Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday Yr C, 4/04/2004
Based on Lk 19:28-40 & Lk 22:14-23:56
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
This day in the church year is an extremely eventful one—almost too eventful! In fact, the gospels for today cover the entire last week of Christ’s life. We move from Jesus going up to Jerusalem and being welcomed by the jubilant crowds on Palm Sunday to his crucifixion and burial on Good Friday. This last week of Jesus’ life on earth fills us with the whole spectrum of experiences, thoughts and emotions. Today I invite you to join me in placing yourselves in the story—not only as observers but also as participants. Rather than stand in judgement of all who played a part in crucifying Christ; we can, if we look at ourselves honestly, see something of ourselves in them.
First of all, Luke tells us Christ had already planned his journey to Jerusalem ahead of time. He sends two disciples ahead, giving them a question and answer password to pick up the colt for Jesus to ride on. Jesus in Luke is single-minded in his journey to Jerusalem. Nothing can stop him. This is his divine destiny. Have you ever felt this way about your life too? Has there been something that you had to do; that nothing and no one could stop you from accomplishing your mission or destiny?
Have you ever wondered about the people who borrowed the colt to Jesus? They may well symbolize a mighty host of faithful followers of Jesus throughout history. Perhaps they symbolize all disciples of Jesus who love and serve him without our even knowing them—they have each done their part, which contributes to the well being of the whole Church, yet without fanfare or pretension—the are members of “the invisible Church.”
In Luke, notice that the people welcome Jesus as he enters Jerusalem not with palms, but by spreading their cloaks on the pathway. This is their version of rolling out the red carpet for royalty. Here is a picture of joy and celebration likely because they viewed Jesus as an earthly Messiah-King who would free them from Roman rule; yet their joy and celebration was very short-lived. Soon the people will either shout, “Crucify him!” Or they will beat their breasts as a sign of deep sorrow and repentance for their part in crucifying Jesus.
Our next scene is Jesus with his disciples celebrating the Passover meal. This time though he adds to it by instituting the sacrament of Holy Communion. There is one cup of wine that symbolizes the future kingdom of God. Then the bread is eaten “in remembrance,” just as Israel remembers God’s deliverance from their Egyptian slavery—so the Church remembers Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross as a remembrance of our deliverance from sin, death and evil. Then Jesus speaks of the second cup of wine as the “new covenant in my blood.” The Jewish people of course placed blood on the doorposts of their homes so that the angel of death passed over them. Christ’s shed blood on the cross for us Christians makes it possible for God to “pass over” our sins and regard us as forgiven.
In Luke, Jesus also predicts the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter. In both cases, have you ever wondered what was going on in Christ’s heart as he spoke those sober words? Can we feel something of Christ’s sorrow when those we are closest to; those whom we love dearly betray and deny us? Is there not something of Judas and Peter in us too? When do we betray and deny Christ? Could it be whenever we fail to serve the least of his brothers and sisters; the two-third’s world; the homeless, the unemployed, the sick, the widow and orphan, the single-parent families, the outcasts of our society?
Now we are with Jesus and his disciples on the Mount of Olives. We, like Jesus and his disciples cannot always pray easily. Prayer is a discipline in addition to being a gift. Prayer is our ongoing struggle and debate with God. Prayer also is the occasion to be our true selves by pouring out our deepest agony and pain and seeking God’s help and guidance. Prayer helps us, like it did Jesus, to accept God’s holy will.
While at the Mount of Olives, Luke tells us “the power of darkness” is having its influence upon Judas, the crowds, and some religious leaders who come with swords and clubs; expecting Jesus and his followers to resist violently. Yet, in this tense scene, when the slave’s ear is cut off, Jesus in a moment of love and tenderness towards the enemy, heals it.
The Passion continues as Jesus is brought to the high priest’s house, where outside in the courtyard Peter denies Jesus three times. In this denial however, Luke hints at Peter’s deep remorse and repentance, telling us that he “wept bitterly.” We too can empathise with Peter; for we too have denied Christ by lacking courage to publicly confess Christ in the presence of those who are hostile; or perhaps we lack the moral-ethical backbone to do the right thing; or perhaps political correctness causes us to deny Christ for fear that it will have an adverse effect on our career and reputation.
