Sermon–Two Pictures in One: Passion Sunday 2019


Palm Sunday–April 14, 2019

William Bradbury

Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:14-23:56

Remember that picture from psychology class that at first glance is a vase; but then with some prodding from others, our vision shifts and the vase turns into a picture of two people facing each other? I want to suggest that Jesus on the cross provides a similar dual picture. 

At first glance we see Jesus as a victim of cruelty and violence caused by the military and religious leaders, with support from the crowd who are in Jerusalem for Passover. We understand this kind of violence and injustice happens in every culture across time.

If we are thoughtful and ask what is going in such cases we find an answer in the mechanism described in Leviticus 16, where the High Priest lays his hands on the head of a chosen goat and transfers all the sins of the people onto it, and then the goat is driven out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people. This is the famous scapegoat.

Today we see Jesus, as the innocent scapegoat, driven outside the city walls, bearing the sins the people have laid on him. We remember Caiaphas, the high priest, who says in John 11:50 “Don’t you see it is better that one man die than the whole people be destroyed.”

When a person is made a scapegoat he appears to deserve this horrible fate. The people can’t see that they have projected their own sins and fears onto the scapegoat. In the Salem witch trials the accusing community projects their inner darkness onto the so-called witches and then finds then guilty of that darkness because it is so easy to see and feel it.

Then, once the scapegoat is dead, the community comes together closer than ever, having shared this traumatic cleansing of their world.

This is how to explain the sense of fellowship that falls over a lynch mob once the black man has died at the end of the rope.

In the death of this one person, we feel better about ourselves as a community—unless and until we wake up and see the horror of what we’ve really done.

Hitler unites Germany when they scapegoat Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies, along with others who don’t fit the Aryan image of perfection.

In allowing the people to make him their scapegoat, Jesus reveals to us the scapegoating mechanism. When we scapegoat Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ, and people of color and other marginalized folks the cross looms over us, seeking to wake us up from our unconscious behavior and see what we are really doing. In Jesus’ words we are killing our neighbor for the speck in their eye, while there is a log in our own.

In spite of the power of those who ordered his death and the mocking and hatred of the crowd, it is Roman soldier, a pagan, who sees the truth. As Luke tells us, “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”

Behold the Goat of God who reveals the sin of the world.

But now we shift our focus and the picture of the Crucified One changes and instead of seeing ourselves, we now see God. We see God in Christ enter the depths of our suffering. God knows what it feels like to be beaten, abused, mocked, and bullied. God knows rejection, alienation, failure, and the humiliation of the collapse of the body.

God enters helplessness and powerlessness, pinned by uncontrollable forces. God submits to the injustice of governments who punish the weak and reward the powerful. Christ is crucified and Barabbas goes free.

We see God enter the unbearable grief of a parent losing a child. We see the Crucified God entering the suffering of the world—into your suffering and mine. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!”

God knows because God is on the cross.

Paul says: “though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.”

So two pictures: on the cross we see who we are. We see our need to put our sins onto others, to join the mob to maintain the illusion that we are a wonderful and loving people. To see the scapegoat mechanism and to confess it, is to step into salvation and hear: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

And there on the cross we also see God, the Crucified One, who shares our suffering and is with us in every tragedy of this life. To see the Crucified God with us in our suffering is to step into the truth of the words: Today you will be with me in paradise.

Jesus does not go to the cross to change God’s mind about us. In spite of the evil we are capable of, God has loved us from the foundation of the world. God does not need to be bought off with a sacrifice to love and forgive us, for God so loved the world he gave his Son….

Jesus loved us and gave himself for us, not to change God’s mind about us, but to change our heart about our neighbor and God.