There was a great picture going around the Internet of Francis right after he was announced as Pope and vested in his white cassock and zucchetto, the Christian version of the yarmulke. The Conclave had ended and the bus pulled up to return the Cardinals to their residences while a limo pulled up to take the new Pope to his. Francis waved off the limo and climbed on the bus with the Cardinals and a picture was taken of him from behind. What you see his white zucchetto in a busload of red ones. An informal scene of Francis chillin with his homeys. This first act of humility on his part gives hope that he will guide the Roman Church in a godly direction. It was a small act but actions matter.
Jesus was preaching a similar sermon when He entered Jerusalem on the back of a borrow colt. The people had no doubt seen conquering heroes before. Both Jewish and Roman history was replete with them. But they had never seen a conquering hero like this one. A King on the back of a donkey? The image that He was painting by this action could not be more obvious. As He would demonstrate in a few days with the washing of the disciples’ feet, He had not come to conquer and to impose His will like some Roman prefect. He had not come to be served but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many.
On this Palm Sunday we join our voices with the crowds that hailed Him as King and we add our Hosannas to theirs. But on this day we read also of Peter’s denial of Jesus and of the crowd, perhaps the same crowd that cried Hosanna, now crying “Give us Barabbas.” We would like to think that we are stronger than Peter and less fickle than the crowd, but when things get quiet and we take an honest look within….if we were there, would we really have acted differently? Let me bring this closer to home. It’s much easier for me to blame the Jews or the Romans for killing Jesus than it is to admit that it was Ray Kasch who killed Him, but since it was for my sins that He died, I am far from guiltless. This is the collect that is prayed at Station 8 of the Stations of the Cross. “O Lord Jesus, we mourn and will mourn for thee and for ourselves, for thy sufferings and for the sins that caused them. O teach us so to mourn that we may be comforted, and escape those judgments prepared for all who reject thee.”
So if you find this liturgy today pulling you in two directions, from Hosanna to Crucify Him, then you are not being confused, you are entering Holy Week. I once was an assistant to a priest who really understood liturgy and also had a lot of money. He had a personal sacristy that most churches would love to have. On Palm Sunday he would begin the liturgy in a bright festival red vestment but at the offertory change into a deep ox blood vestment to take the congregation visually from celebration to passion.
That said, what are we to take away from today? Is Holy Week intended to be one long guilt trip before Easter? Absolutely not! Even in Holy Week there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. But saying that there is no condemnation is not the same thing as saying we do not have a need to enter into His passion. St. Paul prayed, “That I may know Him, the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering, being conformed to His death.” But how do we do that? What would it look like for us to fellowship in His sufferings and be conformed to His death? I submit to you that St. Paul gave a very practical answer to this lesson that we just heard in his letter to Philippi. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross.”
We join Christ’s passion when we stop grasping, when we empty ourselves, when we take the form of a servant. This brings about not a literal death, but a death to self that results in a new life in Him, which is the only life worth living.
So, stop grasping. The desires are so strong within us that we believe it to be human nature to demand that things be fair, to demand respect, to demand that we are given honor for our worth. Parts of our culture even inflate these ideals. I have heard that some states have instituted self-worth campaigns where, for example, every kid on a team gets a trophy whether the team wins or not because in their eyes everyone is a winner. That kind of thinking is foreign to me. I certainly wasn’t raised that way nor did I raise my kids that way. When my son was playing peewee baseball, just to encourage him to do his best, I told him that every time he struck out an angel died. Okay, maybe I was not that harsh but I was far more interested in building his character than in inflating his ego, and ego is all it is when we think that respect is something we can demand rather than something we earn.
Jesus showed us a better way. If ever there was someone who could demand respect it was Jesus. He absolutely was equal with God but instead of grasping at that position, He became a servant. And we need to be eternally grateful that He did. As one commentator put it, “Had he come into the world emphasizing his equality with God, the world would have been amazed but not saved.” (Vincent’s Word Studies, p.432). What a thought! So following Jesus, we are not to be graspers. God will exalt us in due time, we are not to exalt ourselves.
