Sermon for Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion, April 16th 2000
Michael Povey firstname.lastname@example.org
at St. Stephen's, Pittsfield, Mass..
The Romans were particularly fond of crucifixion as a means of capital
punishment. It was a public demonstration of Roman power, designed to frighten
any restless populace into submission. The bodies of the crucified were
usually left on the cross to rot away, and to be eaten by the wild animals
and carrion birds. A grim, brutal and effective way of keeping the people
in line. Roman citizens were never crucified. They were afforded the slightly
more merciful execution by beheading with the sword. Crucifixion was reserved
for the oppressed masses of the Empire.
The earliest members of the Jesus movement, as they heard and told the
story of Jesus' crucifixion were talking about a brutality which many of
them had seen with their own eyes. They had perhaps witnessed many crucifixions.
What was differentabout this story was the meaning they placed
on it. Mark knew his meaning before he assembled his account. His Gospel
starts with the words "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the
Son of God". Then he has the Centurion, of all people, saying "Truly this
man was the Son of God. Mark is telling a story of the death of the Son
of God, and in that he finds the meaning.
It is a brutal story at any level. That should not surprise us,
for we too live in a brutal world. Human beings who are capable of being
like the angels can also act like devils. A young gay man is strung up
on a barbed wire fence and left to die. A black man is dragged to his death
in chain, behind a pick-up truck in Jasper, Texas. There is a bit of violence
in each of us. There is much in this story which speaks to our condition,
which is much like our own lives.
There is the betrayal. Imagine being betrayed by a kiss. Some
members of this congregation do not have to imagine this kind of betrayal.
It has happened in their lives. Betrayed by a kiss.
There is the young man who runs away naked. We experience the
nakedness of our fear or of our deep insecurity. We think "if only they
knew me", if only they knew me then they would see an Emperor in his new
There is denial. Often for us it is the denial by silence. A
colleague is unfairly attacked at the coffee break and we say nothing.
We hear a bit of juicy gossip, we know it to be untrue, but say nothing.
We join the mob and laugh at a racist or homophobic joke. Our silence is
a denial of our highest values. We deny what we know to be right.
There is the reaching for security in unholy alliances. Pilate,
and some of the religious leaders of the day, are willing to do anything
to preserve their comfort, their position, their status quo. So one wandering
teacher named Jesus is clearly expendable. So- called "German Christians"
were willing to do so in their rush to join the Hitler bandwagon. We must
beware of any Christian group which cozies up to the political power structures,
indeed, Christians must always function as a loyal opposition, calling
Governments and politicians to moral accountability.
There is the power of the crowd, people whipped up into the frenzy
of the call for crucifixion. How often have you or I been part
of a raucous and un-disciplined group which has assassinated a person by
destroying their character?
We are each in this story. We can find our own levels of meaning.
But none of this reaches what Mark is trying to say. Mark believes that
this is not ordinary death, but the death of the Son of God. And the first
Christians, as they pondered this mystery "why did Jesus die?" came to
the conclusion that the death of Jesus was for the redemption of the world.
St. Paul puts it this way: "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to
God's self". The cross is God's strange and powerful means of our salvation.
Bishop Paul Moore asks us to think of it in this way. "Imagine the vertical
of the cross linking earth to heaven. Then imagine the horizontal as extended
around the whole globe. The cross is God's embrace of the whole world".
The Cross is a universal embrace. But it is also personal. A nineteenth
century hymn writer puts it this way, as he bids us to be embraced by God.
"Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home. Earnestly, tenderly,
Jesus is calling; Calling, O sinner, come home".
The unspoken eighth word of Jesus from the cross is a word for today. "Come home, be embraced by God's redeeming love for you, and for the world".
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