Sunday, March 20, 2016


Palm/Passion Sunday – Year C
Luke 19:29-40; Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Luke 22.14—23.56
Sunday, March 20, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

In the short span from the beginning of the service until now, we have witnessed what is undoubtedly the most gut-wrenching, most disturbing, turn-around in Christian experience. We have journeyed with Jesus into his final days. In our acts of worship, we have participated in that rollercoaster experience.

We started our worship experience this morning with the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Along with his followers, we welcomed him as King and Messiah, with shouts of “Hosanna!” and the waving of palm branches. But not everyone accepts the shouts of adulation, the acknowledgment that this man who rides into town on a colt is King of the Jews. Least of all the temple authorities and the Roman occupiers. Then began the downward spiral that would lead Jesus through a series of events not fit for any human being, especially for a king. A mock trial, being sentenced to death, and crucifixion, which was one of the most horrible means of execution ever devised. Events we collectively refer to as the Passion.

For those of us who participate in the liturgical actions of this day, there is a real emotional disconnect. The elation of Palm Sunday turns to the pain and sorrow of Passion Sunday. Shouts of “Hosanna!” are followed very quickly by cries of “Crucify him!” As we will see as Holy Week unfolds, we cannot have one without the other. We cannot just do Palm Sunday. We cannot just do Passion Sunday. We need both, for it is in this juxtaposition of events, images, and emotions, that we gain a more complete understanding of who Jesus truly is. Of what this coming week is about. And of the magnitude of what follows, come Easter. It is only in this topsy-turvy journey through Holy Week that Easter even remotely begins to make any sense.

One thing we notice as we look at the rollercoaster ride we have been on is that the story of Jesus’ final days – really the story of his entire mission and ministry – is filled with reversals. But while Jesus was a master of turning negatives into positives, the events we have experienced today are the antithesis of what Jesus was about. For here, in moving from triumphal entry to Passion, positives give way to negatives.

A procession of triumph turns to a procession to apparent defeat, as the palm-strewn road into Jerusalem leads to the palace of Pontius Pilate, to the Way of Sorrows, and ultimately on to Golgotha. Joyous shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” quickly give way to hateful cries of “Crucify him!” In this sequence of events, adulation turns to condemnation, acceptance turns to rejection, praise turns to mockery. The exalted King becomes a common criminal. And hope turns to despair.

Even Jesus’ closest friends, members of the Twelve, are not immune from their part in these reversals. Faithfulness on the part Judas Iscariot turns to betrayal. All for 30 pieces of silver. Devotion on the part of Peter, one of Jesus’ most trusted lieutenants, turns to denial. All out of fear for his own skin.

What is right and good is turned upside down. What is divine and holy is turned into that which is base and profane. The ultimate power of the Messiah is seemingly helpless in the face of an abuse of power by the temple authorities and the Roman occupiers. The absolute justice of God’s reign is seemingly dismantled by gross injustice on the part of both religious and secular authorities. The unbounded mercy of a loving and life-giving God is seemingly crushed by merciless actions of hate at the hands of those professing to be God’s children. The ultimate act of the Passion is the greatest reversal of all, as life turns to death.

But in the midst of these events there is one reversal that is unexpected. Even as the Son of God experiences the worst humanity has to offer, even as the embodiment of divine love experiences the most negative aspects of human hate, Jesus manages a reversal that will begin to once again set things right. That foreshadows what is to come. That foreshadows what all this is really about. For at nearly every turn, Jesus manages to turn condemnation into forgiveness.

At the Last Supper, when the disciples argue about who is the greatest, Jesus does not chastise them but instead imparts authority and honor upon them – “and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Lk 22.29-30). Forgiving their ambitions to make way for something more honorable.

When Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times, Jesus does not condemn Peter’s future actions. Instead, he graciously says, “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22.32). Forgiving his self-centeredness to make way for service to others.

In the garden, Jesus does not reprimand the disciples who are unable to remain awake with him. He understands that they are grieving the impending loss of their master. So instead, Jesus wishes them well, that they not come to their own time of trial. Forgiving their weakness to make way for their inherent strenghs.

As Jesus is about to be arrested, Peter takes a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave. But before he is taken into custody, Jesus heals the high priest’s slave. Forgiving acts of violence to make way for acts of justice and mercy.

On the cross, after the criminals who hung on either side of him ridicule him, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23.43). Forgiving their derision to make way for acceptance through the embrace of their heavenly Father.

And perhaps most important of all – on the cross, Jesus forgives all those who have perpetrated this injustice. The temple authorities who brought Jesus to trial on trumped up charges. Pontius Pilate, who gave in to the temple authorities just to prevent potential riots. The soldiers who beat him, mocked him, and carried out the sentence of execution. Even the crowds, who all too quickly changed their shouts of “Hosanna!” to cries of “Crucify him!” “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23.34). Forgiving their blindness to make way for their ability to witness to the truth.

In these moments of grace, Jesus went to his death in the same manner as he lived his entire life. And he sent a powerful message as to what the events of this week are about. The forgiveness of sins, no matter how petty, no matter how grievous.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul quotes an ancient poem that effectively sums up what Holy Week is all about. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”(Phil 2.7b-11)

Paul effectively sums up that Jesus’ life, and particularly his death, was indeed a story of reversals. God became human, in the form of Jesus. Jesus, the exalted Son of God and the giver of life put all that aside and humbled himself, submitting to a horrendous death. And in so doing, he is ultimately exalted as Lord of all. His actions of forgiveness throughout his Passion bear witness to the power of God’s love to turn things around, no matter how negative.

And as we shall see at the end of this tumultuous journey that is Holy Week, even greater, more spectacular reversals are in store.

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