Sermon for Palm Sunday

“How readest thou?”

And so it begins, and ends. We begin today with the exultant cries of “Hosanna”. We will end on Easter with the joyous cries of “Alleluia,” the alleluias that shall never end. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of one long continuous service, going from strength to greater strength, from joy to greater joy. And in between?

Well, that is the point of Holy Week. And, indeed, it is not too much to say that there is no going from the beginning to the end without going through the middle; no Easter that has any meaning apart from the events of this week which we call Holy Week. In a way, there is no beginning either without, at least, a glimmer of an awareness that there must be a continuing in what we have begun today. How could there not be? The contrasts of this day are just so great.

We who cry “Hosanna” are those who cry “Crucify”. The alleluias of Easter will be but the empty words of the hollow culture of empty souls and empty churches without the moving, heart-rending and mind-blowing spectacles of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday; in short, the triduum Sacrum of Holy Week. Such is the intensity of the Passion of Christ. There is no greater joy than the alleluias of Easter, but it is a joy that is borne out of the sorrow and the grief of this week.

The contrasts of this day are the contradictions of our souls. More than the mere fickle nature of mob culture that swings from one moment to the next in the madness of unreason, we contemplate the depths and heights of human loves and human hates in all of their disorder and disarray. It is not too much to say that in the pageant of Holy Week there is little, if anything, that is good about ourselves. We confront the contradictions of our humanity. That is, really, the good of Holy Week.

Why should we trouble ourselves with the spectacle of ourselves in the violence of our wills and in the darknesses of our despairs? And how? Because of the passion of Christ. Through the one whose story we read this week and in whose story we find ourselves, at once convicted and convinced, at once wretched and redeemed. If we will read. That is the great challenge. In a way, it is the only challenge.

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Rom. 7.19). Paul captures precisely and completely the reality of our souls. Our culture abhors the directness and the truth of this insight. We want to believe in ourselves and one another, in the basic goodness of humanity. We would like to persuade ourselves that by dint of the power of positive thinking and by way of great dollops of self-esteem we will be happy, we will be successful and, of course, we will be ever so good, good, good! We would like to think that sin and evil are really only other people or the system, never ourselves.

The great insight and wisdom of this day and this week is that we are totally implicated in all of the forms of sin and evil, suffering and death that ever have been and that ever will be. That is actually the good news! As G.K. Chesterton put it, “there are many who will smile at the saying; but it is profoundly true to say that the glad good news brought by the Gospel was the news of original sin.” More than a wry smile, I fear, the reaction of our age is one of outrage at this saying. We desperately want to believe in the intrinsic goodness of ourselves even in the face of the compelling evidence to the contrary. Chesterton, again, makes the equally telling point that original sin is “the only doctrine of the Christian faith that is empirically provable.”

Original sin? I mean here the simple point that things are not altogether right with ourselves and our world despite all our intentions and efforts. Far from being a negative view of our humanity, to know this is actually good news. It is the dialectic of the story of the Fall. We come to know God in our wilful separation from him and discover his love for us in his overcoming of our sin and evil. Such is the project of this week. Sin and love are on full display. Paradoxically, we can’t know the one without the other.

Dialectic, literally, a reading through. This is the week of our reading through the Passion of Christ in all of its intensity and in all of its fullness. The story is read in the context of the panoramic canvass of the Scriptures in all of their richness. How do you read?

The question is about our understanding of what we are given to read in the Passion of Christ and in the experiences of our lives as seen through the Scriptural witness to human nature and to the nature of God. What we are given to read is one thing; the story of the Passion in its fullness is the outstanding characteristic of our Anglican tradition. How we read is another thing. How do you read?

It is Jesus’ question to the lawyer who was putting Jesus to the test, trying to trap him in his words, as it were, by asking the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” How do I get the best thing going? Jesus’ response was to ask him, “What is written in the law? How readest thou?” The lawyer answers by way of “the summary of the law” – the love of God and the love of neighbour. “This do,” Jesus says, “and thou shalt live.” “But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’” The exchange of questions becomes the setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan. The question, “How do you read?” means “how do you understand what has been revealed and shown to you?” The point is that we are given something to see, something to read, in other words, something that requires our attention and commitment.

The parable in its deeper meaning is an allegory of the story of Creation and the Fall and of human redemption and pastoral care. The Samaritan who came where he was is the image of Christ. He has come to where we are in our brokenness and our woundedness. But in the mystery of Holy Week, we contemplate the greater reality of the care and compassion of Christ the Good Samaritan. The passion is about his willingness to bear the full meaning of sin and suffering, of sorrow and death. Why? So that we might know two things: sin and love.

In the crucified Christ we confront our sins and we contemplate the overcoming of sin. Such is the mercy of the Cross. We behold the radical meaning of Christ’s Incarnation. He has come near to us to restore us to the divine fellowship through the most intense and disturbing act of sacrifice and service imaginable; it is the way of the Cross. We can only begin to learn about care and compassion through the intensity of Christ’s passion. Only as convicted of our own sinfulness can we be convinced of the divine love that seeks our good. Only so can we begin to “go and do likewise,” as the parable exhorts us, the grace of Christ’s passion moving in us without which “all our doings are nothing worth.”

The business of this day is to begin, not just with the hosannas of Christ’s triumphal entry as King into Jerusalem, but with the reading of the Passion, first by Matthew, then, in the course of the days of this week, by Mark, by Luke and, finally, by John. We read that we may learn the sovereign nature of God’s love. Christ reigns and rules from the tree of his cross. If we will read.

Christ crucified is “liber charitatis, the book of love, opened to us” to read (Lancelot Andrewes). We read the passion of Christ to learn the lessons of divine love. Only so can we “go and do likewise”, walking in love as Christ has loved us.

“How readest thou?”

Fr. David Curry
Palm Sunday,
Christ Church
March 28th, 2010

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