my miscellany

Palm Sunday, 2015 — 29 Mar 15

Palm Sunday, 2015

Palm Sunday, 2015
March 29
Saint Mark 11:1-11a; Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Saint Mark 15:1-47

Recently, I’ve been reminded of a sign I saw on the television about twenty years ago. A man held a sign, and it said, “There is nothing worth dying for.” That takes some thinking about. If there is nothing without which living becomes impossible, then there is nothing worth living for, either.

That sign describes life in this modern time: we are dulled, or satisfied, or complacent enough to think that nothing is so important that we would die for it or that we would live for it. That may very well describe us. Certainly it describes Judas, Pilate, and the Crowd in Jesus’ Passion that we have just rendered dramatically.

But Jesus is willing to die. He is willing to die, I think, for two reasons. First, he’s willing to die because it is his Father’s will that he die. Secondly, he’s willing to die to be a ransom for many. And those are good reasons to die. They are two good reasons worth dying for.

The Agony in the Garden, the agony Jesus endures before he is betrayed, is the agony of conforming his will to his Father’s will: “Father,” Jesus prays, “all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.”[1] And his teaching, so moving, about servanthood is a teaching that he came to give his life as a payment for others. “For the Son of man,” Jesus says, “also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[2]

Jesus has two good reasons worth dying for. But those who accuse him, those who acquiesce in his death, and those who want him removed have such weak reasons to see him die. Their reasons are like our reasons, not strong enough to die for and not strong enough to live for. Pilate, representing Rome, wants to rid himself of a nuisance, albeit a nuisance of whom he said, “Why, what evil has he done?”[3] The chief priests accuse Jesus of many things which are elaborated in the other Gospels, but in Saint Mark they go unmentioned. The crowd, well, the crowd wants Pilate to release Barabbas, a murderer, whom they may wish to give back after they get to know him. But crowds are that way. We have seen changeable and fickle crowds on the television and in surveys and polls. And we should not forget that the same people who shout “Hosanna” upon Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem are the same people who shout “Crucify him!” a few days later.

But what of us? What of our reasons for participating in Jesus’ Passion? Our reasons ideally should be strong enough to live for and strong enough to die for. They should be as strong as Jesus’ reasons. And I think they can be. We should participate in the Passion, and in the prayers, and in the sacraments of the church, because it is God’s will for us to be saved. The Passion, the prayers, and the sacraments are the means God has given us to that very worthy end. Salvation is worth living for, and salvation is worth dying for. Jesus acted so. Secondly, we should participate in the Passion, in the prayers, and in the sacraments, because we have been ransomed. Ransom is our inheritance. Being redeemed in Christ, we breathe the air of the Passion, the prayers, and the sacraments; they are food which nourishes the redeemed.

The salvation Christ has given us and promises us in eternity are both worth living for and worth dying for. When we think about it, we know it’s so. And when we live like we would die for our eternal inheritance, people will beat a path to our door.

[1] Saint Mark 14:36.

[2] Saint Mark 10:45.

[3] Saint Mark 15:14.

Lent V, 2015 — 26 Mar 15

Lent V, 2015

The Fifth Sunday in Lent of Year B
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 119:9-16, Hebrews 5:5-10, Saint John 12:20-33

At least since I was in seminary, I have wanted to know why the Passion of Our Lord proclaimed on Good Friday is always the Passion according to Saint John. You know that on Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion, that the Passion is from either Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, and the Passion rotates among those three in a three-year cycle. But why does Saint John’s version gain the prominence of a yearly presentation on Good Friday, the day itself?

The answer came some years ago. You can tell from my sermons and announcements that the Scriptures and their interplay with the Lectionary are two very important things to me. The Scriptures are God’s revelation to us: we pretty well have to pay attention to them if we want to know God. And their interplay with the Lectionary is important, too. For that interplay between the Scriptures and the Lectionary is interpretive: we are led to interpret the Scriptures by the Lectionary’s distribution of them through the Church Year. And by following this interplay closely, I found the answer why Palm Sunday has the Passion according to Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, and why Good Friday has John.

I’ll begin the answer this way. You have been to the theater at one time or another, and you have seen spotlights. You have seen spotlights move from one actor or object in a scene to another actor or object. Imagine a moving spotlight, and imagine it moving from a lesser thing to a greater thing. Something like that is happening in the Gospel today, in the Gospel according to Saint John. Saint John moves the spotlight from the resurrection and trains it directly upon the crucifixion. To me that is remarkable, and that is why the Passion according to Saint John is proclaimed each Good Friday.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the resurrection of Jesus vindicates the crucifixion; that is, the resurrection in those Gospels overturns the horror of a just man unjustly punished, of God condemned by his creatures. In those Gospels, some participants in the Passion catch on that Jesus is the Son of God, but the resurrection makes that fact obvious, easy for everyone to see. All the doubts about Jesus and his ministry are shown to be just so much faithless fear once he rises from the tomb.

But something very different is being proclaimed in Saint John, and you can see it in the Gospel today. Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[1] In the image I’ve used, Saint John is redirecting the spotlight from the resurrection to the crucifixion where he keeps it focused. Instead of the spotlight, we may as well use the words the Gospel uses: glory and glorify. Jesus is glorified in his crucifixion. The spotlight of glory is on the crucifixion. Jesus proclaims that his death begins the germination that leads to the ripening of the fruit. And when he says that when he is lifted up from the earth that he will draw all men to himself,[2] he is saying that his death will attract us, all of us, to him.

Jesus’ crucifixion attracts us, draws us into the divine life, when we appreciate what Jesus is saying to us. His life, the life he offers us, isn’t pain-free. We who follow him, try to follow him, know this from experience. His life is hard to share if we wish to avoid pain. It is in dying to ourselves and being raised in him that we enter his life. If we wish to be comfortable, isolated, and uninvolved, then we will miss his life. His life involves sacrifice and pain though the sacrifice and the pain aren’t the end. Just as he does, we pass through them to go on to greater and eternal life.

I know that all illustrations of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are trivial in comparison with what they illustrate. But let me mention the one Jesus mentions and try to mention it afresh.

Two weeks from today is Easter when this church will be adorned with people and beautiful flowers. Jesus is telling us that the glory of a beautiful Easter lily is not its being in beautiful foil and placed on an elegantly carved marble altar just in front of a skillfully-carved reredos with crowds of people admiring it. The glory of that lily is in the horrible weather of January and February, that same weather we are hoping is past, when the bulb is buried beneath the frozen soil, when no one is paying it any attention. That’s its glory. That’s the heart of God, and that’s the glory of the lily, because only God can make the lily bloom. Only God can bring life from death. The bulb in that frozen dirt gives us the best perspective of who God is and of what God can do. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[3]

[1] Saint John 12:24.

[2] Saint John 12:32.

[3] Saint John 12:32.

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