Spoiler alert. Jesus rises from the grave a few days later. Some of the women who were there tell the disciples. Jesus appears to many of his followers, filled with majestic and strange new power. He reassures them. He rises up out of their sight. The Holy Spirit falls down upon his followers, who begin to tell the good news of an astounding event that has recreated creation and turned the world upside down. And the good news of the one who stands at the heart of that that event. And so the church has grown and spread and flourished, and today we carry on the tradition, we hear the good news of an astounding event that has recreated creation and turned the world upside down, and the good news of the one who stands at the heart of that event.
We hear it so that we may learn it, and we learn it so that we may become witnesses. This is the story of the day that Jesus was killed. We call it the Passion. We know the same thing that Christians have always known, way back to the ones who wrote down the gospels and the rest of the New Testament: that the answer to the mystery of human life itself is somehow to be found within the death and rising of Jesus. The cross itself is the key that unlocks the gate.
Like all great lives and all great events, the life of Jesus and his death and resurrection can be approached from countless angles. Today, let us hold Palm Sunday up like a mirror, and see what we might learn about ourselves.
So how do you feel? Having heard that Passion, how do you feel? Where are your emotions? Perhaps you feel shattered and distraught, bereft, in tears and grief at hearing again what happened. If so, I encourage you to remember that this happened a long time ago, and that it does have a happy ending. Jesus lives now and is here with us now, here with you now. Soon we will receive him in bread and wine of the Eucharist, which was his final pledge of unity with his disciples. He has come through the Red Sea of his own death. So take courage.
Are you equally upset when you hear of any tragedy? Jesus was treated terribly, tortured and abused unjustly and executed by the state in a fashion designed to be public, humiliating, and terrifying. But people die all the time. We hear those stories all the time, and many more we do not hear. It’s true that we rarely hear this level of detail about the last days of anyone, but I want to raise these questions: do we feel differently about the story of Jesus dying than we do about the stories of other people dying? If we weep at the stories of some deaths but not others, why is that?
Every killing is its own story, wrapped up in the world around it. Jesus dying on the cross, a child killed by a drone strike in Afghanistan, a convenience store robbery that turns into a homicide, soldiers of both sides killing one another in a war, a man on death row in Texas, a woman on death row in Saudi Arabia, miners shot while on strike for safer working conditions. Countless deaths. Countless killings. Countless killings.
We cannot respond to them all the same way. Or at least I have noticed that I do not, and I have noticed that other people do not.
Maybe it is natural for us to weep at the deaths of people we love, and we love Jesus, but not to weep at the deaths of people we don’t know. Maybe that means there is room for the growth of our own compassion.
Maybe we weep at the death of Jesus because it was unjust, as the penitent thief pointed out. “for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong”. I wonder what would become of us as a species if we stopped sorting it into just killing and unjust killing. I wonder how humanity would change if we viewed every killing as equally reprehensible, equally sinful, equally sorrowful. As it is now, our sympathies for the slain are unequal.
And how do we feel about that quick switch from Palm to Passion, from Hosanna to Crucify? I know that for some people this is the worst bit of the day, this whiplash from one mood to the other. But it is accurate, isn’t it, knowing what you know about the human heart? In her excellent book on the crucifixion which is called, simply, “The Crucifixion: Understanding the death of Jesus Christ”, Fleming Rutledge writes: “The liturgy of Palm Sunday is set up to show you how you can say one thing one minute and its opposite the next.” We’ve all been there. Yes, let us always be troubled at our hypocrisy. But let us not be surprised by it. We are complicated creatures, and we think we are more consistent than we are.
And perhaps you feel nothing now. A boredom. Thank God you’ve made it through another long Passion reading. Why do we need to hear all the verses of the thing? And now hopeful we’re nearly done with another long sermon, too. Lord, I hate Holy Week. So many liturgies. My friend who goes to that big non-denominational church doesn’t have to deal with it. They just have Easter and that’s it. No wonder they’re growing. They don’t talk about the crucifixion at all, plus they have the Easter Bunny visit.
It’s understandable. Life is filled with enough bad news. We’re all stressed out. I was at staff training for camp the other week, and I was talking to one of the camp nurses, asking about how campers have changed over the years. Half the campers are taking medicine for depression and anxiety these days. So there’s that. And the last thing we want is to come to church and hear unpleasant stories and be made to feel guilty about Jesus dying on the cross.
But the Easter Bunny didn’t save my soul.
But here’s the thing: his death and resurrection, somehow, is the key to the salvation of the world. We know it intuitively, though we struggle to make sense of it rationally, that the cross is the key to it all. We asked God to help. Lord knows we have all cried out for help, time and time again, and have done for generations. And this is how God helps. It is how God saves us. It is how God heals us. Somehow the death and resurrection of Jesus has everything to do with it. So we had better pay attention to it.
Let us pay attention to the story of Christ’s death, so that we may begin to understand what God is up to. Let us pay attention to the story of Christ’s death, so that we may begin to take stock of the boundaries of our own compassion. Let us be moved to tears for all the killed, the murdered, the executed, the dead, and let us be moved to tears for the living as well. Let us pay attention to the story of Christ’s death, so that we may understand the misery of the human condition, and therefore understand the landscape of our salvation. Let us pay attention to the story of Christ’s death, so that we may know what has died in us in baptism, and what new life lives in us through grace.
The cross is the key to it all. Let us gaze upon the cross, and God who hangs there, and see our salvation.
We our witness of these things.