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The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in the Riverdale neighbourhood of Toronto on Passion Sunday (or, Palm Sunday), March 24, 2013.

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A Sermon for Passion Sunday (March 24, 2013)

Luke 22.14-23.56

 

“When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him,” (Luke 22.14).

 

Living God,

Open my mouth, that I may proclaim your Word

Open our eyes and ears, that we may see and hear you

Open our hearts and minds, that we may joyfully receive you.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

There is a sense in which the most important Sunday to be in church is Palm Sunday, because no other Sunday places us so squarely in the middle of the action (Rutledge). Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, is quite a Sunday indeed. As you witnessed for yourselves, we began with the “Liturgy of the Palms”: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” As we remember the day our Lord Jesus Christ entered the holy city of Jerusalem in humble triumph we are caught up in the excitement of the crowds, “Hosanna in the highest!” Then we all joined in the processional around the church, waving our palm leaves, “Hosanna in the highest!” It’s all quite exciting. Thus, we begin Holy Week. However, no sooner has all of this happened then we are walloped over the side of the head with an incredibly long and grueling gospel reading in which we take in the whole sweep of Luke’s account of the Passion. I must ask, how did it feel? How did it feel to one moment shout praise to God and the next to shout, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!”? “Crucify, crucify him!” The crowds welcoming Jesus as king on Sunday (that’s us), were calling for his death on Friday. The wonderful preacher Flemming Rutledge put it nicely: “The liturgy of Palm Sunday is set up to show you how you can say one thing one minute and its opposite the next.”

Is this not a fair description of the Christian life? What I mean is, we are aware of all of the ways in which our lives are inconsistent with the faith we profess in Christ, right? One of my favourite comics, Louis CK (who, by the way, I would not watch with my grandmother nor, for that reason, would I endorse to you), has a great bit in one of his more recent shows which I will recite for you now, probably doing a terrible job: “I have a lot of beliefs…and I live by none of them. That’s just the way I am. They’re just my beliefs. I just like believing them – I like that part. They’re my little believies. They make me feel good about who I am. But if they get in the way of a thing I want, I [expletive] do that,” (from At the Beacon Theater). That was the clean version. The point, with a bit of theological interpretation, is simply that we’re a mess of contradictions due to the fact that we are sinful creatures.

Lent brought that into focus for me very quickly this year. As you well know, Christians will often fast from any number of things during Lent, as a way of reflecting on our dependence upon Christ and so on. This year I decided to fast from booze – I was unsuccessful. I couldn’t do it! My spirit was willing but my flesh was weak. Perhaps you can identify with this yourself. There is a quote that is often attributed to Ghandi, though this is somewhat disputed. You may have heard it: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Now, in my experience this is typically employed by Christians in order to say something like, “Hey, we need to get our act together and start living better!” My reaction to the quote, however, has always been something more along the lines of, “Yeah, exactly.” We are so unlike Christ, aren’t we?

What I want to suggest to you this morning is that none of this, our life of sinful contradiction, is surprising to God, in fact, it all becomes part of the salvation story that is Jesus. “When the hour came…” I’m part of one of our small groups here at St. Matthew’s (I would encourage you to get involved as well, join us on Thursday’s after Easter as we read through the Bible together in one year). We have been discussing the Cross as we’ve journeyed through Lent together and this past week we got into quite an interesting discussion about whether or not Jesus was “plan b”, so to speak. That is to say, is it the case that God created all things and did not see the Fall coming? Did our rebellion come as a surprise to Him? Did it catch Him off guard and leave Him scrambling to pick up the pieces? “I know!” says the Father, turning towards the Son: “We’ll send you down there! Go on then, sort it out.” No! None of this was a surprise. Human sinfulness was not a problem presented to God that needed solving, a problem which Jesus’ death upon the cross provided the solution for. No, the witness of Holy Scripture demands that we say this: The Creator of the universe is the Lamb who was slain. That is to say, the hour of Christ’s Passion is the hour of Creation.

“When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.” Christ did not end up on the cross by some accident. This was the hour. The hour around which the whole world turns. The hour which is the beginning of history. The hour of the creation of the world. All of this is to say that we cannot think of God apart from Christ Jesus our Lord, crucified and risen. The witness of the apostles and the Fathers of the fourth century following them, “is simply that what we see in Christ, as proclaimed by the apostles, is what it is to be God,” [yet other than the God whom Christ calls upon as Father and makes known through, and is himself made known by, the Holy Spirit] (John Behr). That is to say, “it could not have been otherwise, nor could it now be, for this is how the God of the Christian faith is.” To claim otherwise, to claim that we could think of God apart from Christ crucified, would be to undermine the very gospel itself. Luke has already made it clear on numerous occasions, the Son of Man had to suffer (9.44; 17.25). This is the hour. The betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the mock trial, the turning of the crowds on Jesus, the shouts – our shouts! – “Crucify him! Crucify him!” – all of this, all of our disobedience and faithlessness, all of our complicity in sin which brings him to the cross, our whole sordid history, all the bits we deny to ourselves and to others, all of it is taken up into the saving work of God in Christ, for this is the hour: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” (Is 53.6), “And he was counted among the lawless,” that the scriptures might be fulfilled (Lk 22.37; Is 53.12).

