Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

We began today with Jesus’ procession:  the disciples praising God with great joy because of all the deeds of power they had witnessed. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he announced that he was anointed by the Spirit of God to bring good news to the poor. The good news was centered in God’s good pleasure to give people the kingdom of God, a kingdom not built on the foundation of greed and violence, but of grace and steadfast love. The disciples witnessed the liberating power of the forgiveness of sins, and the compassionate healing of the blind and lame, and even raising the dead. So it was impossible to keep quiet when Jesus was soon to enter the holy city of Jerusalem, even the stones would shout, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord, peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.”

Jesus was coming to Jerusalem as a king of peace. Not part of the texts today we can read what Jesus did when he saw Jerusalem from the vantage height of the Mount of Olives. He wept. So we have a contrast: the disciples dancing with joy, singing and celebrating, throwing their coats on the road before Jesus riding on a borrowed donkey. Things couldn’t have seemed brighter. But then Jesus shook with sorrow. Jesus said the people of the city of Jerusalem rejected peace. They did not recognize his coming as visitation from God. Before Jesus was born it was prophesied that Jesus would be the light to give hope to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide people in the way of peace. But Jesus wept for he knew the people in power in Jerusalem, the movers and shakers, would prefer darkness.

Who would have blamed Jesus if he would have turned the donkey around and head back home to the quiet village of Nazareth where he grew up. But he did not. He would continue his work of bringing good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, and release to the captive, all part of bringing to this troubled earth, the peace from heaven. Peace was and is Jesus’ passion.

As we just heard the reading of the Passion of Jesus according to St. Luke, I would like to point out some details only found in this gospel. During the Passover supper, we heard Jesus give to his followers for all time, the Lord’s Supper. Then we heard of the disciples’ fighting over who was the greatest. The gospels of Matthew and Mark have the disciples arguing in such a way but only Luke sets the disciples greatness-grabbing in the context of the Last Supper. Jesus had just told them about the new covenant in his blood, his sacrifice, his self-giving, his servanthood. One wonders if the disciples were listening at all. But do we always listen to Jesus who said “I am among you as one who serves.”

Unique to Luke is the words spoken to Peter: “Simon, Listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail, and you, once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Satan knew he was beaten; he could not stop Jesus from going to the cross, the ultimate act of service and sacrifice. But Satan would sift the disciples through testing, separating the wheat from the chaff. Peter would be so sifted, and would appear as chaff when he denied he knew Jesus in the hour of trial. But he was not chaff to Jesus: I have prayed for you, Jesus said. I have prayed that when you return or repent, you will strengthen the others. Jesus is praying for us. We do fail Jesus at times when we act in ways that deny we know him. But Jesus does not reject us or condemn. He is the King of peace, and rules through forgiveness. His prayer, his grace enables our true repentance. Forgiven totally by Jesus, we are equipped to strengthen and support one another.

After Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, as Jesus predicted, there is a detail found only in Luke’s gospel. After blustering out denials the text said “The Lord turned and looked at Peter.” How would you imagine that look to be—sadness, disappointment, compassion? Peter went out and wept bitterly, and as the Psalm said today, he must have felt as useless as a broken pot. I think it was a look of total compassion. I think Peter would have understood a look of anger or disappointment, but a look of compassion in the midst of his failures, brought the flood of tears. Jesus’ look at Peter would also fulfill the Psalm, “Let your face shine upon your servant, and save me in your steadfast love.” When the power of sin has broken us down, may the look of Jesus, the power of his compassion, bring healing for the spirit.

We know crucifixion was a terrible form of capital punishment. We began with a parade with palms, rejoicing in Jesus’ entry into the city. But at the end of the week there was another parade, Jesus being led out to the place of the skull for execution. He had been whipped and was weak. But as far as his ministry was concerned, he was not whipped. He prayed for his executioners, the soldiers, the leaders who mocked and laughed and declared Jesus a fake. He prayed that they be forgiven. And one of the criminals on the cross, an evil-doer, someone hanging on the cross for gruesome crimes, had the gall to ask for grace, to be remembered and made part of the Kingdom of God. And Jesus promised him he would be with him forever in Paradise, the ultimate gift of grace in the face of death. As we know, no one is beyond the reach of the steadfast love and mercy of God. Again, a quotation from the Psalms, “Blessed are you, O Lord!, for you have shown me the wonders of your love when I was under the siege of death.”

There was a sad story in the New York Times earlier this week about the suicide of a young woman in her twenties. Why would she no longer want to live? On the surface her young life had many accomplishments. She was a supreme athlete, a cyclist on the U.S. Olympic team which won silver in the 2016 Olympics. She had her eye on gold for the 2020 Olympics. She was a musician, a first-chair violinist in an orchestra. She was a brilliant graduate student at Stanford, preparing for a career in Silicon Valley in computer science and engineering.  But you can’t always trust appearances. She was driven to succeed, to be on top, to be the best. She had a fall during cycling training and suffered a concussion. In itself this was not life-threatening, but time was needed for her brain to heal. But the drive to be succeed would not rest. She told her family “If I can’t be an athlete, I am nothing”. She felt her mind spinning out of control and said “I have no peace.” At her funeral her twin sister put a note in her casket, “If I could trade my life for yours, I would. I love you without all your accomplishments.”

In spite of appearances and accomplishments people may not have peace. There is a peace that surpasses all accomplishments. There is a peace that never says “you are nothing”. There is a peace that surpasses all human understanding. On this Passion Sunday, we hear the good news of peace from heaven. This is the peace that Jesus gives who ever looks upon us with compassion. This is the peace of Jesus who is present among us today and everyday as one who serves. This is the peace from the cross where Jesus indeed gave up his life for you and me.