Sermon for Passion Sunday
Today the Church enters into the period of mourning over her divine Bridegroom. Passiontide, which begins today, marks the third stage of our preparation for Easter. Pre-Lent was an introduction and the past four weeks a time for conversion and spiritual renewal. Passiontide commemorates Christ’s suffering in a special way. The crosses are draped as an outward sign of inward sorrow. The Gloria Patri is omitted for the same reason – to underscore the despair at the sin that is the cause of Christ’s suffering and sorrow.
The Lord’s suffering is the real theme of Passiontide, and I am not so sure that it ought not to be the theme of every day of every week of the year. We are called to reflect on Christ’s suffering in greater detail than at any other time. We are called to reflect on our part in that suffering. It is a time for sobering reminders of our nature. The time for feel-good happy clappy is behind us – what, really, are we doing here? What, rally, are we doing with our lives? Does it not matter to us that the way in which we lead our lives are direct causes of the suffering of Jesus? That the way we lead our lives accuse Jesus and torment him, as sure as if we were pelting him with stones ourselves?
But, surely, not. We lead virtuous lives, don’t we? We love Jesus and try, for his sake to be righteous and virtuous and do good? We dutifully and reverently go to church, we read Scripture, we pray earnestly. Friends, these are the means of sanctification, not justification. These are natural outcomes, ought to be natural outcomes, of receiving the saving grace of God. But they are not means of receiving the saving grace of God. There are no means of receiving that grace other than repentance, contrition and conversion. And without these, as we hear God say through the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah, our worship and everything else we get up to, is worse than useless; it is an offence before God. Such worship, we are told, will be punished severely. No matter how correct and esthetically pleasing, without repentance and contrition, it is useless.
As we draw ever closer to Easter, that most joyous of celebrations, we are called upon to pause and reflect on the content of our hearts, as opposed to the content of the liturgy; whether our Sunday finest conceals the white robes of salvation, washed in the blood of the lamb, or whether they conceal a spiritual decay that we desperately want to hide from others. On Easter Sunday we rejoice in the risen Christ and the fulfillment of his promise of eternal life to all those who believe in him and follow him. On Passion Sunday, we ask ourselves if we are among those believers to whom that promise is given – or if our part in this cosmic drama ends on Good Friday, when the Jews, as our proxies, as the proxies of humanity, call out for his crucifixion.
In this demand, in this unrestrained desire and urge to kill the Christ, we find the accumulated rottenness of all human nature. Of you and me—not of others. In today’s reading, mankind stands before us at its farthest point from its original communion with God in the Garden of Eden. Faced with God the Son; the Christ to whom all Scripture had pointed and whom all the prophets had heralded; faced with him who was sent to us because God so loved the world that our need for a Savior prompted his tender heart to supply us with one. Faced with God himself—the people of God not only reject him, but they are already picking up rocks with which to stone him. They are fed up, they can take no more – virtue and tradition demands that he be killed. And we know how it ends.
Crucifixion was not only retribution, but also a deterrent. The bodies of the crucified were left up, first to writhe in agony and then, after they had expired, for good measure, to demonstrate what happens to those who were considered evildoers. In the case of Christ, the message was clear: his crime was to have offended their sense of chosenness by preaching the boundless love of the Father. By preaching his own divinity. His crime was to fulfill prophecy in a way that didn’t suit them. His crime was to question our righteousness before God. Let his agony and death be an example to anyone who dares do the same!
Human pride and self-righteousness placed Christ on the cross. But what had happened? How did these people turn against Christ in such a dramatic way? Only recently, he was doing well. He was saying the right things, and folks loved him. The great intellectual hero of the American Revolution Thomas Paine talked about “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots”; those who are faithful to the cause as long as the going doesn’t get tough – those who are faithful to the cause as long as it doesn’t demand that we step too far outside our comfort zone. We know from the Gospels that even among the closest friends of Christ, there were those, like St Peter, who pledged undying allegiance to him, only to turn around, when the mob got riotous, to flatly deny ever having known him. And there was Judas, truly one of the twelve, truly one of the chosen, and truly the one who epitomizes what we ought to fear in ourselves. If those we call saints are capable of such turn coat behavior, surely members of the crowd that greets Jesus were and are capable of the same deplorable, but all too human behavior.
Among God’s people, there are a number of religious feasts and celebrations, some of which are instituted by man, others by God. Among the latter were the Feast of the Tabernacles, the Feast of Weeks, and Passover. These were instituted in commemoration of particular instances of goodness and grace shown by God to His people, and were occasions intended to unify and educate the elect, worship God, and point to the coming of Christ. In the New Testament we come across feasts—Easter and Pentecost—that were not instituted at the direct and express command of God, but nevertheless begun within the first Christian congregation, which was “under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (Schartau, Bref, p. 431).
Easter, the fulfillment of the Passover, celebrates the boundless love of God for humanity in all its gory details. Resurrection Sunday makes no sense without Good Friday – but how many folks these days, when church attendance is no longer compulsory, do not choose to show up for the joy of Resurrection Sunday without bothering with the grief and agony of Good Friday? This is like celebrating recovery without admitting that you’re an alcoholic. Celebrating one’s pardon without admitting that one has committing a crime. And how do we accomplish this contortion? By relying on virtue.
I worry that Easter seems to have gone the way of the feasts of the Hebrews: corrupted and abused, they became occasions of self-righteousness, greed and gluttony. We heard the prophet Isaiah talk about such celebrations. Similarly, God through the Prophet Amos tells us:
I hate, I despise your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities. Even though you bring me your burnt offerings and grain offerings I will not accept them; Your stall-fed communion offerings, I will not look upon them. Take away from me your noisy songs; The melodies of your harps, I will not listen to them. Rather let justice surge like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:21-23)
Justice and righteousness must be our unwavering focus. Christ must be our unwavering focus because he is the one who brings justice and righteousness. The value of any and all outer manifestations depends on where our heart is, or rather, what the state of our heart is. Are we allowing the celebration, ostensibly of God’s love and generosity, to distract us from the implications of God’s love and generosity? The Lord is a merciful God, and he will not let those perish who rely on the virtue of his Son, the righteousness of his Son, and who accept the justice of Lord – a court of law in which we are always, by our own merit, sinners, and criminals.
As we gather around the precious gifts of Christ’s body and blood, let us keep this reality in mind. That it is not the outward garments and finery that God looks to, but the content of our hearts – at our repentance and contrition. May the Lord have mercy on us. Amen.