April 14, 2019
Taking You to Paradise – April 14, 2019
Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019
Luke 19:28-40; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 23:1-49
Just in case you were wondering, you’re not the only one who thinks our worship this morning feels like spiritual whiplash. I know we’ve just walked through it, literally; but I’d like to take a moment to think about the crazy path Scripture has given us in these past 20 minutes.
We started in the Jewell Room, hearing the story of Palm Sunday, Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. He asks the disciples to go find him a colt and bring it to the Mount of Olives. Now, that may not sound provocative, but we have to realize, what Jesus is doing would have been like a leader today asking his supporters to get a bulletproof limo with a security detail, and bring it to him at the Capitol in Washington, and drive him down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. This was not an accidental parade. Palm Sunday was a provocation, because everything Jesus did was to remind people of a bigger story his actions were telling – a story about power and authority that reaches beyond secular government.
In ancient days, the kings of Israel came riding on a donkey or a colt (1 Kings 1:33-35), with people spreading their cloaks on the path along the king’s way (2 Kings 9:13). And the people of Jesus’ time were desperately seeking a new king to save them from their Roman oppressors. And here’s the coup de gras, maybe even the coup d’etat: At the last day, the Day of the Lord, when God would come to be “king over all the earth” and set the world to rights, that final reckoning was expected to begin when the Lord came and stood on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:4-9).
So, when Jesus begins his procession down the road from the Mount of Olives, the people begin shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38). That’s because the people knew what all this symbolism meant – that this was nothing less than theKing. His servant humility notwithstanding, Jesus was making it clear that he was the divine monarch, and that the rival of the day, Caesar Augustus, was just a pretender to the throne. But Jesus wasn’t claiming any earthly throne, which is the only thing the authorities could understand. He was asserting his authority as the cosmic King, a king whose reign even the rocks and stones themselves would shout about.
In our New Testament reading this morning, St. Paul recognizes the same truth that Jesus was claiming there on the Mount of Olives. Even though Jesus was God, in human form, he didn’t regard equality with God as something for him to exploit. Instead, he set his cosmic kingship aside, at least for a time, exchanging his divinity and his royal prerogatives for death on a cross. Now, we say that – “death on a cross” – like we can understand it, but we can’t even come close. This isn’t an execution; it’s a lynching. This is death that sucks life from its victim with the torture of slow drowning as your lungs fill with fluid – to say nothing of the pain from the nails in your feet and your wrists. Yet still, Paul says, that dying man was the one they were waiting for after all – the one to whom every knee shall bend and whom everyone shall confess as the true Caesar, the true Lord.
But why did Jesus do it? Why did he need to do it? This isn’t something a sane person would choose. In fact, on Maundy Thursday night, Jesus sweat blood asking God to open some other way for him instead. But in the end, the Lord of the universe chose this. Why?
Here’s the short answer: atonement. That’s one of those theological words people throw around as if everyone knows what it means. It’s a complicated idea, but the word itself is beautifully simple. It means exactly what the pieces of the word say: at-one-ment. Atonement is at-one-ment. Our story this morning goes the way it does, with the Lord choosing the worst death ever, in order that you and I might be made at one with God.
OK. But what how does that work?
Well, you can answer that question several ways. You might go toward what the theologians call substitutionary atonement, the idea that God had to subject God’s own child, a part of God’s own self, to the suffering that all humanity deserved for the ungracious ways we turn against God. According to this line of thinking, we humans could never make amends adequately for the offense of sin, of choosing against God’s direction, so God has to take the punishment for us, sending the Son to the cross. It’s a medieval idea, actually, coming from the model of courtly justice in medieval Europe. If a powerless servant were to insult the lord of the manor, the lord of the manor would have to demand satisfaction for the servant’s insult. But even the servant’s life wouldn’t be enough to provide satisfaction because of the difference in their stations in life. Maybe multiple servants would have to die for justice to be achieved. And how could justice ever come if all the servants insulted the lord? So, medieval theologians looked at this logic and saw God the Father atoning for the insult of human sin not by demanding the lives of countless humans but by giving one life, the life of the divine Son. They saw it as the only loving way God could balance the scales so thrown off by human sin. That model does a nice job of accounting for the scandal of grace, the fact that God loves us despite the fact that we can never make up for sin on our own. But it also raises at least as many questions as it answers about a divine parent who sends a child to die.
Here’s another way to think about how atonement works: that Jesus was the ultimate example of a God-shaped life. The way this thinking goes, Jesus the exemplar came to show us what a life lived for others truly looks like. He bore punishment he didn’t deserve. He emptied himself of power and glory in order to take our nature and go through everything we go through. He showed us how to deal with the ugliness life can dish out – not with retribution or exclusion, but with a heart that bore unbearable pain so others wouldn’t have to. According to this line of thinking, Jesus dies on the cross to lead us there ourselves – to take up our own crosses; to live for others; to value love at all costs, even at the ultimate cost. There’s truth in that, definitely. But if Jesus is just a righteous example, why does this sacrifice have to come from the Son of God? We know many stories of selfless sacrifice, of people emptying themselves and dying so others might live. There must be more to the story if the one doing the sacrificing is also God in the flesh.
So, here’s a third way to think about how atonement works. It highlights Jesus’ powerful divinity just as much as his suffering humanity by telling a cosmic story with a surprise ending. The way this thinking goes, Jesus, the Son of God, came to vanquish the power of sin and death and open the gate to eternal life for all who trust in him. He emptied himself of divine power, submitting himself to death in order to trick the power of sin and evil into complacency. Now, for this to make sense, you have to see sin and evil not as the temporary failure of good human hearts but as a power unto itself. So, if you can accept that, then Jesus comes as the unlikely conqueror of that enemy, the one who brings God’s power directly into human life, fighting the cosmic struggle of God versus evil on the battlefield of human existence – and apparently losing. But what evil doesn’t know was what C.S. Lewis calls the “deep magic,” the truth that the power of the Creator cannot be contained by the creation any more than the clay can tell the potter what to make. And so, this thinking goes, God in Christ lets evil win – at least long enough to prove God’s ultimate power, crushing evil by reversing its victory, which is death itself, and giving the same power over death to all of us who trust in him. To me, at least, that model of Christ as the victor holds a lot of truth. I have seen enough of the power of sin and evil to know it’s real. And I have seen enough of the power of Christ’s resurrection to know death doesn’t get the last word.
At the end of the day, especially at the end of this Palm Sunday, the point isn’t knowing the right model of the atonement. The point is the truth of at-one-ment between God and us. For as we heard in that Passion Gospel reading from Luke, death is not the end for those who trust in God’s power, even if the evidence says God’s power is absent. Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross is the promise to each and every one of us who fails along life’s journey. Eternal life is not a function of scoring the most points or getting the answers right. Eternal life comes from turning to Jesus as he hangs there on the cross with us, and trusting him when he makes that most unlikely of all promises: that you – no matter who you are, and no matter how slim the odds may seem – if you turn to me, even “you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).