Who is this Jesus?

Sermon for Sunday, April 9, 2017 || Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A || Matthew 22:1-11; Matthew 26:36 – 27:56

As we move in our service from the humble triumph of Jesus’ festive entry into Jerusalem towards his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there is one question on my mind. It is the question asked at the end of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”

Who is this Jesus?

At the end of today’s service, we will read the Passion Gospel; that is, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and crucifixion. It is a story that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and I cannot read it without being moved. Indeed, it makes me tremble, tremble, tremble, as the old spiritual says. Today, as we hear this powerful story of our Lord’s unbreakable love for us and for all creation, I invite you to listen to how Matthew’s telling answers the question asked in today’s first Gospel story: “Who is this?”

Who is this Jesus?
He is a person of prayer. Jesus takes his disciples to the garden of Gethsemane. He flings himself to the ground and prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Who is this Jesus?
He is a person of courage. He brings his wavering spirit to his Father in prayer and finds new reserves of bravery. He knows what is to come, and still he stands facing the combined might of the empire and his own people’s religious authorities. He stands facing the gathering storm with no weapon except love.

Who is this Jesus?
He is Rabbi, teacher. So Judas calls him when he greets Jesus with a kiss. This day Jesus teaches us the meaning of trust. Even when he feels forsaken, he still calls out to his Father in anguished prayer. Through his trust, Jesus teaches us the incredible lengths to which he will go to bring us back into right relationship with God.

Who is this Jesus?
He is a person of peace. The large crowd comes with swords and clubs, expecting a fight. When one of his own matches their posture with a blade of his own, Jesus stays his hand. Jesus knows the futility of fighting fire with fire. In the next day he will show the world a new way to be. He will demonstrate that a person of peace is ever so much stronger than people who exercise strength in the form of domination.

Who is this Jesus?
He is the Messiah, the Son of God. Caiaphas the high priest accuses Jesus thusly, knowing it to be a surefire way of spurring Jesus’ execution. Both Messiah and Son of God were political designations. Messiah was the title of the expected Jewish military hero who would sweep the Romans from the land. Son of God was the name the emperors of Rome fashioned for themselves. By calling Jesus these names, Caiaphas signs Jesus’ death warrant. Of course, Caiaphas’s accusation is right. Jesus is the Messiah, a hero of peace, rather than war. Jesus is Son of God, and he came to help people like Caiaphas find their own kinship with the creator.

Who is this Jesus?
He is a person abandoned. He predicted it, and it comes to pass. Judas betrays him. The disciples desert him. Peter denies him with oaths and curses: “I do not know the man.” Jesus knows what many of us have felt: the despair of desertion.

Who is this Jesus?
He is King. Many mock him with this title, but I suspect in a secret place in their hearts they knew they spoke the truth. They just didn’t know that his realm covered so much more than a dusty piece of Asia Minor; his realm is Creation itself.

Who is this Jesus?
He is a person supported by others, even in the midst of his abandonment. Simon of Cyrene carries his cross. An unnamed person fills a sponge with sour wine and gives it to Jesus to drink. The women watch from a distance, keeping vigil, holding him in their hearts. Even the Son of God has support in his darkest hours.

Who is this Jesus?
He is a person crucified. He is tortured to death, as his breath is slowly, excruciatingly squeezed from him on the cross. He is a victim of capital punishment, executed for the glory and stability of Rome. Through his deliberate actions he chose this humiliating and very public death in order to lay bare the lie festering at the heart of the empire. It cared nothing about guilt or innocence. Even Pilate’s wife calls Jesus an “innocent man.” The empire cared only about control.

Who is this Jesus?
He is the one who saves. That’s what his name means: “God saves.” The Passion Gospel is the climactic chapter of the story of our salvation and the restoration of a fallen creation back to God. The Passion Gospel shows us in Jesus’ words and actions just who he is: a person of prayer and courage and peace; a person abandoned and supported and crucified; teacher, a king, a messiah, and the Son of God.

This climactic story continues in the dark before the dawn three days later when the women approach his tomb.

Who is this Jesus?
He is risen.

To rise he first must die, and so we prepare ourselves to hear and participate in the story of his Passion, all the while asking ourselves, “Who is this person, this God, who could possibly love us so much?”

Art: Detail from “On the Mount of Olives” by Nikolai Ge

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