A Short Sermon for Holy Week

Given in Worcester Cathedral, 25.iii.15

The Easter story is not quite what it looks like when first encountered. We have had readings about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem — which I do not think is quite as positive as it sounds — and the painful death of Jesus on the cross, which is certainly not as negative as torture and death would otherwise seem to be.

So, this is my message: Easter is more than it appears to be and I will try to explain how.

First, the so-called triumphal entry is hardly a triumph at all. It is true that the crowds — whipped up by the disciples who went on ahead — acclaimed Jesus as “the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” But Jesus is not seeking acclamation, but rather a confrontation. He provokes the Pharisees, the most pious of his people.

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

He then goes to the temple and in a rage of righteous anger, drives out the money changers, thereby interrupting the sacred rituals over which the temple priests had a monopoly. He will later cause a tree to wither as a sign of his rejection of the religious institutions of the day. They are corrupt and need to go. So let us not call Palm Sunday a triumphal entry but rather an act of provocation. I tell those of you whom I teach that meek and mild men don’t get themselves crucified as befitting bandits and rebels. The air in Roman-occupied Jerusalem was charged and Jesus seems willing to light a match.

But . . . having thus provoked the authorities, and effectively signed his own arrest-warrant, Jesus then steps back. He has rejected the established ways — and made the kind of public scene that made that rejection clear — but the revolution he wished to foment will not be one fought with swords. Indeed, it will quickly lead to his own death and thus appear to have failed.

The reading painted a terrifying scene:

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus* there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

Just like that this so-imagined “triumphant” Jesus is nailed to a cross to die at a place called “The Skull,” probably so-named because it was littered with the bones of the already crucified. To die on a cross was to die a painful and dishonourable death, which leads us to the main puzzle: why call this day “Good” Friday? In this sense of “Good” we probably mean “godly” or “holy” rather than “good” as we understand it, but we still need to contemplate why the death of the Son of God in this way was “good.”

The answers are varied and hotly contested by theologians. They are, variously, that Jesus’ death was a substitutionary sacrifice for sin; that his death ransomed us from sin and death; that Jesus wanted to be a martyr for his cause and fulfil the ancient prophecy of the suffering Messiah;  that by his suffering and death, God learns to empathise with human suffering; that by conquering evil and death (for as the story tells us, he was ultimately resurrected) he becomes worthy of our worship; and that by not responding to violence with violence, Jesus shows us an example of how to live in a violent world.

Which of these reasons explains why Jesus died? All of them? Some of them? To be frank, I am not sure myself and that is fine for in this Easter story of not-what-it-seems, it may be that the intellect can only go so far. The reality of Jesus is not something fully understood but it can be fully experienced. On the road to Emmaus the disciples could not recognise Jesus even when he laid out the scriptures to them; but they did recognise him in the breaking of the bread. My message to the Christians here would be to allow the rhythms, and worship, and charitable acts of Easter to draw you closer to experiencing Jesus, for he is even better than he seems.

And for the non-Christians here, how about this: in a world where there is so much cruelty and injustice and where we rightly ask, what is to be done, how much merit is there in Jesus’ remarkable plea: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”? Something to think about.

At first glance, Easter looks like bombast followed by failure. What it in fact is is a challenge not to live a life of piety and power but to live a life of love and sacrifice.

Comments

  1. Would have really loved to be there for this. I’m glad for the work you do — very lucky students to receive this.

  2. Jason K. says:

    I loved this, Ronan. As I read it I was wishing it had been recorded for BBC3, so I could hear it delivered in your voice.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff.

    The Aramaic word for skull, golgotha, gets translated into Greek as kranion, which via Latin becomes our cranium. And the Latin word for skull? Calvaria, which is the source of all those references to Calvary in our hymnal and other religious vocabulary. Calvary is The Skull. (I was thinking about this just this last Sunday, as we sang in our sacrament hymn “upon the cross of Calvary….”)

  4. Wow and Thank you. Powerful, mind bending, thought provoking. Printing and saving.

  5. Intriguing and inspirational. The theological neophyte in me wishes that this short sermon were a bit longer. Much to chew on here. Thanks.

  6. The Germans take a different tack with Karfreitag, the Old High German prefix ‘kara’ meaning lament, sorrow, mourning.

  7. charlene says:

    A sermon as true worship instead of a lecture. Thank you.

  8. I am having a walkabout Lent and Easter. This very closely follows the theme of the homily from the Chrism Mass last night for the Fairbanks Dioses. He was ordained the Bishop of the diocese 100 days before, and he emphasized the process of prayer and service that is a part of supporting and serving one another.

    He asked all of us to look at our hands, and then the hands of those next to us. He then asked us to look back at our hands, and reminded us that the most important thing we do to worship doesn’t happen in cathedrals or churches. As we serve the poor, the needy and each other, with our own hands, we become disciples of Christ. It is not through checks written, (although tithes and offerings are still important) but through us dedicating the works of our own hands and body, we become Christ’s hands and disciples.

    Thanks for giving me a reason to reflect on it even more deeply.

  9. Can you give more info/material for the whipping? I’m not familiar with it in this instance.