Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

March 24, 2002
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Reading 2: 
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Reading 3: 
Philippians 2:5-11
Reading 4: 
Matthew 21:1-11; 26:14-27,66
Alt Reading 2: 
Psalm 31:9-18
By Keith McPaul

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29
Matthew 21: 1-1
The Psalm looks forward to the time the Lord will send them a savior. The people were looking for a Messiah, a savior, someone who would deliver them from the hands of the Roman oppression. By the end of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, he had built up a reputation that led many to believe that he was the one promised by God who would lead them out of their physical oppression. The word 'hosanna', that we use as an expression of adoration and praise, literally meant 'save'. So the people shouted "Hosanna!" Be our savior! Rescue us! Deliver us from our enemies! You are like the great King David! You come in the name of the Lord to bring us salvation from above! But they were wrong. This was the 'savior' they were looking for, but he came in the form of a humble servant of God. The crowd was soon to turn against him when he did not live up to their expectations. Elizabeth Raine says, "In many ways, we ... live a life dedicated to tangible success in much the same way this ancient crowd did. We tend to give more credit, and much more plausibility to those who show the external trappings of success. If such a person fails to live up to the promise we saw in them, then they are rejected as no longer having much to offer us. So it is worth holding the story of Palm Sunday before us, to help keep our perspective focused on what is really important."

Passion Sunday
Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31: 9-18

The words of the 'third servant song' in Isaiah and of Psalm 31 have become part of our Christian language when speaking of the Passion of Jesus. We should note that words, such as "he who vindicates me is near", "let us stand up together", and "my times are in your hand", project a very process idea of God: a God who is with us at all times, in our times of trouble and sorrow, as well as in our times of joy and gladness. Our God can never be absent from any moment of time or region in space. In a sense Jesus does fulfill what is being spoken of, but the words say more than that. The passages speak about how God's work will be done in future. It will not be done by people being dominant and aggressive, but by people as they go about their daily lives quietly and humbly, accepting mocking and suffering, yet always knowing that they can rely upon the constant presence of God with them.

Philippians 2: 5-11
In the remainder of the commentary I have used ideas mainly taken from the writings of Archbishop Peter Carnley, Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia. Dr Carnley regularly quotes A N Whitehead, and later Process theologians in his sermons and writings. The conservative members of his flock regard him as being very controversial (and worse) in his representation of Christianity. I think that he is presenting the message of Jesus to all Australians in a way that they gain a more balanced understanding of the love of God than has been done in the past

One of the marks of a living Christianity is seen in its prayers and its hymns. In Philippians, Paul has modified a hymn from Isaiah 45 to sing praise to Christ Jesus, the divine Son of God. From the time of Cyril of Alexandria, this hymn has been seen as describing kenosis, the self-emptying of God in the incarnate Jesus. How this self-emptying could occur without diminishing God has been a problem for theologians down the centuries. Dr Carnley uses an article by Piet Schoonenberg to indicate a different interpretation. When Paul says that the incarnate Jesus 'did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped' it may mean that the eternal pre-existent Word did not grasp at or cling on to divine status and power immediately prior to the incarnation. Rather, it could mean that the historical Jesus did not seek or grasp at heavenly power and status during the course of his incarnate life. The enjoyment of equality with God may not relate to the pre-existent one, but to the earthly Jesus who, as a human being, did not grasp at status 'above himself', but lived a humble life. Unlike sinful Adam, who sought to be as God, Jesus, the second Adam, lived the life of humble obedience, even to death on the cross. This is consistent with the Gospel presentation of Jesus as one who never sought status of any kind, let alone equality with God.

The idea of the 'suffering servant', turning the other cheek and walking in humility along the way of the cross, expresses in graphic detail something of what was entailed in understanding Jesus as one who did not seek a life of power, but accepted a life of lowly humility. Humanity which is selfless or self-sacrificing and self-emptying and which abandons self-aggrandisement reveals the true nature of divinity. If Jesus reveals God in his humanity, then the incarnation of God in Christ can be seen, not as kenosis, a limitation of the divine, but as plerosis, a fulfilment or full disclosure of the divine. "For the foolishness of God in the eyes of the world, the weakness of God, the humility of God, the lowliness of God, the self-emptying of God, the self-sacrifice of God, or the self-giving love of God, could not be better or more fully set forth than in the life of a humble and lowly man, who indeed was prepared to suffer humiliation and to die upon the cross. That is why the cross reveals the heart of God more fully than any other event in the life of Jesus, and why the cross is so central to the Christian tradition." Lowly humanity reveals God more clearly and fully than any other possible thing.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead says that, "the brief Galilean vision of humility flickered through he ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the (Christian) religion it assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian and Roman, imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged to Caesar." Dr Carnley says that the Church continues to fall into the trap of thinking of God in terms of power, and of God's activities in the world in terms of signs and great wonders. "But Christ came to declare that attributes of coercive power were to be given up, precisely to show God as he really is."

Matthew 26: 14-27,66
I had a Church friend who once described my religious leanings as 'liberal Anglo-catholic (failed)'. I could not understand why the Church concentrated so much on the physical suffering aspects of the 'Passion'. The celebration of the Stations of the Cross, and the 'substitution theology of atonement' did not make much sense to me. The 'empty cross' described my faith; "my God is alive and with me now." Later I started to realize that the 'Passion' story occupies a very large part of each of the Gospels, so maybe I was wrong. I read how Martin Kahler described the Gospels as "passion narratives with extended introductions", and that all religions have their stories, and that it is by the repetition of their stories that they stay 'alive'. In his book, The Structure of Resurrection Belief, Peter Carnley says, "It is the proclamation of the story, the rehearsal of historical facts and theologically interpretive myth, the use of the symbol of the cross, and liturgical performance of the symbolic acts, which together, in the life of the Church, preserves and communicates the memory of Jesus, and of the revelatory event of God's agape that occurred in and through his life." So the repetition of the story by whatever means is essential for the continuance of the Christian faith, indeed it is said that some truths can be expressed in story form and in no other.

I now appreciate that the Passion story is about God's relationship with the world. God, in agonizing and suffering with Jesus, shows that God agonizes and suffers with me. Jesus was killed because of evil in individuals and in institutions; God shows in the resurrection of Jesus that evil can be overcome. And, the Passion story shows God's self-giving love; in Jesus we see the nature of God to love unreservedly. We need to repeat the Passion stories, often and in full, so that we remember what our God is like.

It is precisely because many aspects of the Easter story cannot be proven historically, that we must continue to retell the 'story'. These stories do not just contain 'facts', they also contain the experiences and interpretations of those who knew and loved Jesus, so their retelling helps us to understand how the risen Christ can become part of the God-with-us that we experience today. The stories need to be told and retold to alert us to our present experience, and to arouse within us the astonishment and thoughtfulness required to direct our attention to the reality of the presence of Christ in our midst. The Jesus story, from his birth to his death on the cross, point to the self-giving we saw in his life. The empty tomb and the first appearances in turn raise the possibility of knowing the same self-giving in the ongoing life and work of Christian fellowship.

It is impossible to distil these stories down to neat doctrine or statements, but it is more like thinking, "Ah, this is what they were talking about! This is none other than the Spirit of the living Christ and I did not recognize it!" When this happens, don't 'do theology' in order to explain it, that can come later. The immediate response is to stand in the presence of God in silent awe of worship, and to thank God for the unspeakable gift of Christ himself, for we know that we can say, "Christ is risen: He is risen in deed."