The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – March 28, 2021 – Mark 11: 1-11; Mark 15:1-47 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom
We squeeze a lot in on Palm Sunday.
First, during the Liturgy of the Palms, we hear the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then, we shift gears rather abruptly during the Liturgy of the Word as we listen to the lengthy passion narrative.
Both stories are familiar to us, but they are still exceedingly important for us to rehearse year after year. They are important, in part, because they are conflicting. As we listen to them, the pendulum of our emotions swings from a delightful pride to a shameful humiliation when suddenly we are confronted once again with the tragic example of just how volatile our human nature really is.
The juxtaposition between Jesus’ triumphant entry and his tragic execution reminds us of just how quickly public support can evaporate, fear can take control, and people can be convinced to sacrifice their hope for the future for a little bit of temporary security.
These stories are also important because they refocus us on an essential plot point of the Christian story: the crucifixion. Today, by directing our attention to Jesus’ death, but stopping short of his resurrection, we are reminded that all life—even Jesus’ life—includes suffering.
We do not ordinarily come to church to focus on suffering, but it is important to acknowledge it, especially this day and this week, because it is very, very real. For Jesus, and for each of us.
We are all acquainted with suffering. Our lives include the pains that accompany loss, failure, disillusionment, and rejection. That’s part of what it means to be human. And so, as Christians, we turn our attention this morning to stories that take us from celebration to suffering because they are stories that speak to experiences of the flesh. And they are stories that tell us the extent to which God is willing to go to identify with us in the flesh.
Of course, God’s identification with us in our humanity began at Christmas, when the Word became flesh, but today, on Palm Sunday, the “Sunday of the Passion,” we are reminded that that same flesh persists, even unto death.
As we meet Jesus walking willingly toward the cross, we must understand that to preach Christ crucified is to preach Christ incarnate, for one is not possible without the other. So, even today, the 12 days of Christmas long past, we preach flesh, and for good reason. Listen again to what St. Paul wrote to the Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself . . . being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
In other words, God became flesh in order to show us just how much flesh matters to God. Enough to suffer a state-sanctioned execution based on false accusations.
In some paradoxical way, we might even find it comforting to dwell on Jesus’ painful last hours on earth. Comforting, not because we derive pleasure from making or seeing others suffer, but because we all experience suffering, and the image of Jesus on the cross reminds us that God identifies with us in our suffering. It is the ultimate act of divine solidarity.
On the cross, Jesus teaches us that whenever we suffer, we are united with God. Does that mean that we should go around looking for ways to suffer? Absolutely not. Does that mean that we must thank God for seasons of suffering because they help us recall the divine presence? No. Not at all.
God does not inflict suffering on us for our edification. Quite the contrary. On the cross, Jesus redeems our suffering for our salvation. And he does it by showing us, in no uncertain terms, that when times of trial inevitably come, we are not alone. God is with us. This is our Lord’s greatest miracle, is it not? A love so compassionate, so completely selfless, that it chooses to share even in the worst burdens of our fleshly existence?
We often speak of Jesus’ death on the cross as a sacrifice done on our behalf, or in place of us. That’s true, of course. What Jesus accomplished on the cross was done once for all people throughout all time. We cannot repeat it. There are some Christians who seem to be convinced that the proper response to this reality is guilt. But I don’t think that’s what Paul had in mind when he urged the Philippians to let the same mind be in them that was in Christ Jesus. I think Paul had in mind something more like embracing all that it means to be human, just like Jesus did.
Because of Jesus, we have the capacity to love selflessly, even in the flesh. Because of Jesus, we have the capacity to meet others in their suffering, their moments of deepest sorrow, not in some vain attempt to imitate his sacrifice, but because he willingly made that sacrifice in the first place. If we can do that, if we can meet each other at our lowest points, then we just might finally recognize—in one another and in ourselves—what Jesus has seen in us all along: the very essence of our humanity that is so worth loving.
It’s a tall order to be sure, and we may not be able to do it quite like Jesus, but if we take him as our example, then our fear of each other just might start to subside, our skepticism of each other just might begin to abate, and the barriers that we have erected between ourselves just might begin to crumble because we will have seen that which only God can make it possible for us to see: those little bits of the divine image, even in the flesh.
We all suffer. If we remember that, and if we hold each other close when those times come, then we will be joined to God’s divine nature. In a sense, you might even say that, just like Jesus, we will be sharing in the world’s sour wine. And having tasted it, we will never be able deny someone a cold drink of water again.