Palm Sunday Sermon

This morning, the church has set us before two intense, dramatic, yet dramatically opposed Gospel readings, which, when read together, contradict each other in a violent collision. And the intellectual jolt we experience from the clash of the magnification and vilification of Jesus ought to startle us, unsettle us.

Let us reflect: In Luke 19, Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem as Messiah; three chapters later, he is the victim of the civil form of Rome’s triumphal procession over insurrectionists and political rebels, crucifixion. One moment, Jesus is hailed as King, the next, he is being hanged as a Messianic pretender, mocked as ‘King of the Jews’. One minute, the crowd lauds him as Hosanna; the next, they are screaming ‘Crucify him, crucify him!’ In the first reading, Jesus’s disciples are fetching a donkey for their master in proud expectation and obedience; in the second, those same disciples are ashamed to say they know him, they betray, abandon, and deny him. For a time, everyone plays the part of Peter, bold and blatant in recognizing Jesus as the Christ; but in the crucial moment, everyone played the part of Judas.

Now, so much could be said about just a single paragraph in one of these readings. But today, I want to briefly reflect on the reality to which these divergent moments attest. The reality is that we are not in a position to be able to receive Jesus, that we are not really capable of coming to a right mind about him. When it comes to beholding Immanuel, God with us, we are fickle and foolish and entirely too confident in our powers of judgement.

How else can you explain the radical change in opinion about Jesus that Jerusalem underwent in a matter of days? The fact is that our acceptance of Jesus is bound up with our deepest hopes, values, and our desire for security. And that means, whether consciously or not, we set the standard according to which Jesus is judged. We have a tendency to think that the arrival of Jesus means the fulfilment of our dreams, the arrival of the constancy and certainty for which we have long longed throughout the ups and downs of our lives.

And we would like to think that there is a happy coincidence between our longings and the salvation God offers us in Jesus. So, initially, we see Jesus and declare him our King, as we experience deep excitement when we mistake him for the embodiment of our hopes. Jesus becomes the blank screen upon which we project our best version of ourselves and our world. We think we are hailing Jesus ‘Hosanna in the Highest’ when in reality we are simply engaged in a bit of self-affirmation. Far from an incarnation of God, we see Jesus as an incarnation of our thoughts and wishes.

But when the real Jesus speaks, our jubilation quickly turns to hatred. For not only are we disillusioned when it becomes plainly apparent that Jesus is not the embodiment of our hopes and dreams, but we become outraged when Jesus himself rebukes those goals. Indeed, what moves Jerusalem from acclaiming Jesus as King to exclaiming ‘Crucify him!’ is Jesus’ own denouncement of the religious and political status quo, which is nothing other than the collective establishment and social enshrinement of human ideals.

We would all like to think that we are more or less on the right path, that our world is progressing, that we are just a few adjustments shy of heaven on earth. And, as Christians, we might find ourselves content with our devotion to God, believing that we have reached some sort of arrangement or have an understanding with God.

But the crucifixion of Jesus ought to be a bump on the road of happy thoughts, if not a stumbling block. For the crucifixion does not just display God’s love for us; it also exposes our hatred of God, our rejection of him, our damnation and consignment of God to the depths of death and hell. The crucifixion will not allow us to see ourselves as willing partners in the path to a better world, because the crucifixion reveals that there is a deep ideological difference between our idea of heaven on earth and God’s. When God’s kingdom comes, we feel threatened and so react violently. We attempt to put to death the challenge God puts to us.

You see, the truth is this: there is a Judas inside each one of us. We might like to believe only the violent or the manipulative or the greedy are Judas. But when Jesus comes to us as King, we all turn Judas. Indeed, as we read, Peter denies Jesus three times, and Jesus’s friends, his disciples, betray him by fleeing the scene. No one stands up for Jesus and defends him with their life. We are left wondering whether this discipleship was just opportunism or self-assurance.

At the foot of the cross, at the altar rail before the Body and Blood of Christ, we all have to inspect our motives and let our ideals be dissolved by the love of Jesus.

And how great is that love, how inexhaustible, how incredibly patient! Notice one more thing about our readings. Jesus, rather calmly, predicts Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. And when he does so, he does not appear eager to dissuade them from their actions. Jesus has accepted their treachery and does not feel compelled to convince them to be faithful. We could read this as Jesus’ indifference to their love or as a sort of Stoic acceptance of his fate. But I think what is in fact going on is that Jesus understands the deep insecurity we experience in this world, the impulse in moments of danger and fear to abandon noble ideals in order to remove ourselves from danger, and the difficulty of following him. It is indicative of the depth of Jesus’ love that he does not try to motivate his betrayers by fear or consequence. Jesus’ love for Judas and Peter and for all his disciples is not motivated or strengthened by their love for him, but is pure, not bound by the logic of exchange or benefit, or self-esteem.

When all is said and done, we will not overcome the Judas inside of ourselves, and Jesus knows our failure intimately. But that is not his concern. His love for us is not based on whether we agree with him, whether we call him Messiah or Rebel. He loves us from a place beyond the relativity that comprises, better, compromises our world. Jesus’ love for us exists in the eternal tranquility of the Holy Trinity, it comes from the bountiful, unchangeable yet ever fresh love that redounds among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God’s love cannot be deterred by our lack of love. The sooner we realize that true love is not an accomplishment, but simply is, the sooner we discover that love is a pure gift not enhanced or strengthened by its receipt or rejection, the sooner we appreciate that love is given irrespective of the outcome and the benefits, is the sooner we will learn that our hopes and dreams have nothing to do with the economy of God. Indeed, the sooner we learn that love is less an action and more a capacity or a way of looking at the world, the sooner we will begin the process of crucifying our selfish whims and finding our ideals displaced by God’s Kingdom. God’s love for us is deeper than the Judas or Peter inside of us; this week, as we prepare ourselves for the great triumph of that love in Jesus’ resurrection, let us dwell in that love and let it recreate us, renew us, and embolden us to love God, to love others, and, even, to love ourselves not based on our tastes or tolerance level, but based on a profound hope, an imaginative sight of things unseen, a joyful confidence that the deepest truth about this world is not conflict and violence but peace and love.

Veni, Creator Spiritus.
(Revd J Merrick)

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