April 2, 2009

A Palm Sunday Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 4:27 pm

Psalm 31: 9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 15: 1-47

Exactly ten years ago I was visiting an Episcopal Church on Palm Sunday. The service had begun with the Procession of the Palms and the readings of Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem, and the readings had concluded with a reading of the Passion Account of Jesus’ crucifixion. The priest then went to the pulpit and began his sermon with these words: “The idea that Jesus died for our sins has caused more suffering and evil than any other idea in the history of the world!” He then proceeded to preach a sermon in which he outlined every horrible event in the history of the church—I think he talked about the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, Antisemitism; I’m fairly certain he mentioned the Nazi holocaust—and he stated repeatedly throughout the sermon that all these horrible events could be traced to a single idea—that Jesus had died for the sins of the world. We then stood and said the Creed.

Without commenting on this priest’s orthodoxy—which was certainly lacking—one might ask what could possibly motivate someone to make such an outrageous claim? From the pulpit no less? Well, if the priest was intending not to comment on the church’s teaching but on its practice, he might well have had a point. We need to be honest that there have been plenty of times in church history when Christians have just got it wrong. One of my favorite versions of the King Arthur legend is the story of Perceval or Parzifal, the very first version of the story of the Holy Grail. Perceval is a story of redemption. The protagonist loses his faith, and, at a crucial moment in the story, is redeemed when he encounters a procession of pilgrims on Good Friday. He is dressed as a knight and they point out to him that it is not right to bear arms on the day that Jesus Christ died. Perceval is oblivious to what day it is, and they remind him that today is “Holy Friday, the day when every one should adore the cross and weep for their sins. He who was clean from all sin saw the sins in which the whole world was bound and befouled and became a man for our sins.” Perceval is moved to tears, and goes to a hermit to confess his sins. The tale ends: “Thus Perceval learned how God was crucified and died on a Friday, and on Easter Day he received the communion.”1 It is one of my favorite stories.

But there is a dark side to this story. Right in the middle of the tale in which the pilgrims are telling Perceval that it is Good Friday, there is a single sentence that catches the reader up short—or, at least it should. “The wicked Jews, whom one should kill like dogs, in their hatred wrought their own harm and our good when they raised him on the cross. Themselves they destroyed, and us they saved.” (83). It is indeed a horrible sentiment. The church has often gotten it wrong.

At the same time, however, I suspect that there was more to this priest’s sermon than the church’s failure to understand the gospel appropriately. If Jesus has died for our sins, then we do indeed have sins that need dying for. And that is an idea that many modern people find offensive—including Episcopal clergy. If Jesus died for our sins, then we are guilty of sins, and we need to be forgiven. We stand under God’s judgment, and, frankly, the idea that God is a judge makes a lot of contemporary people uncomfortable. We would prefer instead to ask questions about such a God who would need to have his anger appeased by the torture and death of an innocent person on a cross before he could let us off for our offenses.

How does our text address these questions? The heart of Mark’s gospel is, of course, the story of a Jesus who “died for our sins.” Mark tells us that “[T]he Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) How does Mark understand this notion that God has judged our sins through the death of Jesus Christ? Mark’s account of the Passion provides a key clue in his repeated references to Jesus as “King of the Jews.” Repeatedly, in this narrative, people give different answers to the question What does it mean to say that Jesus is “King of the Jews”? How we answer that question tells us what it means to say that Jesus died for our sins.

Mark sets the stage at the beginning of his gospel when he tells us that the heart of Jesus’ message was: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (1:15) If my count is correct, there are twenty-one references in Mark’s gospel to the “Kingdom of God.” The turning point in Mark’s gospel comes when Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, and Peter responds: “You are the Christ.” Who is the Christ? The Christ is the Son of David, the King of the Jews.

On Jesus’ Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, he rides into Jerusalem on a colt. The symbolic background to this action is clearly Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The crowds know exactly what this means, and their response makes this clear: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” The crowd understands that Jesus is the Son of David, the King of the Jews.

Pontius Pilate views the matter differently. He asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus does not answer. Later Pilate asks the crowd, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” and the crowd asks for Barabbas instead, a common criminal. What then should be done to the King of the Jews?, Pilate asks. And we all know the answer they give: “Crucify him!”

The soldiers who mock Jesus by dressing him in a crown of thorns and a royal purple robe have their own understanding: “Hail, King of the Jews!,” they jest. Obviously, for those who actually do the dirty work of crucifying him, that Jesus is a King is a big joke.

Finally, the inscription that is placed on Jesus’s cross reveals the charge against him: “The King of the Jews.” The chief priests and the scribes who are standing nearby note the irony of the charge: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Even the thieves who were crucified with him, saw the humor and joined in the mocking.

So what it means for Jesus to be King of the Jews is not only a key theme in Mark’s gospel, but also the key to understanding who he is. And since “King of the Jews” was the charge laid against him on his cross, the crucifixion is also the key to understanding who he is.

Everyone in Mark’s gospel has an idea of what it means for Jesus to be King, but everyone gets it wrong. Peter thinks he knows what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, but when he tries to set Jesus straight, Jesus sets him straight instead. You’re all familiar with the passage: “Get behind me Satan!” (Mark 8:33)

The crowds of Palm Sunday think they know what it means for Jesus to be the Son of David. But later, in the temple, seems to call this identification into question. He asks, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?” Since David calls the Christ Lord, how can he be David’s Son? (Mark 12: 35-37)

Pilate and the Jewish leaders and the soldiers who crucify Jesus also think they know what it means for Jesus to be King of the Jews. It means death by torture. His cause is finished.

