Sermon–Palm Sunday–March 25, 2018


Sunday of the Passion—Year B

March 25, 2018

William Bradbury

Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, Psalm 31:9-16, Mark 14:1-15:47

I ask you: “What is so special about the crucifixion of a homeless Jewish rabbi?” After all, Rome crucified their conquered people on a regular basis. Some of you will remember the 1960 movie “Spartacus”, the true story of a Roman slave, who leads a slave revolt against the Empire. (It won 4 academy awards and was directed by Stanley Kubrick.) This revolt took place 100 years before Jesus and ended in a final bloody battle in which the slaves were defeated. But Empire is never satisfied with just winning a war, because it also wants everyone to know the cost of resisting Empire. So along 130 miles of the Appian Way, stretching from Rome towards Naples, Empire crucified 6000 followers of Spartacus. That’s one cross every 40 yards. The Day the Revolution Began, by NT Wright— page 57

36 years after Jesus, Empire finally had enough of a Jewish rebellion and crucified so many Jews they ran out of wood.

Crucifixion is not just about killing, but also about shaming. It shouts to the world, Empire is everything and you and your pitiful country, with its strange customs and alien religion are nothing—absolutely nothing.

So 2000 years  later why do we gather to retell the story of this one crucified Jew?

You might say, “Well, that’s because Jesus is a special Jew, and you’d be right. But special, how?

“Well, he’s the Messiah, the Word made flesh, Emmanuel, God with us!”

But think about that—do we really want to say that it’s “God with us” hanging on the cross?

We were taught that God is the Omni-god: omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient! How does such a god get killed and shamed by Empire?

And who would want to follow such a failed god? Crowds then and now follow the power and fame. “Oh, yes, let’s join the Jesus parade as he enters the city to take on Empire. Pass the palm branches—isn’t this exciting. Glad it is such a pretty day!

But then the tables turn when it becomes clear Jesus will be the scapegoat for the religious and political leaders. A nation is unified when there is someone or some group to scapegoat for its problems. Fear and hate are great and quick ways to unify people who have been made afraid. Jesus is the scapegoat that will calm down Empire and unify the people.

Even Peter, as he sees the shift from savior to scapegoat, drops his palm branch and says, “I do not know the man!”

The crowd sees the shift and we cry out, “Crucify him, crucify him!”

Who wants to worship a god who suffers and fails? All our prayers are for success and healing. We want a successful god, not a dead Jew hanging naked in the sun. N. T. Wright insists “in book after book of the New Testament, when Jesus of Nazareth dies on the cross something happens as a result of which the world is a different place.” Ibid p 39

Theologians through the millennia have devised theories to try to explain why this should the case, why this death makes a difference. But the gospels don’t give us theories; they give us stories—told in simplicity, with minimal drama.

They don’t go into detail, like in the movie “The Passion of the Christ” which shows exactly how the spikes are driven into his hands and feet. Mark spends much more time describing the verbal abuse Jesus receives.

At the crucial moment Mark only says, “And the soldiers crucified Jesus, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.”

The verbal abuse continues all day, revealing how we humans love to attack those who are suffering. Why do we spit on the broken and hurting? What sickness in our souls causes us to ridicule those suffering so profoundly?

Then Jesus cries out, “My, God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Every Jew hearing this cry would have instantly recognized it as the first verse of Psalm 22, which starts with this cry of utter desolation, but 28 verses later ends with a note of faithfulness and triumph: “My soul shall live for God, my descendants shall live for God, and they shall be known as the YHWH’s forever.”

But Jesus doesn’t just recite this poem, he inhabits it. He enters the depths of human god-forsakenness to make visible the depths of our sin and the depths of Abba’s Love.

Process theologian Marjorie Suchocki says, “God feels us as we feel ourselves, even including those depths that we do not allow into conscious feeling. God’s full openness to who we are involves God in the pain of who we are, symbolized most profoundly in the revelation of God in Jesus on a cross.” Marjorie Suchocki, God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology, page 110

The deepest thing we can say about God is not God’s power, but God’s love. God in Christ crucified reveals “God’s identification with us in our sin, pain, and death, which become the ground and means of our salvation.” Ibid. page 111


Then Mark says, “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom”, so that now we can look inside the holiest place on the planet and see that it is empty.

If God isn’t in the holy place of the nation, where is God?

This is what we always ask in a tragedy. When 17 students and teachers are killed in Parkland, Florida we cry out “Where is God?”

The centurion overseeing the killing for Empire sees how Jesus dies and says: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” 

It is typical of the gospels that the outsiders realize the truth before the insiders.

The parade of palms takes us to the cross. From there we join the sad few who walk to the tomb where we bury all our hope—our hope in Jesus, our hope in God, as well as our hope in Empire with its systems of wealth, power, and control.

Three days later the broken community is cowering in the upper room when the Scapegoat appears and commands the church to go into the world, to free the slaves of Empire and proclaim and live the Commonwealth of the Crucified God.

And that’s why, 2000 years after these things, we’re still telling the story of this one crucified Jew who is God with us.