Sunday, March 28, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday
watch this service online (processional gospel starts around 5:37; readings start around 12:08; Passion narrative starts around 16:26; sermon starts around 33:48)
Follow along in the digital bulletin
I’m gonna try to keep the sermon pretty short today. Partly, that’s because we just read two entire chapters of the gospel of Mark. But mostly it’s because these verses already speak so much for themselves, and there’s not really a whole lot more that I can add to them. Today is the beginning of Holy Week, and it is all about the story. Jesus’ remarkable life of teaching and preaching justice and mercy, of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and leading with love has led him here – has led him to the cross.
Jesus ends up on the cross not because of anything one single person did. When we talk about Jesus dying for our sins, I think all too often we imagine Jesus dying because of our individual shortcomings – because we yelled at our spouse that time or because we told a lie that other time, or because we cheated on a test or on our taxes. But what we actually see in this story is how the whole human enterprise has become so broken and corrupt that it rejects Jesus and his ministry outright. Jesus comes into this world full of love, with unfailing grace and mercy toward the people he encounters, even as he calls them to account. And in return, he is met with violence and dishonesty from the religious and political establishment, with derision from the general public, and even with betrayal by the people who were closest to him. He is peaceful and unresisting to the end, allowing himself – love made flesh – to be crucified by human hate.
The cross casts a long shadow – a shadow that, paradoxically, shows us, humanity, for who we really are. It’s in this shadow that we are called to dwell this week especially. Today’s hymn of the day – “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” – poetically reminds us that, as followers of Christ, we are called to stand always in the shadow of the cross. It’s one of my favorite hymns – and one I’m sure many of you also know well – and it serves as a wonderful invitation into Holy Week as we live into the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection once again.
Because in this story, it’s only the people who stand beneath the cross of Jesus who truly understand. They’re the only ones who understand what it is that Christ has done for us and for the world. Within the shadow of the cross is the only vantage point from which this story makes any sense.
Peter stands there, weeping, as Jesus is crucified. He is horrified and ashamed by his own betrayal of Jesus. I have no doubt that Jesus’ words rang endlessly in his ears: “You will all become deserters… Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Yet Peter’s mind is also filled with the incredible tenderness that Jesus showed to him and his other disciples, up to the very end. Jesus knew exactly what the disciples would do – he already knew they would betray him – yet his love for them is unshakable. And even as Peter stands there watching Jesus dying on the cross, he knows that Jesus is still filled with only love for the world that rejected him and hung him up to die.
A group of women including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, and probably Jesus’ own mother Mary also stands there in the shadow of the cross. This group of disciples had followed Jesus from the very beginning in Galilee. They had provided for Jesus and the movement he started all along the way; they were with him when he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem; and now here they are, still with Jesus at the bitter end of this journey. They have witnessed Jesus’ love in action time and time again – and as he breathes his last, they don’t just go slinking quietly away. They choose to continue living out the love that Jesus embodied by tenderly caring for his body in his death. Even before Jesus is raised from the dead, these women choose to carry on the legacy of his love to the world that rejected him.
As Jesus breathes his last breath, the curtain of the temple is torn in two. This curtain separated the rest of the temple – the rest of the world – from the Holy of Holies. This was the the most sacred, most holy place in the Temple, the place where God was said to physically dwell on earth – so holy that only the high priest was allowed to enter, and he was only allowed to go in there once a year. That curtain between the Holy of Holies and the world is torn open as Jesus dies. And at that moment, the Roman centurion, standing in the shadow of the cross, realizes the full truth of what has just happened. And in awe, he speaks that profound declaration: “Truly, this man was God’s Son!”
When we stand beneath the cross of Jesus, it throws the rest of our life and our priorities, our loyalties, into sharp relief. It’s often an uncomfortable place to stand. As the author of the hymn writes: “From my contrite heart, with tears, two wonders I confess: the wonder of his glorious love, and my unworthiness.” The shadow of the cross reveals our human weakness, the ways that we have fallen short of the lives that God has called us to lead. And beyond this, it reveals how this world is still a place of systemic violence and brokenness. The instruments of death may have changed, but the hatred and self-centeredness and corruption are still the same as they have ever been.
And that can easily lead us to feel a sense of despair – despair that we will never be good enough, despair that this world might be beyond redemption. And that despair can lead us to want to skip over the story, to skip right from the “Hosanna!” of Palm Sunday to the “Alleluia!” of Easter Sunday so that we don’t have to walk through this dark valley in between the two. Fun fact: this is actually the reason why many churches started reading the Passion story on Palm Sunday – so that no one can skip the story by not going to midweek services!
Because the truth is that when you skip the story – especially the dark and violent and tragic parts of the story – the rest of it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s only by standing in the shadow of the cross that we can begin to understand what God in Christ has done. It’s only by standing beneath the cross of Jesus that we can begin to understand the hope that we bear for the life of the world to come.
So don’t resist it. Let the story draw you in. Let the Spirit guide you into understanding, until you fully know in your heart the final words of the hymn: “Content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss, my sinful self my only shame; my glory all the cross.”
Beneath the cross of Jesus I long to take my stand; the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land, a home within a wilderness, a rest upon the way, from the burning of the noontide heat and burdens of the day. Upon the cross of Jesus, my eye at times can see the very dying form of one who suffered there for me. And from my contrite heart, with tears, two wonders I confess: the wonder of his glorious love and my unworthiness. I take, O cross, your shadow for my abiding place; I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of his face; content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss; my sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.