April 1, 2007 – Passion/Palm Sunday
Revised Common Lectionary Readings
Liturgy of the Passion
Luke 22:14—23:56 or Luke 23:1-49
Liturgy of the Palms
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Fools for Christ
?Meditating on the Text
Luke 22:14—23:56 (with special emphasis on Luke 23:28)
The way of Jesus is not the world’s way. The way of Jesus is a narrow way that the world considers to be foolish. Yet this Sunday, as we follow Jesus toward the cross, we affirm that his way, his foolish way, is the true way to life.
Introduction to the Readings
Isaiah 50:4-9a: “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher,” says the prophet. What is to be taught? The truth of God, even though the people did not want to hear the sometimes hard truth of God.
Philippians 2:5-11: Paul praises the Christ who, though he was God, humbled himself, taking the way of the cross on our behalf.
Luke 22:14—23:56 or Luke 23:1-49: Our Gospel lesson is the story, the dramatic story of Jesus’ passion – the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
Luke 19:28-40: The liturgy of the Palms is the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Dear Jesus, on this day we welcome you into our worship, even as pilgrims welcomed you into Jerusalem; we follow behind you on your dangerous way, even as your disciples followed you to the cross. Give us the grace, Lord Jesus, to despise the praise of this world and to dare to walk with you. Make us willing to be foolish enough to follow you, confident that your cruciform foolishness is wiser than that of the world. Amen.
Today, Palms/Passion Sunday, we suggest a thematic sermon on the theme of the foolishness, and the difficulty, of following Jesus. As Jesus comes into Jerusalem, his followers welcome him into the city and walk behind him. We do the same this Sunday. As we welcome Jesus, or walk behind him, are we prepared for his countercultural, narrow way?
Today’s Gospel is the longest of the year. It is a magnificent, dramatic story. This is the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, of all that he has taught and all that he has said. In one sense, the story is enough just by itself, read well in your church. Let today’s sermon be a time to reflect upon this dramatic, saving story from the angle of its foolishness, noting the irony, the deep irony that lies behind all that we do or say this fateful day, the irony of a crucified Saviour, of a God who reigns from a cross.
?Proclaiming the Text
What does Jesus look like to you on this day, this fateful day when he comes into Jerusalem with the disciples? Jesus arrives in the capital city, not on a powerful war-horse, not in a royal entourage, but bouncing in on the back of a donkey.
His followers break palm branches, wave them as signs of welcome, hail him as King, but you wonder if they did so in comical irony. King? Some king, bouncing in on the back of a donkey. He looks, well, foolish.
“He is just the perfect pastor,” the undergraduate said to me in effusive tones as she told me about her pastor. “His car is always a total mess, with books and papers strewn all over it. He is never anywhere on time. Last month, he forgot to show up for a wedding! Some nights, when he can’t sleep, he will call me and see how I am doing in college. He says I am the only person he knows who stays up that late. You never know what he is going to say next. He’s just the perfect pastor.”
And I marveled at the effect of this messy, unpunctual disorganized pastor upon the life of this very fastidious, upwardly mobile, ambitious, student. Perhaps, in knowing this disordered pastor, she was catching a glimpse of other possibilities for the future, an alternative world. Something else.
There was a pulpit search committee that had spent months searching for a new pastor of a large, prestigious Presbyterian church. Dozens of candidates had been considered and eliminated. No one was to be found who was smart enough, good enough, good looking enough, competent enough, to be their new pastoral leader.
