Preacher’s Note: I encourage you to watch the video below in its entirety, especially if “Sunday of the Passion” (instead of simply “Palm Sunday”) is new to you. In the Lutheran tradition, as well as that of our many ecumenical partners, while we begin this day with a festive palm procession proclaiming “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”, the tone of the liturgy soon changes as we hear the full account of Jesus’s passion and death.
This year on Sunday, we hear Matthew’s account. First, I offer a brief homily/introduction (text below) to what we are about to hear. Then our passion readers — Augustana members Grace Klinefelter, Mike Klinefelter, and Jack Hutchinson (from left to right in the video) — read the passion as a trio of voices, not as a drama so much as readers’ theatre. In this way, and through song and silence for meditation, the congregation is invited to enter into the story, connecting the ancient narrative to our own context.
And this is only the beginning of Holy Week — arguably the most important week in the Christian liturgical year. If you’re reading this and the full experience of Holy Week — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter, and Easter morning — is not part of your practice, I strongly encourage you to join your congregation or another local assembly in the observance of these sacred days. You won’t be disappointed.
Augustana Lutheran Church
9 April 2017 + Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday
Matthew 21.1-11; 26.14-27.66
What day is it? Palm Sunday? Sunday of the Passion? At the risk of making things even more confusing, I’m going to suggest yet another name for this day: Paradox Sunday.
Paradox abounds in our liturgy today. We began with a festive palm procession, commemorating Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. With the crowds we shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And we wave our palm branches vigorously.
But now we turn to the heart of today’s liturgy: the passion reading — the full account of Jesus’s suffering and death. Those shouts of “Hosanna! Save us!” become “Crucify!”
This is the paradox of Palm / Passion Sunday: We hold in tension the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and his subsequent execution at the hands of the Roman empire.
The passion story is indeed central to the Christian faith and tradition, so much so that we will hear it not once but twice this Holy Week. Today from Matthew, the particular gospel for this year that we have been following since Advent, and on Good Friday from John. But far from being an exercise in redundancy, these two accounts give us two distinct portrayals of the passion.
On Good Friday, we will hear John’s passion which shows a crucified Christ who is in control of all the events which happen to him, essentially presupposing the victory of the resurrection before it even happens. But today, Matthew depicts a Christ who is utterly abandoned by his friends and followers. Jesus is betrayed, denied, and deserted, and even mocked repeatedly while hanging on the cross. No wonder he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”
Which brings me to another point: Today we don’t simply read the passion story; we hear it read aloud as readers’ theatre and we enter into it with song and silence for meditation.
Entering into the story is also to ask where we find ourselves in the story. The options, however, are bleak: Are we the ones who abandon those who suffer and thus ignore injustice? Or are we the ones who are abandoned and suffer injustice? I suspect many of us have been in both places at different times.
Even when we’re not the ones who experience abandonment, injustice, and oppression, I suspect we also find ourselves crying out with the Matthean Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?” — when refugees are denied entry into a safer country, or when our national response to the suffering of the Syrian people is an attack on that country which only perpetuates violence and exacerbates suffering, or just this morning when two Coptic churches in Egypt were bombed in the middle of their Palm Sunday services.
It’s difficult in the midst of such suffering, whether directly experienced, or witnessed helplessly, to glimpse the possibility of hope and new life. And yet, that is also what Matthew leaves us with: In the long view, God has not forsaken Jesus. As biblical scholar Raymond Brown writes, “Matthew did not hesitate to have the moment of Jesus’ birth marked by a star in the sky; the moment of his death is even more climactic, marked by signs in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth” (44) — an earthquake which causes tombs to burst open and the dead to come to life, the tearing of the temple curtain, the confession of a Roman military official.
The paradox of Palm / Passion Sunday that holds in tension the triumphal entry and the death of Jesus also suggests another paradox: death and resurrection. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s savor Holy Week in each moment — the palms, the passion, the garden, the meal, the cross, the tomb — as we contemplate the mystery of our salvation in these sacred days. To paraphrase the Easter Vigil liturgy, this is the week. Let us begin.
+ THE PASSION OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST ACCORDING TO MATTHEW +
The Last Supper
One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment Judas began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” Jesus said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
When it was evening, Jesus took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?”
Jesus answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”
Hymn: Go to Dark Gethsemane (stanza 1)
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.”
Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again Jesus went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again Jesus came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once Judas came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, who will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 1)
Jesus Before Caiaphas
Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.
Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death!” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When Peter went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.”
Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 2)
Jesus Before Pilate
When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave the silver for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”
Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas!” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then Pilate asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So Pilate released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 3)
Jesus Is Crucified
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head.
They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before Jesus and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 4)
The Death of Jesus
Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if God wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.
Hymn: They Crucified My Lord (stanzas 1 and 5)
Earthquake and Confession of the Centurion
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.
Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.