Sermon for Palm Sunday 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last year a cinematic milestone occurred that not a lot of people noticed. The ultra-violent comic book adaptation Deadpool became the highest grossing R-rated film of all time. Perhaps that’s not surprising, but you might be surprised by the film it replaced, which had held that title for well over a decade- Mel Gibson’s controversial film, The Passion of the Christ.

The controversy mostly revolved around the claim that the film inculcated the centuries old claim that the Jewish people were guilty of killing Christ. Whether there was really a case against the film on this point or not is debatable, but Gibson didn’t help his case when, a couple years later, he was pulled over for drunk driving and said something along the lines of “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Interestingly, one of the chief complaints against the film in this regard was the inclusion of the line from Matthew’s Passion which we all said together just a few moments ago- “His blood be on us and on our children.”

The historical question of who killed Jesus, what their motives were, and so forth has been around almost since Christianity’s inception. We know that the Roman government crucified Jesus in collusion with Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem. The suggestion that a whole nation or all adherents of a particular religion are thus responsible is ludicrous- just as ridiculous and, frankly, racist, as suggesting that all Arabs or all Muslims are terrorists.

That’s all, I think, that needs to be said about historical question of who killed Jesus. It seems to me that it is a perennial distraction from a far more interesting, more fundamental theological question which Gibson’s film, for all its controversy, actually addresses.

A particularly difficult bit to watch in the film is the moment when Jim Caviezel, the actor playing Jesus, is nailed to the cross. We see a pair of nondescript hands doing the deed and if one were to do a bit of research one would discover that those hands are Mel Gibson’s own. What is it that made this filmmaker feel that he had to be the one to nail Christ to the cross?

One initial reaction might simply be that this must be the result of some sort of emotional or mental problem. This, I am told, is an interpretation some art historians give to explain why Caravaggio painted himself as Goliath and, indeed, as one of Christ’s captors. Shouldn’t one distance oneself from those wicked men who killed our Lord? Aren’t those who take it upon themselves to fill those shoes full either of unhealthy guilt or, worse, of a menacing delight in being “the bad guy”? Well, it seems that the Church doesn’t think this is always the case in any event. Remember the words we, the congregation, read aloud in today’s Passion Gospel: “Let him be crucified!… Let him be crucified!… His blood be on us and on our children!” The church casts us in the liturgical role analogous to the cinematic role in which Gibson cast himself. We are made the ones who crucify Christ!

This practice of liturgically placing ourselves in the shoes of the crucifiers goes back at least to the fourth century and St. Ephrem the Syrian, whose antiphonal Good Friday homily had the congregation take on the role of Satan and a lesser demon arguing about the implications of the crucifixion. We see the connection made more literally in Johann Heerman’s utterly lugubrious, but simultaneously beautiful holy week hymn “Ah holy, Jesus”, which we will sing during Communion this morning, particularly the second verse:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus hath undone thee. ’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee!

And no doubt this is true in some sense. If we spend all our time trying to determine who actually killed Jesus we fail to look at ourselves, to see where it is that we have denied Christ, how we have each crucified him.
Lest we begin beating our breasts, rending our garments, and sitting in ashes right now, we must recognize that this is not the end of the story. That would miss the point of the passion. Heerman’s hymn goes on:

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation.

Though we have each denied Christ in some way or another, Christ willingly took up the cross for our sake. We must take our sins and set them at the foot of the cross, for it is there that we are forgiven. In order to do this we must reckon where it is that we have each gone astray. In this, the season of Lent has come full circle; the task of Palm Sunday is much the same as that of Ash Wednesday. Placing ourselves into the passion narrative helps us to reflect on how we have denied Christ, where we have either participated or been complicit in offenses against God and each other.

And when we have laid our sins at the foot of the cross, when he has drawn us back to him yet again as, indeed, he is drawing all of humanity to repentance, we needn’t go about beating our breasts any longer. We needn’t be dismal because of our sin or because of our Lord’s death. Our sin is forgiven and our Lord is victorious. This is the mystery of the cross; it is, as the Apostle Paul said, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. For the powers of hell believe they have won the day, but we know their schemes have come to naught. We know that on the cross, God waged battle against sin and death thereby winning for us the victory. I close with a poem of George Herbert, which I believe captures the paradox of Christ’s victory on the cross better than any sermon I might preach ever could do:

O My chief good,
How shall I measure out thy bloud?
How shall I count what thee befell,
And each grief tell?

Shall I thy woes
Number according to thy foes?
Or, since one starre show’d thy first breath,
Shall all thy death?

Or shall each leaf,
Which falls in Autumn, score a grief?
Or can not leaves, but fruit, be signe
Of the true vine?

Then let each houre
Of my whole life one grief devoure;
That thy distresse through all may runne,
And be my sunne.

Or rather let
My severall sinnes their sorrows get;
That as each beast his cure doth know,
Each sinne may so.

Since bloud is fittest, Lord, to write
Thy sorrows in, and bloudie fight;
My heart hath store, write there, where in
One box doth lie both ink and sinne:

That when sinne spies so many foes,
Thy whips, thy nails, thy wounds, thy woes,
All come to lodge there, sinne may say,
No room for me, and flie away.

Sinne being gone, oh fill the place,
And keep possession with thy grace;
Lest sinne take courage and return,
And all the writings blot or burn.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.