One night, when the committee had gathered for its usual meeting, one of the members said, “We have been sent an interesting letter of inquiry and resume, and I would like you to consider this person.” Then he began to read from the letter. The letter said:
“I would like to be considered as your new pastor. I’ve only been in the ministry for a few years, and I must admit that my years of ministry have been rather tumultuous. I did not grow up in the church but was drawn into the church as an adult through a rather dramatic religious experience, so dramatic that I was incapacitated for a number of days after I met Christ. Then I quit what I was doing and began to roam about preaching the Gospel. Some people liked my sermons, but a lot didn’t. I have been arrested on at least four occasions and had served time in three different jails. On one occasion, after one of my sermons, the congregation was so incensed that they dragged me out of the pulpit, beat me, and escorted me out to the edge of the town before dumping me. In the churches that I have served, I think that I have been a loving pastor, but also a strict one. I’ve had to chase more than one member out of the church for immoral actions. I certainly don’t mind calling an ace an ace and a spade a spade when it comes to disciplining church members. I write this letter to you while I am in jail. I hope to be released from jail sometime soon, but I have found that when it comes to jail time, one never knows. However, I hope that you will consider me as your new pastor. As soon as I get out of prison, I would certainly like to have gainful employment.”
Well, the committee was incensed. “How dare someone write a church of our calibre, with a presumption that we would be desperate enough to hire somebody like that?” one of the members wanted to know.
“Is this some kind of joke?” another asked.
“A jailbird, as our new pastor! I would love to see the Session get hold of that!”
Who is this guy that wrote this?” one demanded.
The person holding the letter said simply, “It’s signed, St. Paul.” The great missionary to the Gentiles, the one who founded so many churches, created Christian theology, and spread the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean world, was also the one who boasted that he was a fool for Christ’s sake (1 Cor 4:10). He was the one who boasted that the wisdom of the world is pure foolishness, from a Christian point of view, whereas the foolishness of the cross is true wisdom.
“I believe that a member of my church works for you and your company,” I said to the business executive.
“John Smith? Yeah, he works with us. John is one of my vice presidents. I don’t know if you have found this is true, but I have certainly found that John is pretty much of a fool. For every ten ideas that he brings to me related to the company, I’d say only about one idea ever pans out and means anything. He really can be a fool,” the executive said.
“Well forgive me for asking,” I said, “But if John is such a fool, why would you make him a vice president in your company?”
“Why? Because John is the only person we’ve got who ever comes forward with any new ideas.”
Perhaps it takes someone who is somewhat of a fool to be able to see alternative possibilities. Paul says that, “The cross is foolishness, the supreme alternate possibility to the world’s wisdom.”
I was urging a Duke undergraduate to go with us on our spring mission trip to Honduras. She had initially shown some interest telling me that she might consider going with us this year. Her older sister had gone with us a few years ago and I was eager for her to go as well. When I finally got back in touch with her, I was surprised to hear her say, “I’m not going on any mission trip. I’ve decided. That’s that. I’m not going.”
“May I ask why?”
“Because Jane went with you to Honduras, and it totally destroyed her life. When she came back from working with the poor, she wasn’t the same person. She completely changed the course of her life. It disrupted my family, upset my parents, and things have never been the same. I just don’t want to bring that much disruption into my family.”
It was one of the best reasons I have ever heard for not going on a church mission trip. The way of the cross is the way of foolishness. As Bonhoeffer said, “It is no small thing that God allowed himself to be pushed out of the world on a cross.”
And yet, with all of this talk about foolishness, fools, and cross bearing, there ought to be a warning. When you look at our church, this building, its beauty, its order, and stability, you are apt to be confused by such talk. When we gather on Sunday morning, everything looks so stable, so pure and solid, and this form can be an illusion, it can obscure how foolish this particular way is in the world.
Despite the cross, despite Paul’s clear, outrageous labelling of the way of the cross as a way of foolishness, there does seem to be built right into the church this relentless tendency for the church to degenerate from the body of Christ into the Rotary Club. There is that tendency to take the Gospel foolishness and repackage it as just another brand of worldly wisdom, common sense, something on which all thinking people ought to be able to agree. At least the Rotary Club meets at a convenient hour of the week and serves lunch!
Paul’s words remind us that we are called, as Christians, for more than button-down life respectability.
