t about this group or that group needing forgiveness; nor is about this individual or another needing grace. “It is about ALL of us needing forgiveness.” And not just those who sinned on Good Friday – but all of us who have used our fear and hatred to wound and crucify others as scapegoats.
St. Paul was spot-on: All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – so – it’s not my brother, nor my sister, nor the preacher, nor the deacon but it’s ME o Lord that’s standin’ in the need of prayer. (The reading continues in Matthew through Peter's betrayal and shame.)
Part Two of the Passion points to the role of fear and how it pollutes ourdeepest commitments. Judas acts out of fear, Peter acts out of fear, the Chief Priests and Elders act out of fear and even the mighty governor for Rome, Pontius Pilate, acts out of fear. And when our actions are motivated by fear, there is usually spilled blood – mostly innocent blood – as we try to punish and obliterate those who make us afraid.
+ One of the many truths Jesus exposes is what it looks like when societies make scapegoats of innocent people. He chooses to become the Lamb of God who is sacrificed for us in order to show us the invisible horror that takes place every day when fear is the law of the land.
+ As he is betrayed and abandoned, as he is crucified to disguise the fears of those in control, he takes on himself the agony of everyone who is beaten, incarcerated, tortured and executed to make others feel safe and sacred. It is an ugly and wicked truth that touches everyone – and Jesus becomes the victim to show us why it must end. (The reading continues and concludes with Christ's death on the Cross.)
Over and over the Christian tradition has confessed that Jesus became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And in one way that is true: he not only accepted onto himself our fears and violence, but he exposed it to the world from the perspective of the victim. His innocent embrace of our violence, you see, is an upside-down invitation for us to stop.
+ When we gather around the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion – when we sing Lamb of God – when we pray the Lord’s Prayer – we are not only making a decision to live in the loving way of Christ Jesus, we are promising to oppose the way of fear and violence.
+ Just as Jesus served his friends at the Passover Meal – know that all of them would betray him and then be forgiven even this most vile sin – we come to the table asking God for the grace to do likewise: to become servants of peace and hope rather than fear and hatred.
+How does the Lord’s Prayer put it: forgive us as WE forgive our debtors? Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on… EARTH as it is already being done in heaven?
+ Do you hear what I’m saying?
Coming to the table – entering the stories and liturgies of Holy Week and spending time with their consequences – is a gentle form of resistance against cruelty and hatred and fear and sin. It is a counter-cultural commitment that celebrates the values of Jesus as Lord. It is a promise NOT to bow down to the idol of fear and scape-goating, but to trust that God’s love can make us all one by grace. In a word, we come to the table to be fed and nourished by God’s peace that passes all human understanding. And this, beloved, is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.