St. John’s Lutheran Church
2 April 2023 + Sunday of the Passion
Matthew 21.1-11; 26.14-27.66
Rev. Josh Evans
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!”
But how quickly our shouts of “Hosanna! Save us!” become “Crucify! Crucify!”
Such is the paradox of this day: holding in tension the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), alongside his subsequent trial and execution at the hands of the Roman Empire (Sunday of the Passion).
The passion story is indeed central to the Christian faith and tradition – so central, in fact, that we, along with Christians around the world, will hear it not just once but twice this Holy Week.
Today from Matthew, the particular gospel for this year that we have been following since Advent … and again 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 us a crucified Christ who reigns from the cross, and who is seemingly in control of all the events which happen to him, essentially presupposing the victory of the resurrection before it even happens.
But today, Matthew shows us 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?!”
Today, we enter Matthew’s story, as we hear it read aloud, interspersed with moments of song and silence.
As we listen, we might ask where we find ourselves in the story: Are we the ones who have abandoned those who suffer and thus ignore injustice? Or are we the ones who have been abandoned and suffer injustice ourselves?
Even when we’re not the ones who directly experience abandonment, injustice, or oppression, I suspect, in these days, we might find ourselves crying out with Matthew’s Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?”
As war and unrest continue in Ukraine and around our world … as gun violence plagues our schools and city streets … as creation cries out amid a changing climate … as transphobic legislation perpetuates harm and hatred against our LGBTQIA+ siblings.
It is difficult in the midst of such pain and 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.”
And similarly: “The moment of [Jesus’] death is even more climactic, marked by signs in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth” – 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.
Something big is happening here.
And therein lies another paradox: For even as Jesus cries out in the midst of his suffering and pain that God has forsaken him, Matthew is equally quick to remind us of the truth and the promise of Immanuel: God is with us always.
The paradox of Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion that holds these things in tension: the triumphal entry and the death of Jesus … human suffering and divine solidarity … and, ultimately, death and resurrection.
For surely we know: Death never gets the last word.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s savor Holy Week in each moment – the palms and the passion, the garden and the meal, the cross and the tomb – as we enter into the story again … as we contemplate anew the mystery of our salvation in these sacred days.
To paraphrase the Easter Vigil liturgy, this is the week.
Let us begin.