The Palm and Passion Sunday lectionary texts can almost jolt us. We start singing loud Hosannas and suddenly we gaze upon the cross. This week, the mystery of Jesus Christ’s humanity and divinity comes into focus: God is crucified. Charles Wesley asked, how can that be? “Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies! Who can explore God’s strange design? In vain the-born angels try to sound the depths of love divine! ‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore- Let angel minds inquire no more.” Let us not avert our eyes from the horror of the cross, but let us see the beauty and depth of God’s self-giving identification with humanity. Holy Week reminds us that Jesus embodies God’s self-giving and sacrifice. How will we gaze upon Christ’s cross? Will we look away from the reality of suffering, look down at our feet with shame and self-loathing, or will we see the beauty of God’s self-giving in the face of Jesus? Paul quotes an early Christian song inviting us to consider Jesus’ mindset
Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus, who:
Although Christ existed in the form (or nature) of God,
Christ did not regard equality with God something to exploit
Instead Jesus emptied (himself) taking the form of a servant
And being born in human likeness,
And found in the human form,
Jesus humbled himself
by becoming obedient to the point of death
even death on a cross.
From the cradle to the cross, Jesus’ whole is offered to us as an act of God’s self-giving sacrifice. Jesus embodies divine self-giving. “God so loved the world that God gave” God’s Very Self to bring us life, liberation and love. (John 3:16) Will we give the best of our lives to God as an offering? Ephessians 5 invites us to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Will we see the beauty of Jesus’ self-giving and offer our lives as fragrant offerings to God? As we reflect on the Holy Week narratives, let us not slip into shame or disabling self-loathing, or look around for someone to blame, NO- let us see the beauty of God’s incarnate love amid the sadness of human sinfulness.
Even before the Palm branches are cleaned up from the streets, Jesus looks around Jerusalem observing the Temple and Herod’s Palace. Jesus weeps over the whole broken system. While weeping, Jesus laments “If only you knew on this day of the things that lead to peace.” Do we embody Jesus’ beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers- for they shall be called children of God?” ( Matthew 5)? Do we embody the attitudes and actions that make for peace?
Jesus then entered God’s Temple and threw out those selling faith and turned over the exploitative money changing tables. Peacemaking is proactive, complex, and systemstemic. Real peacemaking is rooted in advocacy, equality, and justice. Jesus quotes Scripture to the startled pilgrims, priests and profitters: “It’s written, God’s house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a hideout for crooks.” Are our hearts attuned to justice? Do we look to Jesus as we approach systems that oppress, exclude and dehumanize?
After weeping over the city and flipping over tables, all the Gospels tell us that every day during Holy Week “Jesus was teaching in the temple.” The crowds were enthralled. Only the chief priests, entrenched legal experts, and powerful leaders hated Jesus’ teaching. During Holy Week, will we seek to blame others for Jesus’ death or will we confess that the church resists the prophetic voice? If you doubt that, read Jesus’ Holy week sermons in Matthew 23. Jesus was a Jew and Jewish church leaders questioned Jesus’ authority to interrupt Scriptures, tried to entrap Jesus with questions about paying taxes to the Emperor or who a widow might be married to in heaven. Jesus warns us. “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes and to be greeted with honor at chamber diners. And yet they say long prayers while they rip people off.” Are we faithful enough to hear the hard prophetic words that question our folkways or authority? Do we approach Holy mysteries and new interpretations with a humble openness or a vigorous institutional defense?
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus told those gathered at the Lord’s Table; “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”. Imagine yourself sitting at that Table. The Message paraphrases Jesus’ words “You’ve no idea how much I have looked forward to eating this Passover meal with you” Oh Holy Week pilgrim, God longs for you to come to the Table! Let us embody Jesus’ deep welcome. Let us come to the table, where all are welcomed.
Who is welcome at Jesus’ Table? Luke tells us that during the Last Supper, when Jesus told the disciples that one of them would betray him, they began to argue about which one of them would do it. Their argument escalated into a debate about who among them was the greatest. Jesus knows the sting of our self-serving agendas, the feel of Judas’ phony kiss and the heartbreak of Peter’s failure of nerve. And yet, Jesus embodies grace and one more chance: “Judas,will you use a kiss to betray me? Peter, I pray that your faith may not fail (during all this); and once you have turned back, you will strengthen your sibling. Jesus got up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist and began washing the disciples’ feet.” Oh forgiven and reconciled people, let us offer others second, third and 77th chances.
