St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield
I always feel a little awkward as I begin to preach on Palm Sunday, because a sermon seems like such an anti-climax after the dramatic reading of the Passion. In a way, I would almost rather just sit down with you and have a discussion about our thoughts and feelings in the light of such a powerful experience. In particular, I would want to know how you felt when you had to speak the lines assigned to the crowd: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
My guess is that it would affect each of you in a slightly different way. Perhaps you’re just apathetic about it; it didn’t move you any more than reading the ingredient list on a jar of peanut butter. If Jesus is just an abstraction to you, just a historical figure, if you don’t have a personal relationship with him, then apathy is a quite understandable response to the reading of the Passion.
Then again, perhaps it caused you sorrow or sadness. You sympathized with an innocent man being tried in a kangaroo court and sentenced unjustly to cruel torture and slow death. How could they have been so unfair? How could they have been so mean?
Or maybe the words got caught in your throat. I would never have been part of that crowd! Not me! I would never have been one to shout “Crucify him!” then, so why should I do it now? I am not an accomplice in the death of Jesus, I bear no responsibility for it. It’s something “they” did, and I wouldn’t have gone along with it. I wouldn’t have approved of it. I would have tried to save Jesus.
This is the response of denial. Yet, the stark, if unpleasant, reality is that if we are in denial of our contribution to Jesus’s crucifixion, we are in denial of the truth. Before the reading of the Passion, we sang the classic Holy Week hymn, “Ah, holy Jesus…”. The second verse gets right in our face with the undeniability of that which we would like to deny:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
My treason hath undone thee. I crucified thee. It is true that, without the particular sins of the particular Roman and Jewish authorities who put Jesus to death, without the particular voices of the individual members of the mob who shouted “Away with him! Crucify him!” Jesus’s death would never have been possible. But without the endemic sin of all of us, which includes the particular sins that you and I will yet commit this very day—without our sins, Jesus’s death would never have been necessary. “Their” sin made it possible; “our” sin made it necessary. Sin— “ours” as well as “theirs”—put Jesus on the cross.
Yet, we also know that a great battle took place on the cross, a battle of cosmic proportions, a battle in which the whole created order had a stake in the outcome.
As is invariably the case in a battle, there were casualties. The participants did not finish the battle in the same condition in which they entered it. Death happened on the cross. That much we know. But what is more difficult for us to see is that Jesus is not the only one who died there. Sin itself died on the cross as well, because Jesus forever robbed it of its power.
How does this happen? It is truly a great mystery, and I will not pretend to solve it for you. But I offer you one image that may help point us in the right direction. Think of germs—viruses and bacteria and the like—those nasty little microbes that carry the power to inflict disease and suffering and death. These same germs can often be manipulated into becoming the agents of the destruction of their own kind. When used in a vaccine, the organisms that they might otherwise infect develop an immunity to them. Through effective and widespread use of a vaccine, a disease can be virtually eradicated. Germs are used as the instruments of their own genocide. In the passion of Christ, sin—both “their” sin and “our” sin—becomes the instrument of its own destruction.
The particular sins of the Jewish and Roman authorities and the people in the crowd put Jesus on the cross. The particular sins of each one of us in this church today also put Jesus on the cross, because they helped make his death necessary. Yet, the end result of all these sins—namely, Jesus’s crucifixion—is the very means by which the death grip stranglehold that sin has over you and over me is broken. The most gruesome result of our sin—the execution of God incarnate—is transformed into our liberation from sin. And if this is not gospel, if this is not “good news,” then I don’t know what is!
As we move now into Holy Week, both our minds and our hearts—but especially our hearts, perhaps—will be challenged. There will be occasions for tears, occasions for sorrow, occasions for profound gratitude. This is all well and good, and I invite you to let your feelings go in the liturgies of the next week. But let it not be mere sentimentality that we’re engaged in. Never lose sight of the fact that this old, old story that we are rehearsing, this paschal mystery that we are celebrating, is not some Shakespearean tragedy, no tear-jerking made-for-TV movie, but is the means of life and hope for those of us, all of us, who must deal daily with the awesome power of sin and death. In the cross of Christ, the instrument of shameful death is turned into the means of life and peace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.