Sunday, March 24, 2013
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Michael Woods
The last Sunday of Lent, the Sunday before Easter, poses a dilemma that – I think – only preachers seem to be aware of: do we opt for Palm Sunday and talk about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – palm branches, crowds shouting “Hosanna to the King! Hail Son of David!” – or do we recognize that the last Sunday of Lent is also Passion Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week … a week which ends with Jesus’ lifeless body growing cold inside a tomb? Which scripture passage do we go for? The one that is full of celebration and almost completely assures the minister that every congregant will leave the service feeling positive and energized? Or do we go with the trial before Pilate, Jesus being mocked before Herod, the crowd choosing to release Barabbas instead of Christ, Jesus’ journey through the streets of Jerusalem, Simon the Cyrene being forced to carry the cross for Christ because Jesus is so beaten he is unable to take it a step further, and the bloody details of his execution and last gasp of breath where he says “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”? And this year, the reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, which comes from Luke, ends with Jesus friends standing at a distance watching these things unfold, afraid to be anywhere near.
Most ministers, if they are honest with you, would admit they would choose the easier option – they go for Palm Sunday – palm branches waving in the sanctuary … for churches that have large choirs there’s this huge procession going in through the front door … they get the little kids involved … sometimes the minister dips the palm branches in the baptismal font and walks down the aisle sprinkling water on everyone – it’s all such a festive occasion! I don’t mind confessing to you that – more often than not – Palm Sunday has been my option, as well! You end worship on Sunday morning on a high note, full of glory! Then … the next Sunday is Easter Sunday … resurrection … Easter Eggs … and you start the celebration all over again! You go from glory to glory.
But … there’s something missing.
And what’s missing is Good Friday. And I think that missing element has profound theological repercussions for our individual lives and the life of our society.
We forget what scorn and ridicule the early members of the church suffered because they claimed to believe in a man who was crucified on a cross … that he was no ordinary man … that he was the messiah … and that he was even the Son of God, the very incarnation of God here on Earth. The apostle Paul remarks on this in his First letter to the church in Corinth when he says: “The Jews want to see signs and the Gentiles demand wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, and this is a stumbling block to the Jews and just plain foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:22-23).
Crucifixion was the worst form of execution that the Roman Empire could come up with. They didn’t invent it – it was practiced long before them by the Persians, the Assyrians, and even Alexander the Great was said to have crucified thousands. It was a form of execution that the Romans reserved for the lowest class of criminal: for slaves who had murdered their masters, for revolutionaries. It was thought of in Roman society as “slave’s punishment,” and was forbidden to be used on free Roman citizens. To be crucified meant you were an outcast … that you were the lowest of the low. It was standard operating procedure for soldiers to heap as much scorn and ridicule as they could upon the person to be executed in order to humiliate them as much as possible.
What happened on Good Friday was that the man called Jesus of Nazareth … a man who had a small group of close followers but who was growing more and more popular throughout the region … a man who claimed to be the long awaited Messiah, who would free Israel from its enemies … a man who even claimed to be the son of God was arrested, tried and condemned to death, tortured by Pilate’s soldiers and then led outside the gates of the city and crucified until he died. And a large crowd gathered to watch all of it. They saw him beaten and humiliated. They watched him die. And most everyone who gathered on that day probably thought to themselves: “Boy, I wouldn’t want to be one of his followers! Can you imagine the shame and humiliation they must be going through right now?”
What happened on the cross on Good Friday should have been a catastrophe for the early church. It almost was. Immediately following Jesus’ death, the disciples go into hiding – they lock themselves behind closed doors and keep out of the public eye. But then, on Easter Sunday all of that changes, they learn that the impossible has happened – Jesus has risen from the dead! And they are ecstatic! They want to tell everyone! But they know in order to do that they have to tell the whole story. They cant tell about Palm Sunday and then go straight from that into Easter without telling everyone the shameful, scandalous events that occurred in between. We can’t talk about the glory of Palm Sunday without mentioning where it is Jesus is going and what he has to suffer in order to get there.
But our society today is a little too scandalized by the cross. And I think that’s because what the cross means … is not winning … but loosing. We just simply don’t like to loose. I think a lot of the impasse we have in Washington these days is because nobody wants to look like a loser. Not too long ago, a well known pastor of a large Megachurch expressed reservations about worshipping a kind of Jesus that he thought was too soft and weak-kneed, the kind of Jesus who allows himself to be lead to the cross. He said he preferred a Jesus who was “a prizefighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship…not a guy I can beat up.”
We want our football teams to be winners, and we want them to win national championships every year – and when they don’t and when we loose to our most hated rivals, we loose face, and we feel shame. Some people take this to the extreme of letting their hearts be full of hate and anger when they loose. (But we don’t have that problem here in Ohio, do we!)
In the 1980’s and the 1990’s there were a lot of corporate rivalries: Coke vs. Pepsi … McDonald’s vs. Burger King … Ford vs. Chevy! But one of the biggest rivalries during that time was between two types of computer users: those who were loyal to the Apple MacIntosh vs. those who were PC users (and PCs were powered by the Windows operating system, so this translated into a corporate rivalry between the Apple Computer Co. and another company called Microsoft). Then one day in 1997, while Apple was struggling as a company, Steve Jobs who was one of the founders of that company said something that made a lot of loyal MacIntosh users very mad. He said: “If we want to move forward and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of a few things here. We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose.” And a lot of people got very mad at him when he said that. There were audible “boos” that could be heard in the auditorium where he was giving that speech at the time. It was as if he had just given up and declared Microsoft the winner. But he was right … and Apple stopped focusing on hoping and praying that Microsoft would have a spate of bad luck, and instead focused on doing better quality work. And today Apple is the largest publicly traded corporation in the world.
If we want to move forward, we need to let go of this notion that in order for us to win somebody else has to loose.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, his disciples were filled with hope he would be the one to defeat Israel’s enemies … that he would not only vanquish the Roman Empire (something no one else in the world had been able to do up until that point) but that he would also humiliate them … that there would be some serious payback. They wanted the kind of Christ that megachurch pastor wants – somebody that will beat somebody else up and not get beaten up himself. But in order to get to Easter Sunday, they had to let go of something. They had to let go of Palm Sunday … and the procession into Jerusalem … and the hope that somebody else was going to loose. And they had to accept Good Friday and the scandal of the cross.
They had to let go of hoping the Romans would loose and accept Gentiles into their midst. They had to let go of hating Samaritans and see them as brothers and sisters in Christ. They had to let go of racial and sexual stereotypes and accept the baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch into the church and as an evangelist of the gospel. They had to let some things die so they could be reborn into a new world and a new life.
We ignore Good Friday at our own peril. Christ came into this world, not for the glory of Palm Sunday so he could usher in another theocracy. He came for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
What things do we need to let go of … that we need to die to … so we can live this new life Christ promises us?