Sermon - Palm Sunday (4/14/2019)
Is. 43:16-21; Ps. 126; Phil. 3:4b-14; Jn. 12:1-8
Christians have always believed that Jesus died for us –for our salvation, to make us right with God. But Christians have never given a single, definitive explanation of exactly how the death of Jesus makes us right with God, exactly why Jesus had to die and why this was necessary for us to have a life in God.
Probably the most common explanation in modern times has been some version of the following: God is very angry about human sin, and God’s holiness and God’s justice require God to demand payment for our sins. In this view, God would have been completely justified to send everyone to hell – but fortunately Jesus volunteered to take the punishment for us, and so if we believe this we can escape God’s wrath and eventually make it to heaven.
I’ve never been much of a fan of this theology. In its extreme forms it makes God into a vindictive and abusive parent, someone who lashes out at an innocent person because God has anger management issues. As Elizabeth Johnson, one of my theology professors at Fordham, was recently quoted as saying, Nobody had to die in order for God to love us. God’s disposition towards us is always one of love and God is never pleased by suffering and death. But if that’s true, then why did Jesus have to die such a horrible death, and how is that somehow good for us?
Many people have tried to explain this in a number of different ways, but the one that has always made the most sense to me is this. We human beings know basically one way to get along with one another: to set up social orders in which everyone knows their place, and in which people are brought together by having something in common, namely that they all hate the same things and the same people. It’s fun to go to a Nationals game these days and boo Bryce Harper. It’s less fun, but just as effective in building social cohesion, to hate Democrats or Republicans, to hate immigrants or gay people, to think better of people who have the same race or went to the same schools or who do the right kind of work or wear the right clothes or eat the right things, and to think worse of those who don’t.
Who’s in, and who’s out. Who’s up and who’s down. If you’re one of the lucky people who is in, you have meaning and identity in your life. If you’re an outsider you can always try to get together with other outsiders and make your own club where you look down on everybody else too. That’s what human beings know how to do. But that’s not who God is. God’s own being is a communion of three persons who are free and equal and whose relationship is wholly and entirely one of love, of focus on and attention to the other. And God wants nothing more than to bring all of creation into this communion of love, where no one has a better place at the expense of anyone else.
Yet even after three years of following Jesus, the disciples gather together at table one last time with Jesus, and a dispute breaks out as to which of them is the greatest. They ought to know by now – and Jesus does not fail to remind them – that’s not how this works. But repeating the message over and over again is not enough to break the power of human bonding through scapegoating and excluding and creating hierarchies of power and dominance.
And so Jesus Christ, God made flesh, enters into our human existence and shows us what love means by taking the lowest place, by becoming the one we exclude, that we hate, that we reject – in our vain attempts to justify ourselves. This is how God defeats the power of our human need to exclude and reject. By becoming the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. To show us that being the excluded one, being the outsider, being rejected, being in the lowest place, is not the thing to fear at all costs.
And so, as the week goes on, Jesus becomes the one who unites the crowd. They all say it together: Away with him! Crucify him! Give us Barabbas! Jesus becomes the one who unites Pilate and Herod, who become friends because they share in common what they did to Jesus. Jesus becomes the one who is the object of everyone jeering at him, using the very words of the devil himself, If you are the Son of God, save yourself! He does this, all the way to the end, to unite God with those whom we exclude, whom we hate, to break the power of exclusion.
This is what Paul is talking about in today’s second reading: Though Jesus was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be sought after, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, even accepting death on a cross. And it is precisely because of this that God raised him up and made him Lord of all.
As we go through this week together, remember this contrast: between human society that lifts up some by pushing others down, and God’s communion that includes everyone in love – and the way God defeats the power of sin and injustice and violence and exclusion by assuming the place of the one who is outcast, rejected, killed – and showing us that this is, in fact, the only place that leads to the life of God.