A sermon, based on Luke 23.1-49, specifically, Luke 23.33 and Philippians 2.5-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019
Palm Sunday is a day of contrasting, conflicting passions…
The joy of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem
and the sorrow of his crucifixion.
Though we favor joy, today, we focus on sorrow. The sorrow of Jesus. For the crucifixion is the point, the purpose of Jesus’ life, who, Paul says, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, being born in human likeness, humbling himself, becoming obedient to…death on a cross.
Even more, in the crucifixion, we can read a three-part parable; first, of creation made by God for intimate fellowship, yet, through humanity’s disobedience to God, destined for condemnation, second, of God’s redemptive response, and, third, of humanity’s reply.
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
The criminals, though we know nothing of their crimes, only that they were judged guilty and rightly, as one of them confesses, symbolize the condemnation of a world gone wrong.
Jesus crucified is God’s redemptive response. God, as righteous, must condemn sin. So, to paraphrase an old gospel song, Jesus paid the debt for sin he did not owe, for we owed the debt for sin we could not pay.(1)
And listening to the criminals, they give voice to humanity’s reply. The first mocked Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The second pleaded with Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Each represents a fundamental human answer to God’s gift of redemption in Jesus: defiance and acceptance.
Now, focusing on our sorrow for ourselves, can we read in the crucifixion the parable of our ever-present sinfulness; our innate predisposition to follow our will? If we answer, “Yes,” dare we ask, “Which criminal am I?”
Speaking always and only for myself, like criminal number one, I know how to mock Jesus, following “the devices and desires of my heart,”(2) seeking to fulfill my will.
I also know how to hear and heed his call: “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”(3) I know how to deny myself; to refuse the devices and desires of my heart. I know how to take up my cross; to be aware and to bear the temptations without and within me that hinder my obedience. So, as criminal number two, I know how to plead with Jesus, seeking his mercy.
Therefore, truth is, to the question, “Which criminal am I?,” honesty compels my confession: “Both. Always.”
More truth. Though hesitant to universalize my experience, as you are as human as I, my confession also is and must be yours.
Most truth. Daily, given a choice of which criminal we will be, let us choose to follow Jesus, making these words our parable of praise:
When we survey the wondrous cross
where our Prince of glory died,
our richest gain we count but loss,
and pour contempt on all our pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that we should boast
save in the cross of Christ, our God!
All the vain things that charm us most,
we sacrifice them to his blood.
Were the whole realm of nature ours,
that were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands our souls, our lives, our all.(4)
In so doing, this is one time when choosing to be number two is best!
(1) He Paid a Debt He Did Not Owe; words by Ellis J. Crum (1928-2011)
(2) A paraphrase of the words of Confession of Sin, Daily Office: Rite One, The Book of Common Prayer
(3) Luke 9.23
(4) When I survey the wondrous cross (1707), verses 1, 2, and 4 (my revisions); words by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
Jesus enters Jerusalem, James Tissot (1836-1902)
Crucifixion (1880), Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844-1916)
Christ on the Cross Between Two Thieves, Schelte a Bolswert (1586-1659)