Of course, we only know this from the perspective of the cross. It is only when the crucified and risen Jesus is our starting point that we can see things rightly. Only from the cross can we look back on our life and see the salvation of God in Christ. All of it, every last bit, brought us to Jesus and is gathered up into his eternal life. For in the cross we see the figuration of the love of Christ in all of its breadth, length, depth, and height, the love that surpasses all knowledge, (S Irenaeus). I would encourage you to join us this Holy Week as we journey deeper into the cross that in our weakness we might come to know, ever more fully, the power and love of God as revealed in the mystery of Christ. Amen.

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I would commend the work of Fr. John Behr to my Western brothers and sisters. Behr is in some sense “Western” himself, educated at Oxford and now dean of SVS in New York. I find him very down to earth and less heady than other more recent Orthodox writers and theologians. Here, for example, is a critique of Behr on a more recent theological anthropology that is still in some senses largely unquestioned (!):

“A further modification resulting from putting “premodern” theology in “modern” clothing is that it obscures the person of Christ and his Cross. It became almost the consensus position of theology at the end of the last century that to be in the image of God is to be a person in communion, imaging the three persons in communion in heaven: Christ has been put out of the picture, except insofar as he is one of the persons in communion in heaven. But, the New Testament, and the Fathers following the apostles, are emphatic that Christ alone is the image of God, and that to be in the image of God is to be conformed to his image, by being crucified with him, taking up the Cross.”

Yes!

If you’re looking for somewhere to start with Behr I highly recommend The Mystery of Christ.

“Since he who saves already existed, it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the one who saves should not exist in vain.” – St Irenaeus

 

That is to say, we begin with the Savior. After all, despite some apologetic attempts, one knows nothing of sin until they are confronted with Christ the Savior. Apologetic attempts to convince folks that they are sinners in need of a Savior tend to hold creation and salvation apart as two separate events. However, when we look backwards at creation from Christ the Savior we see that creation and salvation are anything but two distinct actions, they are rather “the continual process of God’s activity in his handiwork, bringing the creature, when he allows himself to be skillfully fashioned, to the stature of the Savior, by whom and for whom all creation has come into being,” (John Behr, The Mystery of Christ, 86).

St Athanasius extends this to the very being of creation. He affirms that creation has been brought into being from nothing; but the creation with which he is concerned is that of the cosmos and of human creatures by the Word of God, “our Savior Jesus Christ”. The world and everything in it was created by our Savior. Furthermore, the reason for the coming of the Word to created being shows us, “that things should not have occurred otherwise than as they are.” Athanasius pushes this to its limit when he asks what God was to do in the face of human apostasy:

“Be silent before such things, and let humans be deceived by demons and be ignorant of God? But then what need would there have been for the human being to have been created in the image from the beginning?…And what advantage would there be to God who made him, or what glory would he have, if humans who had been created by him did not honour him, but thought that others had made them?” (as quoted by Behr, 87).

Athanasius begins with the fact of the revelation of God in Christ and on this basis develops a theology in which Jesus Christ is very truly the beginning and the end. Thus, Paul can speak of our election “before the foundation of the world”. If these statements were to be made in any other way other than retrospectively it would make God into an arbitrary despot, who before creation decides who will be saved and who will not (unfortunately, based on a misunderstanding of God’s providence, there are those who see no problem with this). But when we begin with the fact of the Savior Jesus Christ what else can we conclude but that it is by him and for him that we have been brought into being?

Thus, we are able to see human sinfulness embraced within the whole scriptural economy of God, “in a simultaneous movement of conviction and forgiveness, revealing our fallenness…and yet in the same movement offering us the means by which our brokenness may be healed,” (Behr, 89). Retrospectively then, we can speak of the “Fall” as being “blessed”, and see the “curse” of Adam and Eve as a “blessing”.

When we encounter Christ, the one who called, and calls, us into being and life, we encounter ourselves as sinful creatures. Christ provides the diagnosis of our condition and simultaneously provides the remedy: “The proclamation of the crucified and risen Lord brings together all the brokenness of our life, unifying it, as it were, so that it can now be seen as a whole, recapitulated in a single vision, as our own salvation history in which he has led us to himself,” (Behr, 92).