holy cross sermon for palm sunday, year a, april 13, 2014

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Every year on Palm Sunday I am struck by the seeming incongruity of the first part of the liturgy and the second. We begin with red vestments, with an almost festal character, waving palm branches and singing “all glory, laud, and honor, to thee Redeemer King!” after hearing the story of Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem, and the “whole multitude,” shouting “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” We join the happy throng. We process down the street, and we enter the church, a microcosm of Jerusalem, in a ritually happy mood.

But almost before we realize what is happening, the mood shifts. The vestments are changed to the purple of penitence. And the liturgy swings on the hinge of the station collect: God’s most dear Son went not up to joy, but first he suffered pain, and he entered not into glory before he was crucified. And the lesson that Jesus had lately taught his disciples begins to force its way to the surface: “whoever would be great among you must be your servant,  and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10.43ff). Jesus came into the world, taking our nature, to suffer death upon the cross, to give us an effectual example of his great humility, all because of God’s tender love for mankind.

And the multitude that only lately shouted “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord,” now cry out for him to be crucified. It is all a bit disorienting.

This is the story of every disciple. The truth of the matter is that we all find ourselves among both crowds, which are, in the final analysis, the same crowd. Peter, the prince of the Apostles, found himself caught pathetically in this oscillation at the Last Supper and thereafter:

Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night….” Peter declared to him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples. (Matthew 26, passim)

It is a hard and humiliating lesson. Peter denied Jesus three times as he stood in the crowd and watched as Jesus was mocked and beaten. And Luke says that, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And [Peter] went out and wept bitterly,” (Luke 22.61f).

It’s a hard and humiliating lesson. And it is the more so in proportion to our love for Jesus. We know him to be the King. We count ourselves among his disciples. And we deny him, with our frequent relapses and our long continuance in sin – we deny him. With the blessed sacrament still in our mouths, with our lips still wet with the gift of his spilt blood, we betray him; we reinforce the necessity of the cross; we drive the nails more deeply into his hands and feet. The immolation of his Body on our behalf, recapitulated day-in and day-out on this very altar, is met with our indifference, with our return to our dearest vices. Week by week I slink back to my confessor, burdened with hideously familiar guilt. And week by week I leave, humbled by the Lord’s patient mercy, in the equally familiar words of my confessor: “Go in peace, the Lord has put away all your sins.”

What does it mean, our oscillation between these extremes – hailing Jesus as King one minute, and crucifying him again the next? It means that our conversion is incomplete. We have been baptized. We have been forgiven and re-forgiven. But the world, the flesh, and the devil, to say nothing of our quotidian selfishness and pride – it all forces itself back into our minute-by-minute decision making.

But after the resurrection, Peter will be rehabilitated with a threefold affirmation of his love for Jesus, in atonement, it would seem, for his threefold denial. “Do you love me, Peter? Do you love me, Peter? Do you love me, Peter?” And Peter was grieved that the Lord asked him three times, as though he needed to be convinced after Peter’s shameful lapse before the cock crowed. “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21, passim).

Of course the Lord knew that Peter loved him. The Lord, indeed, knows everything. But his threefold asking is a token of his patient mercy, the same patient mercy that sincerely welcomes the sincere penitent for the ten-thousandth time to the inexhaustible fountain of God’s forgiveness.

We are petulant. We are fickle. We are sinful. But our failures are as nothing in the face of the all-conquering Cross of Jesus – the source of all wholeness, all healing, all forgiveness, all peace. We have only to recognize our weakness and to seek the Lord’s grace, to return to the recreation that Jesus keeps in store for us, that he purchased with his own blood.

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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