A sermon for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
April 2, 2023
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: Matthew 26:14-27:66
Something is wrong and must be put right. Today we come to the end of our Lent sermon series, in which we have focused on the cross of Christ and how, through the cross, God in Christ does what we cannot and makes everything right again. We come to a final, but far from the final, image: on the cross, Christ, as both priest and victim, makes the atoning sacrifice for all sin. The early Christians would have primarily understood the cross through this lens of sacrifice. Sacrifice and blood make us squeamish today. We are far removed from the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. For our ancient forebears, however, sacrifice was a fact of life.
There are many kinds of sacrifice in the Old Testament. We won’t go through them now, but there is a general principle at play, especially when it comes to sacrifices for sin. Through the sacrifice of an animal without spot or blemish, a person with spot and blemish (that is to say, with sin) was able to be brought into the presence of God. The greater the sin, the greater the cost of the sacrifice. And here’s the important thing: while this seems foreign to you and me, the sacrificial system was all about grace. It was all about God, in patience and kindness and love, giving his beloved people a means to come into his presence. It was about God, in grace and compassion, giving the people a way to be restored into relationship with him.
That, of course, is what the crucifixion is all about. God in Christ goes, willingly, to Jerusalem. Christ takes the initiative in the role of the priest. And once there, he becomes the atoning sacrifice. He is able to take, unlike any animal, the full weight of our sin upon himself, so that, through his sacrifice, we can be reconciled to God and brought into relationship with God. Christ does all of this as grace, in compassion, because of love, to bring us into a relationship. There is no cost God is not willing to pay to cover the gravity of our sin, to bring us to his heart.
If we want to really understand what is happening at Golgotha, the Crucifixion must not only be a question of history. It cannot be confined to art and church trappings. No, we must see ourselves there. We must see our sin dealt with there. We must see it as a sacrifice for us. We must, as John Donne said, see Christ write our names in the blood of the Lamb slain for us, so that we can come into full relationship with God. We must see love at the cross–love, not in the abstract, but a specific love for our specific lives.
We must see ourselves in Judas, as he lurks away to make his deal, and in Peter, denying Christ in the courtyard. How often we sell Jesus out, sneaking from the grace that God has on offer in order to take things into our own hands. How often we hide our light in the darkness, hide our love in the crowd, hide our Lord behind the facade of something more expedient and convenient, safer.
We must see ourselves in the crowd that day, crying, “crucify him.” We cry “crucify him” as we allow hatred to fester, and make peace with oppression, and justify inaction against injustice, and make excuses for violence and tyranny in the name of order and safety.
We must see ourselves at the Pavement, in the seat of Pilate. We are in that seat when we give in to fear and cower because of pressure, because of popularity, because of prestige. We know what’s right, but fear takes over, and we lose heart.
We must see ourselves in the fickle and fleeing disciples, once so committed, now overcome with terror and hiding out. We decide to go our own way, to lose heart when the going gets tough. God has abandoned us, we think, as the sky turns black and the earth shakes. And so we hide, unaware that God is active in the middle of the hardship, accomplishing what we cannot, carrying us to grace, calling us to life.
We must see ourselves in the Roman soldier swinging the hammer. He has done it so many times he probably isn’t affected anymore. Desensitized to the violence. “It’s just a job,” he says, “Just the way things are.” And he goes home that night to a good dinner and a good family like he has done so many times. And we, desensitized to the sway of evil, ignore it and say it’s just the way things have to be.
For all of this and much more, Christ, the high priest and victim, becomes the sacrifice for every sin. He becomes the sufficient and perfect sacrifice, whose blood is shed for Judas, for Peter, for Pilate, for the weeping women at the cross, for fleeing disciples, for the Roman executioner, and for us. The sacrifice that need not be repeated because it is enough for eternity, for all sin.
“His blood be upon us and upon our children,” the people cry. Christians have used this verse to justify violence against the Jews for centuries. Anti-Semites and hate groups today know this verse. They miss the point. But we cannot afford to miss it: Christ’s blood is upon us–it’s upon every person in this story, from the weeping woman to that Roman soldier with the hammer. It’s upon every person on the face of the earth; it’s upon every person in this room; it’s upon us all to cover us and to cover our sin, as grace and with love. That’s the whole point of sacrifice. Once covered, we are given the means of grace, the hope of glory, the promise of forgiveness, the love of God’s heart. Our names are, indeed, written in the blood of the Lamb that is slain; and because of that, our names can be written in the Book of Life, marked as Christ’s own forever.
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