Palm Sunday & Sunday of the Passion by The Rev. Martin Elfert

 

Lessons:

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Philippians 2:5-11

Psalm 31:9-16

 

Click here to watch and listen to the sermon.

 

This is, maybe, the most dissonant day in the church calendar. Not Palm Sunday. Not
Passion Sunday. But Palm and Passion Sunday.
As recently as the midway mark of the past century, these were two different days in
the church calendar. One day on which we celebrated triumph, on which we marked
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, branches in our hands, songs and cries of Hosanna – or in
English, something like Save Us, We Pray – on our lips. And then another day on which
we stood at the foot of the cross. Around the time of the Second Vatican Council in the
early 1960s, the two days merged.
And for a while, I thought that the intersection, the joining of these days was a mistake.
Surely, you have to pick one: triumph or desolation, celebration or deep grief.
But the more that I hung out in church, the more that I encountered the beauty and the
mystery of Holy Week in particular, the more that I concluded that the dissonant
joining of these two events on one day is, maybe, something like genius.
A year ago, I suggested that the dissonance of Palm and Passion Sunday has a lesson to
teach us about the way in which love and loss intersect in all of our lives, in which loss
and its cousin grief are the price of admission for love. This year, I’d like to explore a
different but related idea. And that is, as we move from Palm into Passion, as we sit on
the hinge between these two moments, we are invited to understand something vital
about Jesus and about ourselves.
In this reflection, I’m going to be drawing heavily on a book that, at least for me, is a
classic. This is W.H. Vanstone’s work, The Stature of Waiting.
Vanstone argues that for Jesus there is a before and after. There is who he is before the
garden of Gethsemane. And then there is who he is after he is handed over to the
soldiers and religious authorities.
Before the handing over, Jesus’ life is full of verbs: he teaches, he heals, he casts out
demons, he tells stories, he sleeps in storm-tossed boats and when he wakes he
commands the waves and our hearts to be at rest.
Vanstone gives an example from Gospel of Mark. Here, from Chapter Three of Mark are
six lines of Greek text in which Jesus is the grammatical subject of eight verbs:
Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted,
and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him
and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to
drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom
he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to
them he gave the name Boanerges…
Similarly, Mark tells a lot about what is happening inside of Jesus, in his mind and heart
and gut. Scripture doesn’t do this all that often – folks regularly act in the Bible without
a whole lot of indication of what is motivating them – but in Mark we hear that Jesus
had compassion, that Jesus wondered at their unbelief, that Jesus, when the woman
touches the hem of his garment, felt the power go out of him.
Jesus, in other words, is all verbs all the time, all action all the time, both outside and in.
So, that’s the before. And now here is the after (we’re still in the Gospel of Mark):
After Judas hands Jesus over in, there are one hundred lines of Greek text. And in those
one hundred lines, Jesus is the grammatical subject of just nine verbs, one of which is
that he died and four of which are phrased negatively:
He was silent.
He answered nothing.
He still answered nothing.
And when they offer Jesus wine mingled with myrrh:
He did not take it.
And we no longer hear what is going on inside of Jesus, no longer have any access to
what we might call his inner monologue. All of a sudden, Jesus stops acting and is acted
upon:
They took him.
They led him
They dressed him.
In Gethsemane, Jesus transitions from acting to being acted upon, from total freedom
to total passive vulnerability. Maybe another way of saying that is that in Gethsemane
Jesus loses the verbs in his life.
This transition was maybe more obvious way back when in the days when a couple of
English words had a different flavour than they have today. At the end of Jesus’ life, we
speak of his suffering and of his passion. And thanks to a lot of horrifying oil paintings
and Mel Gibson, we likely hear these words as indicating that Jesus is enduring pain
and injustice. And that is partially right. But back when the King James Translators
were at work, these words meant something broader and more neutral than that.
Back in those days, suffer meant something like, “to have something happen to you.” So,
when Jesus in the King James Version famously says, Suffer the little children… to come
unto me, he doesn’t mean, “I hate kids – being around toddlers is suffering for me.” He
means: let the children come, let that happen to me.