A few years ago, as the USA was arming and preparing for another invasion of Iraq, a group of us clergy were discussing the possibility of an invasion. What should we, as spokespersons and followers of the Prince of Peace do in this situation? There was widespread frustration in the group. Some urged rather active resistance, dramatic protest. Others urged quieter, more respectable support of the administration. Some said that as clergy, we ought to stay out of such political matters. What do we know? The debates went on and on, what can we do that will make a difference? What can we do that shows that we are on the right side of this issue?
Then, as the discussion was ending, one of the ministers said, “We could pray.”
In a moment, the sheer foolishness of the Gospel became more apparent. In a world that wants to be effective, that wants to do something for good, that wants to right the wrong, and to fight injustice, it is easy to forget that Christians may have a peculiar notion of what makes sense, and what ought to be done.
This day Jesus goes to do something, something final, decisive, world shaking, and life changing on our behalf. For us and our salvation he is going to do something foolish. Bounding on the back of a donkey, hanging in scorned agony on a cross, he looks like a fool rather than the saviour of the world.
Will you welcome him – follow him this day?
?Relating the Text
On a day in December of 2003, a man burst into a Baptist mission hospital in Yemen and began firing a machine gun at the staff. He killed three Baptist missionaries, three people who had given their entire adult lives to healing the sick in Yemen.
When the authorities arrested the man, he gave as his only reason for the murders, “I wanted to get closer to Allah.”
We were thus reminded that there is still a high price for service in Christ’s name.
I was before a group of South Carolina pastors doing a Bible study of the Book of Acts. We got to Acts 5, that nasty little story of that church meeting where in a squabble over church property two board members, Mr. Annanias, Mrs. Saphira (whose parents founded this church) dropped dead after the preacher told them to drop dead.
There was murmuring in the group of pastors. What kind of story is this? Is this a Christian story? What kind of pastoral care is this? Where’s the grace? Where’s the compassion? Two people dead at a church meeting!
Off the top of my head I asked, “Has anybody here ever had to kill anybody in order to have church?” Silence. Then he spoke. “I preached on the race issue. There were rumblings, demands that I stop. I preached. Three families left the church. One joined another church. Two left the church forever and never joined any church. My wife asked, “I know it’s an important issue. But is it worth driving three families out of the church?” Is it worth provoking death, while preaching new birth?
This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?
This Gospel. This Jesus. These words. This life. Hard.
To be a disciple is to find oneself stretched between the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, “This is hard! Who can listen to it?” and in the middle, “Will you also go away?” followed by “Lord, to whom shall we go. You have the words (sometimes hard, words) of eternal life.”
“We’ve always enjoyed thinking of ourselves as ‘the thinking person’s church’” she said. “We’re in a university town and we’ve always attracted lots of university faculty. Our pastor has her graduate degree and has even published a couple of books. Well, anyway, Jane Johnson is a real ‘matriarch’ in our congregation, has been there since the church was founded in the late 50s. Jane is in her late 80s and we had noticed that she had begun to fail just a bit, not as sharp as she used to be.
“Well, we had this problem with homeless people breaking into our building at night, particularly on cold nights. We had bought new locks for the doors, but one of them had kicked in the door, causing all sorts of damage. Our neighbourhood has gone down over the past few decades. It’s a real problem.
“Well, Jane got on this tangent, started calling up members, went on a real campaign to simply unlock the doors of the church at night and let the homeless people come on in and spend the night! ‘We’re taking so much effort to take care of the church that we’re going to fool around and kill the church as a church!’ Jane was telling people.
“Some of us are beginning to think that Jane may be losing her grip on reality,” she said.
Eugene Peterson writes, “Christ is the way as well as the truth and life. When we don’t do it his way, we mess up the truth and we miss out on the life. We can’t live a life more like Jesus by embracing a way of life less like Jesus.” (Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005, p. 313.)
“Church buildings attest to five facts about the Western Church: its immobility, inflexibility, lack of fellowship, pride, and class divisions. The gospel says, ‘go,’ but our buildings say, ‘stay.’ The gospel says, ‘seek the lost,’ but churches say, ‘let the lost seek the church.’” (Howard Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins, InterVarsity Press, 1975, p. 88.)