(Isaiah 50:4-9a; Ps. 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22;14-23:39)
Palm Sunday is one of the toughest workouts of the church year. We get literal physical exercise at the beginning of the service, re-enacting Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem; but of course most importantly in the spirit walk we take today, beginning in exaltation and acclaim, and ending in utter despair. Part of the reason we read this huge chunk of the gospel today, and act it out together as we do, is to experience as directly as we can this staggeringly epic tragedy, crammed with such overwhelming momentum into the last few hours of Jesus’ life. Today we take in the enormity of all that. And obviously there’s an infinite number of things to think - and preach - about. But as the gospel reading for this day is (by far) the longest of the church year, the sermon should (and today will) be relatively short. I just want briefly to call your attention to two things: one of which gives birth to the other.
The first has to do with what Luke tells us immediately after Jesus dies on the cross. Jesus takes his last breath; the centurion pronounces him innocent; and then Luke writes, “…[W]hen all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”
So there are two groups of people here. One is those who came for the spectacle: for the show; which is what public executions were, for a lot of people, for many centuries, all over the world, and in some places still are. These people came to be entertained, in this ghoulish way. And Luke tells us that at the conclusion of what happened, this group “returned home, beating their breasts.” In the Bible, beating your breast is an expression of grief, of sorrow. So evidently these people came to be of the same mind as the centurion: watching the spectacle, they came to feel that the crucifixion of Jesus was a terrible injustice, and probably for some of them an injustice that they felt they had somehow helped to perpetrate. So they beat their breasts – they show their remorse, and contrition – but they do that on their way home: they leave: for them the story is over.
The other group stays. According to Luke, these are Jesus’ “acquaintances” – we don’t know who these people are - and the women who have followed Jesus all the way from Galilee (unlike the disciples, almost all of whom have disappeared.) And unlike the people who went home - because the show was over - Luke tells us that these folks “stood at a distance, watching these things.” For them, the story is – somehow – not over. It’s not that they expect anything: they know they’re staring into a black hole. They have just witnessed the slow, degrading torture and execution of a person whom they had seen bring the presence of God into this world in a way that no one had ever experienced before. But even though he’s dead, and they have no hope, they stay, and watch. Because the knowledge that God is God is in their bones. And somehow – impossible to see though it is – God is working; because it cannot be otherwise. This is faith, in its last resort: cold, and lonely.
But – in God’s good time – faith comes eventually to see. Which brings us to the second thing I want to bring to your attention: something that in these events – as we stand at a distance, and watch these things - that we come to see God has done here, something we recognize God calls us to bring into our own lives. The famous passage we heard today from the letter to the Philippians opens with Paul telling us, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” And then, to explain what that means, he talks about Jesus Christ’s humility: “though he was in the form of God,...emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,…humbled himself to the point of death on a cross…” So when Paul talks about the mind of Christ, which we are to keep in us, he points to the crucifixion; which he understands is the ultimate expression of Christ’s humility: of perfect servanthood: and the reason that at his name every knee should bend, and every tongue confess, that he is Lord.
So what does this mean for us? How do we follow Christ in this? How do we understand Paul, and let the mind of Christ be in us?
Paul tells us in the two verses that immediately precede the passage we heard today: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” This is life lived in the mind of Christ Jesus. Paul’s words sound so innocuous – he says it so simply – that it’s easy just to walk right past how radical this statement really is. Look not to your own interests? But to the interests of others? And he doesn’t qualify it, he doesn’t say, Do this when you can, when it’s not too much trouble. He just says, Do it. Well, who does? We all know that by the standards of the world, someone who lives this way is a sap.
But we also all know that, when we do, we get a little taste of the kingdom of God. We all know that. It’s why the great Christian teacher Richard Rohr can say that, of all the people he has met who are in the second half of life, the only ones who are really happy are those who have found some way to serve. We who stand at a distance, and watch these things, know that this is the mind of Christ. By the grace of God, may that mind ever be in us. Thanks be to God.