Similarly, passion comes to us from the Latin and the Greek. At one time it is the word
passio, which subsequently becomes both passion and passive. It is a word that is
something like the converse of to do. Passion means to be done to. So when Jesus
receives the sponge with its bitter wine, that is as much passion as are the nails driving
into his body.
This hinge, this transition between Jesus who acts and Jesus who is acted upon: it is all
here in this day, in Palm and Passion Sunday. Here is Jesus getting ready for and then
leading the triumphant procession, all planning and arranging donkeys, all riding
among the disciples into the city, a conquering hero, waving and smiling as the crowd
cheers. And then here – we’ll read the Passion story together in a little while – is Jesus
taken and bound and mocked and led and killed, his time of action over, the verbs
drained out of his life by the soldiers.
So. One of the things that sits right at the centre of my theology is that Jesus shares
absolutely in our joy and in our suffering, absolutely in our ecstasy and delight and in
our pain and grief. I trust that even in the very worst moments, we can always, always
say with confidence: Jesus, you know what this is like. In your life and, especially, on the
cross, you experienced the worst that life has to offer, the worst that humanity has to
offer. You, God, know suffering firsthand. There is no pain or injustice I can endure that
you, God, do not know.
Today, I want to expand that theology, I want to draw on the old-school meanings of
suffering and of passion that Vanstone explores in his work, and say that Jesus shares
with us not only in our grief and pain but also in those times when the verbs are
drained out of our lives.
We don’t like the verbs being drained from our lives. Especially in 2020. Especially in
the West, in the so-called developed world. What is the stock answer, possibly even the
morally correct answer to the question, “How are you?” I mean, beyond the answer,
“good” or “fine.”
The correct answer to “how are you” is:
I’m so busy.
Similarly, when we retire, the thing that we often say, maybe that we are expected to
say is:
I’m busier than ever.
And when hardship happens, when life happens – the stroke, the car accident, the
diagnosis, the plain-old march of time – and the verbs are drained from our lives, when
our old-school suffering or passion begins, we don’t know what to do. I remember
visiting with an elderly person who said, with a wistful sadness:
I used to be active and useful.
There is a long and ancient conversation, argument even, within Christianity about
what the cross means. As long as there have been Christians, we have been trying to
figure out how to understand Jesus’ suffering, his passion. But what there has never
been doubt or question about is that Jesus suffering is important. Everybody agrees on
that. In Jesus’ passion, something vital happens, something that changes the world, that
changes everything.
Maybe that’s because of the mystical, miraculous events that some of the Gospels say
surround the crucifixion. We’ll read from the Gospel of Matthew in at the end of this
service and hear about the earth shaking and rocks splitting and the tombs emptying
out so that the dead walk the earth. Except that doesn’t happen in all of the Gospels. In
Mark, where I’ve been spending a bunch of time in this reflection, none of that happens.
And yet the centurion still says:
Truly this man was God’s Son!
Amazingly, there is something about Jesus absence of action, about his being done to
rather than his doing, that proves to the Centurion that Jesus is the Son of God. There is
a real sense in which the cross, when all of the verbs are drained out of Jesus’ life, when
his capacity to be active and useful is taken from him and gone, is the most important
time in his ministry.
What if. What if when the season comes in which the verbs are drained out of our lives
– by illness, by accident, by age; by a pandemic: suddenly, most of us, those of us who
are not doctors or grocery-store workers are in this unchosen time of waiting, we are
in a time of old-school passion – what if this time without much action or much
usefulness, is a time that Jesus shares with us? What if, more than that, what Jesus
demonstrates on the cross is that this time is, somehow, necessary and even holy? That
in it, we will come to know something about ourselves and our neighbour and about
God?
This is Palm and Passion Sunday. This is Jesus’ hinge day, maybe our hinge day. This is
the day on which we name our inescapable transition from busyness into old-school
suffering, the day on which we name difficult gift that is the verbs being drained out of
our lives, the day on which we name the pain and the holiness of this transition. This is
the day on which we know that Jesus shares with us in all of it, all of it, action and
passion alike.

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