In the next scene, we encounter some men mocking and beating Jesus. Here we cannot help but think of Isaiah 53; where the “Suffering Servant” faces all kinds of abuse and affliction, is clearly innocent, and in silence endures it all. Jesus here then is fulfilling Isaiah 53, which is for the good of us all, and divinely ordained, for: “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:6b)
As the next day begins, Jesus appears before the Sanhedrin. They ask him questions about his Messianic claims to which he tells them of their own scepticism and their own ironic admission of his identity as “the Son of God” as they make their charge against him. Believing they have a case against Jesus, the assembly then takes him to Pilate and Herod and back to Pilate a second to for further interrogation. Luke, a Gentile writing for Gentiles, emphasises the reticence of both Pilate and Herod to charge or execute Jesus. This rather glowing description of Pilate and Herod may be an attempt on Luke’s part to gain the favour of political authorities to legitimize Christianity. At any rate, according to Luke, it is only after Pilate makes three appeals to Jesus’ accusers of his innocence that he caves in to the crowds’ loud shouts; demanding that Jesus be crucified and Barabbas an insurrectionist and murderer be released. Is there something of “the mob mentality” in us all? Why are crowds still so easily worked up to commit acts of hatred? Why are people not satisfied until they “get their pound of flesh” and orchestrate unnecessary bloodshed? Jesus continues to be beaten, mocked and crucified whenever the world’s innocent peoples are victimized by lies, hatred and violence and political authorities sanction such injustices.
Next, Luke tells us Jesus is led away and crucified with two other criminals. On his way of the cross, which is born by Simon of Cyrene, Jesus encounters women “beating their breasts” as an act of sorrow. Then, when he is hung on the cross he prays his memorable prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Even when he faces more mocking and insults from his enemies; he prays a prayer of forgiveness. Surely there is no greater love than this—to forgive one’s enemies; not take up violence against them or condemn and curse them.
While Jesus continues to hang and suffer on the cross, Jesus grants the one criminal’s request, telling him: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Here there is hope for even the worst of criminals; here there is an unconditional love. Here Luke powerfully underscores one of his favourite gospel themes—namely, that Jesus came to welcome and save sinners.
Next, Luke tells us that the earth became dark from about noon until three in the afternoon and the temple curtain was torn in two. To crucify the innocent Jesus, God’s Messiah is the epitome of evil—so much so that it casts a darkness on the whole creation. The temple curtain being torn in two is likely a symbolic reference to the new access that we have to God the Father through Christ’s crucifixion. This access to atonement for our sins is available every day for all people; thanks to the once for all sacrificial offering of Jesus on the cross.
After the darkness and the torn temple curtain, Jesus, completes a final act of love and trust in God by praying: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and dies. So moved by this is a Roman centurion that he says: “Certainly this man was innocent.” The crowds too, leaving the scene, go home “beating their breasts” as a sign of deep sorrow and perhaps even repentance for their part in the crucifixion. However, in Luke, Christ’s “acquaintances (i.e. his disciples), including the women who had followed him” remain at a distance witnessing the crucifixion up to the very end. Here Luke paints a very hopeful picture of loyalty, sympathy and love among Jesus’ disciples—not cowardice or abandonment.
In the final scene of Christ’s Passion in Luke, Joseph of Arimathea, “a good and righteous man” and “a member of the council (who) had not agreed to their plan and action;” is granted permission from Pilate to remove Christ’s body from the cross and bury it in a tomb. Here Luke underscores a very important fact—namely, that not all of the Jews, not even all of the Sanhedrin were responsible for Christ’s crucifixion. This is a most timely point. In our day antisemitism is, tragically, on the rise. We as Christians must stand with our Jewish neighbours and resist this horrible evil. It is evil, unchristian, and a distortion of the Gospel accounts to blame all the Jews collectively in all times and places for the death of Christ. According to Scripture, the Jews are still, and shall remain God’s chosen people who have “an everlasting covenant” with God.
Luke concludes his Passion with the faithful women disciples of Jesus witnessing Joseph bury Jesus in the tomb and then they go to prepare spices and ointments to come back after the Sabbath and perform their final act of love by giving Jesus proper burial rites. According to Luke, women were key participants in the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus. What role do women play in today’s Church? Are they treated as equals in every way with men or are they still overlooked and marginalized by men?
May God bless each of you as you read, study, pray, and re-live the Passion of Christ during this Holy Week. Amen.1
1 In place of a sermon, preachers may prefer, with the assistance of congregants, to dramatically read or act out the Palm-Passion Narrative. One excellent resource for this was prepared by Greta Jensen and available on the Kir Shalom website at: http://www.spirit-net.ca/sermons/c-passion-narrative.html.