Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

April 6, 2003
See Also: 

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

Reading 3: 
Hebrews 5:5-10 or Philippians 2:5-11
Reading 4: 
John 12:27-30
By Tari Lennon

As I begin this exegetical work with you the invasion of Iraq has begun.  Regardless of one's position relative to the war itself, surely we can agree that this is a momentous event in the history of our country and for people of faith everywhere.  The weeks ahead demand bold and vigorous preaching that seeks not simply to comfort and assure people that with God all things will be made new but also connects folks to Jesus' passion for life and the terrible loss that his death brought to his friends and family -- and to God.

Because we see ourselves through the prism of Jesus' resurrection, not uncommonly the light gets bent in such ways as to dupe us into ignoring or denying the darkness that enveloped Jesus and his community and, ultimately, led to his murder.  We tend to let the Easter story modify the intensity of the events surrounding and involving Jesus in the last weeks of his life.  Or worse, we sentimentalize those events.  In either case, we rob the story of its punch and power, thereby trivializing the centerpiece of the Christian myth.

For people in our country as well as the peoples of the world it is important in this season of loss and renewal to preach a full gospel without embarrassment or apology trusting that our perspective is needed now as never before.

A good place to begin for the last two Sundays in Lent is with Jeremiah and Jesus.  Although the Hebrew passage for 6 April is the "new covenant" piece and represents the heart of Jeremiah's prophetic ministry, it is an insight into the relational nature of God that comes to the prophet through the struggles of his life.  Remembering that Jesus' peers wondered if he was Jeremiah reincarnated (Matthew 16:14), we might say that Jeremiah's new covenant written on people's hearts is incarnate in Jesus and his ministry as he reveals his own heart and discloses the heart of God (John 12:27-30).

But it is precisely that perception of God and that understanding of how we need to be with one another that renders us vulnerable and exposed in the affairs of humankind.  In times of crisis and peril vulnerable and exposed are not exactly the desired ways of being in the world.   We know more about Jeremiah than any other person in Hebrew Scripture. Jesus is the central figure in the Christian tradition.  Neither commanded an army or any military personnel, nor were they ever elected to any position of power. Their resumes include itinerancy, homelessness, and symbolic actions that encouraged their contemporaries to think they were lunatics.  They spoke and taught in parables, incurred the animosity and rejection of their own people, endured abuse, false testimony, imprisonment, and suffered ignominious deaths.  They lamented human folly while at the same time they struggled for the soul of their people, and wept for them.  They foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and remained in love with God.  Their work did not come to fruition in their lifetimes and from the standpoint of what the world values today, one wouldn't exactly lift them up as models for success.

2. When we turn to the epistles for these two weeks, Hebrews (5:5-10) and Philippians  (2:5-11) we discover a different understanding for the meaning of success. Both passages, despite coming from different times (circa. 90 C.E. and 55-57 C.E. respectively) and addressing different audiences (Jewish-Christian and Gentile-Christian, again, respectively) share a common understanding of what it means to be a successful human being.

Side Bar
The intrusion of the figure of Melchizedek could create some confusion here, particularly if we try to equate that figure with a story found in Genesis 14:17-20 or a reference in Psalm 110:4. The Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that Melchizedek was a heavenly creature.  In that way the priesthood of Melchizedek would be understood as heavenly and eternal and, therefore, superior to Israelite priests, even as the priesthood of Christ is heavenly and eternal, and, therefore, superior to Israelite priests.  Most importantly, though, we must remember that a long-standing principle of biblical interpretation involves using scripture to interpret scripture.  That was true for our Jewish ancestors and for the early interpreters of the new faith.  It would be more accurate to use Melchizedek, most especially in Hebrews 7, to interpret the passages from Genesis and the Psalm than to use Genesis and the Psalm to figure out what Hebrews is doing with Melchizedek.

Given the heavenly nature of Melchizedek and the Christ, it would be natural to assume that they would think of themselves as special and would, therefore, impute to themselves special privilege and authority.  Au contraire!  It is precisely because they do not rest on their heavenly laurels or demand subservience that they become authoritative for how to live a life.  Because they have nothing to prove or to defend they can choose any style of being they desire.  Because they choose humility they possess the power of persuasion.

Great, great paradox! -- A paradox not to be ignored or dismissed, particularly at this time in our history.

All of the Psalm possibilities for these two Sundays are laments or affirmations of God's laws.

Finally a word about Jesus' "triumphal" entry.  Mark's rendition of the story takes great pains to draw a sharp contrast between Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem and Jesus' transcendence of the tomb. To compare the other gospel accounts of the Jerusalem arrival is to see embellishment and enlargement giving the story a very different feel and significance.  Mark is careful to let the irony of the story shine through.  Everything Mark has narrated about Jesus to this point reveals a man intensely committed to life and his relationship with God.  He has become increasingly aware of the hostile forces swirling about him and the ineptitude of those closest to him.  His experience has to be the birthplace of the notion of being lonely in a crowd.  Given his youth, vibrancy, personality, talents, and focus one must be touched by the pathos of this moment in Jesus' life. To sense the pathos is to experience new dimensions in the interior life of Jesus and by correlation, new layers in the Christian story.  On to Easter.

The Rev. Dr. Tari Lennon is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and holds degrees in theology, ministry and psychology. She retired from parish ministry after 43 years and now convenes Open Gatherings which draws people together from all faiths and nonfaiths to explore topics of spirituality, relationships, and personal ethics.