Palm Sunday April 17, 2011

Matthew 26:14-27:66                                                       

John 4:5-42                                                                            

Think of today as a drama in three acts, in each of which we play a different role. Act I is the palm procession outside. In all my years of doing Palm Sundays I’ve never managed to have a donkey for Jesus to ride on, but it’s still always a glorious celebration. We’re there singing hosanna! and waving our palm branches of victory. Jesus has come to save us. Everything is up and up.

And we all know what that Act is like in our own lives. It’s when we land the job we wanted or get a raise. It’s when we fall in love or the person we want to marry says yes. It’s the new house, the new car, the child graduating with honors, getting into college, building a new church, our candidate for President getting elected. All of those and more. Salvation: it’s what we long for, and in Act I it seemed to be there, finally in our grasp.

But then Act II, the Passion drama where we play the crowd, the lynch mob, shouting “crucify him”; where we tell Pilate to release Jesus Barabbas not Jesus the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Why the change of heart, the hundred and eighty degree reversal? People have come up with lots of answers. It used to be said that the people of Jerusalem expected a political salvation from Jesus – the overthrow of Rome and the reign of a new King David – and they got a “spiritual” one, but I think that’s recognized as an over-simplification, a “churchified” explanation.

I think myself it’s more a matter that we want a salvation that puts everything in order my way, the way I want it and at no cost to me.  That’s why, just to give one example, the Presidents we elect always lose popularity during their terms, and Congress often swings to the opposing party at the next election. Life is more complicated than our dreams, our ideals, our simple solutions. It isn’t just me at the center, it’s everyone and all the things beyond our control. But we don’t want to recognize that, so when our messiah figures can’t deliver as we expect, we turn against them. And we’re all familiar with this Act II dynamic, so I won’t spend more time on it.

But then Act III: and I don’t think in all my years of Palm Sundays I ever really noticed it before. It’s the very last line in the Passion drama this morning, and in putting the drama together I gave it to all of us to say, not just to the soldier: “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

What is this Act III all about? How can people – you and I here this morning for instance – move from our Act II disillusionment and betrayal of Jesus to confess him as Son of God, to turn to him in worship as indeed the Savior of the world? To commit our lives to him? What is this about? Matthew explains it with a lot of symbolic “signs” – the veil of the temple being ripped in two, the graves giving up their dead, darkness on the earth. But let’s just recognize that these are only metaphors; they didn’t really happen, because if they did everyone would surely have believed in Jesus, and everyone didn’t. Everyone doesn’t. Only a few, even today, relatively speaking only a few. Belief in Jesus as Messiah isn’t a matter of being convinced by supernatural miracles.

I think the answer is that real faith – “Truly, this man is the Son of God” faith – comes to us from outside ourselves, as gift from God. This is the classic, orthodox explanation: that God chooses us, we don’t choose God. That faith is always somehow gift, revelation. It comes first; our understanding of what it entails, our attempts to explain it, come afterwards. First there is just the blurted out confession: our “yes” to God in Jesus Christ.

Maybe, though, looking at the pattern of these three Acts of Palm Sunday, we can say this: that our yes to God in Jesus Christ comes because we realize the futility of swinging back and forth between Acts I and II. We realize how exhausting and empty life is when we’re always trying to find the perfect solution, the instant salvation, the quick and lasting fix. The ups and downs, the back and forths – we realize that they’re all centered on us, and so they don’t lead anywhere.

If this theory of mine has something to it, it means that when we come to such a realization we’re open to receive the gift of faith from God, to confess a Messiah who comes from outside ourselves and is going to demand something from us. We’re open to a salvation that isn’t a quick fix, but rather a long haul, our own dying and rising. A salvation that involves us in its working out, that doesn’t pretend to be able to do it all for us.

We look at that figure on the Cross, the one we hailed with hosannas!, the one we condemned to be crucified, and the one who rose from the dead and returned with his wounds to forgive us and send us forth in his name – we look at him and in our hearts we say, yes Lord, you are indeed the true Messiah, the Son of the living God. And that becomes the beginning of the rest of our lives.

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