Lent 6 / Palm Sunday
March 24, 2011
William G. Carter
See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
All the triumphant music today does not mask the truth of Holy Week. Jesus enters the holy city of Jerusalem and he comes to die. He rides down the hill in humble majesty, but he is not the King that Jerusalem wants.
It is difficult to hold this together. We hear today’s hosannas, we anticipate the hallelujahs of next Sunday. But sometimes we forget that, in between, Somebody dies. Jesus rides a donkey into the city. The crowds cheer. They cut down leafy branches and wave them in victory. They put their cloaks on the ground, kind of a poor persons’ red carpet into the city. Jesus arrives from the Mount of Olives, the very place where the Messiah was to appear. It’s a big moment. A huge moment!
But he knows what he is going to face. Halfway down the hill, he pauses for a good view of the city, and he weeps. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You are the city that kills the prophets.” Then he rides into the city just like a prophet. He goes into the temple and drives out the flea marketeers – just like a prophet. In full sight of the Roman soldiers, he takes on the religious establishment – just like a prophet. Luke says Jesus dies like a prophet. He is innocent (23:47), he is full of God, and therefore he is condemned. He is the prophet, he is the king, and nobody wants him.
I suppose if all we had was Palm Sunday and Easter, we might miss what happens on Friday. Like that church in southern Pennsylvania. The minister is new this year. He stopped in yesterday and discovered that the people in charge of flowers have already decorated the sanctuary with hundreds of Easter flowers, including a large floral cross. They were so pleased with themselves. The minister said, “What are you doing?” “Well, the flowers are so pretty, we thought it would be nice to have them for two Sundays in a row. And it gets people in a good mood for Easter.”
Sure does. Nobody has to die. Nobody has to be betrayed, arrested, dragged to a trial, condemned, humiliated, and hammered to a cross. The flowers are too pretty for all of that.
How strange, then, to hear Paul say, “I never want to boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
You could accuse him of being a grump. Call him Eeyore. That’s what they did in Corinth. They thought he was a downer, that he took the glad tidings of Easter and turned into a sad story of the cross. They said, “Paul, are you still preaching about the crucifixion of Jesus? That’s the same sermon that you preached last week. You’re supposed to be an apostle, Paul. Get another sermon!” And he said, “That’s the only sermon I have, the only sermon I preach. I preach Christ crucified, even if that’s a stumbling block to the Jews and silliness to the Greeks.” I guess they will never put him on the flower committee where my friend is the new minister. Paul would show up with cans of black spray paint and deface the tulips.
Or when he heard what was happening in Philippi. It really disturbed him. Paul loved that little church, started it with his own hands. And he hears that some are squabbling with one another, and it tears him up. Some rival preachers have also come in, and they are preaching nonsense and it boils his blood. Just when he might explode, he takes a breath, and says, “Remember Jesus. Have the mind of Jesus. He was One with God, but he didn’t clutch that, hold onto that. No, he emptied himself and made himself a servant of all. He gave himself completely away … even to the cross. Remember that, and be like Jesus.”
The cross is important to Paul. He never mentions Palm Sunday, and doesn’t spend a lot of time speculating about Easter. It’s not that he doesn’t think Jesus alive; No, he believes Jesus is alive, risen from the dead. There is no doubt in Paul about that. But what tantalizes his theological imagination is the cross. Christ, the king and Lord of all, is crucified.
As he writes to his churches in Galatia, in central Turkey, he says, “The only thing I have to boast about is Jesus on a cross.” That’s quite an affirmation, because Jesus went to the cross, not Paul. This was the supreme act of Christ’s faith, says Paul. He gave himself on the cross to free us from the evil machinery of the world (1:4). He took all the curses of our human imperfection to the cross (3:13). All our arrogance and pride was crucified when Jesus was crucified (2:17-19). If we think God will love us if only we do all the right things and follow all the ancient rules, we are scamming ourselves and headed down a dead end.