After they sang a hymn, they left the table. Jesus went to pray as was his custom. Jesus’ lifestyle of prayer grounded all Jesus embodied. The disciples followed Jesus as Jesus withdrew about a stone’s throw, kneeling down and praying: “Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.” Luke tells us the stress was so great some of the capillaries in Jesus’ forehead ruptured. Jesus tells his closest friends “My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death- keep watch with me.” When our souls are overwhelmed and we think we can’t go on, will we wake up our sleeping friends three times during the night and ask them to help us carry the burden? Oh Holy Week Pilgrims, Jesus knows our suffering and is not unacquainted with our grief.
Breaking the peace of the quiet dark garden, the guards come with swords, clubs and torches. Jesus speaks truth to power: “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, as though I were a thief? Day after day I was with you in the temple, but you didn’t arrest me. But this is your time, when evil rules.” While in custody Jesus will be taunted, mocked, and beaten. Luke notes the officers said many horrible things accusing Jesus. On Good Friday Pilate spoke for the legal system “I find no legal basis for action against Jesus.” The church leaders “objected strenuously” saying, “Jesus agitates the people with his teaching” Jesus will be falsely convicted and crucified. What is our attitude when we hear about false arrests, police brutality, death sentences or war crimes? Do we remember Jesus?
A whipped and exhausted Jesus is made to carry the cross until he collapses under it. The soldiers force Simon from Cyrene, a foreigner to carry Jesus’ cross. A huge crowd of people followed behind Jesus. The Good Friday crowd mourned and wailed out loud for Jesus. Jesus tries to comfort them,saying “Daughters of Jerusalem do not weep for me” even as they bring comfort to Jesus. Do we see how Simon, an immigrant, became Jesus to Jesus by carrying the cross? Oh let us embody compassion for the executed, the outcast, and the wounded.
The guards led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified Jesus, along with the criminals. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Such mercy seems beyond our human capacity, and yet others have practiced such amazing grace. What good does it do for anyone to die with revenge, bitterness or retribution on their lips? Let us embody forgiveness!
About noon, darkness covered the whole earth until about three o’clock, while the sun stopped shining. Matthew and Mark tell us Jesus recited Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me, why are you so far from saving me”? Luke notes Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life” After Jesus said this, Jesus breathed for the last time. Our youth sing an anthem, I believe in God, I believe, even when the sun is not shining. Do we know we can embody lament, trust, hope, and belief all at once? God is with us, even on the cross!
Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that a Roman centurion oversaw the whole spectacle. The Gospels tell us this pagan foreign soldier would make what some regard as the first Christian confession of faith. Luke notes the centurion praised God, saying, “It’s really true: this man was righteous. Matthew’s centurion declares “”Truly this man was God’s Son!” Luke adds “When all the crowds who had gathered for the spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all of Jesus’ acquaintances and the women (ever faithful) , stood at a distance, watching”. Then Joseph, a member of the very council that condemned Jesus to death and who is powerful enough to personally ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, provides a tomb for Jesus, and lovingly removes Jesus’ body from the cross. Luke wants us to know Joseph was “a good and righteous” person who did not agree with what the church did. Perhaps the roman centurion, the remorse filled crowd, and the heartsick rabbi might remind us to not be so absolute in our assessment of church councils, angry crowds, officers, and others. Let us adopt the attitude of Jesus, who ran to comfort Magdalene and restore Peter refusing to conduct a “I told you so payback tour” on Easter? May we be compassionate, open, and Christ-like
This week as we survey the cross, what will we see?
May holy tears flow with redemptive love down our faces.
May peace flow from our lips,
as justice electrifies our fingertips?
May our ears lean in to hear God’s prophetic word for this day.
May our feet carry us to the Lord’s Table,
for only there we can remember who we are?
When our hearts are overwhelmed and we think we can not go on,
may we find Jesus’ courage to wake our friends and pour our souls in prayer .
May we welcome the stranger and the mourning crowd who all can become Jesus to us.
Let us remember the centurion’s confession, Joseph’ compassion,
and the crowd’s remorse before we ever cast blame.
When the sun stops shining, may we find the melody of quiet belief.
May we see redemptive beauty amid our deepest lament.
During this holiest of weeks, come, let us embody the Love of God
given freely to us in Jesus the Christ. Amen