This is the King of the Jews, a Messiah who reigns from a cross, who dies between two thieves. He cannot even save himself. How, indeed, can he save anyone else?

I should have said, “almost everyone gets it wrong.” Two people in Mark’s gospel know what it means for Jesus to be King of the Jews. The centurion who stood at the foot of the cross recognizes: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Perhaps the centurion knew that in Psalm 2, God spoke to the Davidic King, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” Perhaps he did not. But regardless, it is clear that he had discerned the truth. The King of the Jews really does reign from the cross.

The other person who knows the secret is, of course, Jesus. When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus responds “[T]he Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8: 31) On the night before his passion, Jesus shared wine with his disciples and said: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:35) The Kingdom in which Jesus would reign is a kingdom that leads to the cross.

At the heart of Mark’s gospel lies a deep ironic sense. Neither those who followed Jesus nor those who crucified him had the least clue about who he really was. And yet, at the same time, in their misunderstanding, they could not help but proclaim who his identity. He really was the King of the Jews who reigned from the cross. He really could save others only because he could not save himself.

But how can this be? How can it be that this Jewish peasant from Nazareth, abandoned by his followers, condemned by the religious leaders of his people, and finally executed by an occupying foreign power, is really the King of the Jews after all? And because he is the King in God’s Kingdom, the Lord of all creation? One sometimes hears people use the expression “the eyes of faith.” Those who crucified Jesus did not perceive him as King and Lord because they did not have the “eyes of faith.” We Christians have the “eyes of faith,” and so we see what they did not see. I think there is something profoundly mistaken in addressing the problem this way. It makes it sound as if the key to Jesus’ identity is about us, and our subjective understanding, and not with him. For those who have the right subjective attitude, Jesus is King. For those who don’t, he isn’t.

But whether Jesus is King or not has nothing to do with us, and our response or attitude. As Mark understands it, the ultimate verdict on Jesus’ claim to be king is not pronounced by us, but by God. It is because of what happened on Easter Sunday that we know that Jesus is King. If God had not raised Jesus from the dead, those who crucified him would have been right. If God had not raised Jesus from the dead, Peter would have been right when he protested “God forbid that the Messiah should suffer and die!”

A key theme of Mark’s gospel is that we cannot know ahead of time what it means for Jesus to be King, and we cannot know ahead of time what it means for God’s kingdom to arrive. If we are going to understand adequately what God’s kingdom looks like we have to listen to the story of Jesus, for that is where and how God reigns. There are those in Mark’s gospel who think they know what it means to be king. They know what it means to be in charge—Peter, who thinks that a Messiah should not suffer; Herod, who puts John the Baptist in prison; the High Priest, who judges Jesus as a blasphemer; Pilate, who turns Jesus over to be crucified. All of these people try to assess whether Jesus is really a king, and they find him wanting. Whatever kind of king he is, Jesus does not measure up. For the Jewish leaders, Jesus’ claim to be King was blasphemy; for Pilate, it was treason. For Peter and the rest of the disciples, it turned out to be a false promise, and they all fled the cross.

But Jesus’ own understanding is that to be King means to take upon himself the judgment of those who find his kind of Divine Majesty just does not measure up. In facing their judgment, Jesus takes that judgment upon himself. But Mark also knows that there is another judgment that has been pronounced on Jesus, this rather peculiar King of the Jews—the judgment of Easter. Because God raised Jesus, Good Friday really is a good Friday, and Jesus really is shown to be the King of the Jews.

How does this bear on the statement of the Episcopal priest I referred to at the beginning of my sermon—the the idea that Jesus died for the sins of the world has been the source of more suffering and evil that any other idea in the history of the world? Well, aside from the exaggeration—more suffering and evil than any other idea?—well, certainly, the church has gotten it wrong from time to time. But at the same time, this priest in his own assessment of the gospel showed the same kind of obtuse cluelessness about the meaning of Jesus’ death as those who crucified Jesus. Because if nothing else, Jesus’ death is a challenge to those who would interpret divine rule as the right to impose our wills on others. If Jesus could bear the judgment of those of his own time who thought they had pronounced the ultimate judgment by putting him to death, Jesus can certainly bear the judgment of those Christians who have betrayed his message so as to cause the death and suffering of others, even those who have done it in Jesus’ name.

But Jesus can also bear the judgment of those of us who claim to be his followers today, and think or hope we would never betray him in such crass and callous ways. One of the key themes we find in Mark’s account of Jesus’ role as King if that we all get it wrong. We think we know what it means for God to rule, and we know it does not mean the cross. But to follow Jesus as King means precisely to follow the path of the cross. Immediately after Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in Mark 8, Jesus tells his followers what it will mean to be disciples in his Kingdom: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Of course, we all fail to do this. Perhaps not in the same way as those who crucified him, and perhaps not in the same way as Christians who have persecuted others in the name of Jesus. But time and time again, we find ourselves inventing a kingdom that has no cross. But that Jesus died for the sins of the world means that he has taken upon himself even the judgment for our failure to follow him on the path to the cross. That he died as a ransom for many means that he died even for me, even for you.

1See “Perceval, or The Story of the Grail” by Chrétien de Troyes in Roger Sherman Loomis and Laura Hibbard Loomis, eds. Medieval Romances (New York: Modern Library, 1957), 83-87.

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