Oh no, it is all so much better than that. We boast of the cross because Jesus does on the cross what we cannot do. He sets us free from an endless trap of religious obligation. He liberates from the human obsession to prove ourselves. “All that stuff was killed off with Christ,” says Paul. “Jesus set us free to live in freedom with God (5:1).” There is nothing for anybody to boast about – except to boast of what Christ has done for all of us.
Ever know anybody who boasts? We had a classmate in high school who could boast better than anybody. He went out for track, made the team, and told us how fast he could run, how high he could jump. He went out for football, made the starting backfield, told us how good he was, how many points he scored. He did very well in his school work, constantly at the top of the academic gene pool, telling the rest of us about his scholastic average. In fact, he decided that going to a regular college wasn’t good enough for him. He was going to West Point. He was nominated by the congressman and appointed to the military academy. Of course, he told us all about it.
Do you know why he boasted? Because he was superior. He believed he was better than everybody else. If you were to ask him, he wouldn’t call it boasting; he would call it “telling the truth.” He really though he was better than everybody else.
Three weeks after he left for West Point, he was knocking on my door. His countenance was pale. He had a grimace chiseled on his face. “Couldn’t cut it,” he murmured. “It wasn’t for me.” I had never seen him like that – he had actually failed at something. He was a mortal like the rest of us. He had come to me as a trusted friend to confess his failure. I was starting to feel some compassion for the guy.
Then he said, “So you’re going to the university at Binghamton this fall?” Yes. And he said, “Well, if they can take somebody like you, I’m sure they will take me. I mean, the bar isn’t set very high.”
Why did he boast? Because he thought he was superior. He really believed it.
Do you remember who crucified Jesus? People who thought they were superior. Jewish religious leaders: they followed God’s Law precisely, more perfectly than everybody else. They believed that they were doing the right thing when they condemned him. And who else? Roman officials: they were part of the strongest, fiercest, most efficient empire that the world had ever known. A standard crucifixion was all in a Friday’s work. Religious leaders and career soldiers, professionals so sure of their own competence and power that they could boast. And their signature achievement? They killed the Son of God. So much for competence and doing the right thing…
Here’s the thing, says Paul. “When I look to the cross of Jesus, all my boasting is crucified and gone. All my expertise is killed off. I have nothing left to stand on, nothing really to brag about. There is nothing superior about me at all. It’s as if my whole world of achievements and classifications and status symbols has been killed off.” The righteous religious leaders who condemned Jesus were not righteous enough. The competent Roman politicians weren’t competent enough. If we were in the same position on the same day, any one of us would have done the same things that they did.
Here’s the thing: neither Jew nor Roman Gentile could boast of being superior. Neither religious rule-keeper nor pagan expert is better than the other. All those categories of “success” and “failure” don’t matter before the cross. All those descriptions of “superior” or “inferior” don’t count any more. It doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female – in Jesus Christ, there is a new creation. The adjectives that we use to describe ourselves and other people do not matter.
All that matters is the Risen Christ took all of those distinctions to the cross and did away with them. The God who saves us from “this present age” doesn’t see any of us as superior to any other. All God sees is a multitude of children who need to be rescued. Some of them need to be rescued from thinking they are better than anybody else. Others need to be rescued from a lifetime of being treated as dirt.
“This is what I boast about,” says Paul: God’s saving love. It’s right there on the cross of Jesus. No need to impress anybody, because, frankly none of God’s children are any better than any other of God’s children. God believes we are capable of peace and worthy of mercy. That is the good news of the cross.
To the Galatians, the apostle gives his last word – which is our blessing at the start of Holy Week. “Brothers and sisters,” he says – you know he means all of us brothers and sisters. We belong to God, so we are brothers and sisters of one another. Then he gives his blessing: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” The last word is grace. At the end of everything else, there is grace. Divine favor – that’s grace.
And it isn’t our grace. It is the grace of Jesus, the Living One, who died to set us free. We didn’t have to do anything to earn it; he did all the heavy work for us. That’s why it is grace.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.