Next St. Paul tells us that Jesus emptied Himself. Please allow me to slip into a bit of theology here because it is too important to pass by. I have read a few sermons that seem to imply that in order to become fully man, what Jesus emptied Himself of, was His divine attributes. So, for example, He had to stop being all knowing, in order to become a man with limited knowledge. That sounds good on the surface but it falls apart under closer scrutiny. God’s divine attributes are more than what He does, they are who He is. So if God were to empty Himself of His divine attributes, He would in essence ungod Himself. That He cannot or would not do. What Jesus emptied Himself of then was His glory, His divine privilege as God, hence the not grasping. But while Jesus was fully man, the mystery is that He was also fully God. That is how He could to the miracles that He did, including how He could know ahead of time that when the disciples entered the village they would find a colt tied up and that they would be questioned as they untied it. We cannot have Jesus emptying Himself of His divinity in order to obey His Father any more than Jesus has us empty ourselves of our humanity in order to obey Him. The Jesus that St. Paul preached, that we declare every Sunday in the Creed was both fully God and fully man.
So if Jesus emptied Himself of His divine privileges, and we are called to follow His pattern, what does that look like for us? Years ago I was approached by a couple to perform their marriage. She was an Episcopalian and he was Armenian Orthodox and they wanted to know if an Armenian Orthodox priest could participate in the service with me. I agreed and after I planned the liturgy, giving the other priest most of the speaking parts, I called him long distance, somewhere up north, to discuss the ceremony. After I laid it out for him, he complained that his part was too small. When I pointed out that all I was doing was what I was required to do, that is the vows and blessing, and that most of the speaking parts were his, he still objected. He said to me, “I am way too important to come all that way down there just to have such a small part.” To which I said, “I guess you are too important” and I called the couple and had them find another priest.
Let me say that all other Orthodox priests I have met have been just the opposite but that particular priest was a model of what it meant to NOT to empty yourself. What should he have done instead? He should have emptied himself of his pride and understood that it was a privilege for the couple to have asked him to participate and he should have been happy to do anything asked of him. Again, remember, our Master was a foot washer.
We have some wonderful models of this right here in our own parish. Get to know the leaders and participants of various ministries at St. Patrick’s, everyone from our Senior Warden to our youngest acolytes, and you will discover Christians who do not consider themselves too important to do whatever is asked of them. They do this not out of some kind of cultish loyalty but because they take their discipleship seriously and when the Lord has need of them then they respond. That is a very practical way in which we empty ourselves.
We also enter into Jesus’ passion when we become servants who walk in obedience. Jesus Himself demonstrated that is not an easy thing to do. Recall how the night before He was crucified, He wrestled with what the Father was asking Him to do. He even asked if there was any other way to let this cup pass from Him. But in the end Jesus said, “Thy will be done.” He was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
St. Paul in many of his letters identifies himself as a servant of Christ Jesus. Actually he often uses the Greek word for “slave”, which carries with it less dignity than even the idea of a servant. He was a man who did not grasp and had emptied himself and because of this he was a man of great authority and did immeasurable good for the kingdom of God. We too, in whatever ministry or capacity we are called in Christ’s Body are to be first and foremost, servants like Christ.
One last thought about what we have come here today to commemorate. As we meditate on the events of this week, let it highlight for us the grace of God from beginning to end. This grace comes into clearer focus when realize that just as Christ knew about the colt that the disciples would find, He also knew of the people’s fickleness and how they would turn on Him and yet He rode into Jerusalem as their King. He knew that Judas would betray Him and yet invited Judas to the Last Supper. He knew that Peter would deny Him and yet He asked Peter to watch and pray with Him in the Garden. He spent over three years teaching and revealing Himself to the apostles, knowing that in His final hours they would leave Him and go into hiding for fear of the Jews. But none of all of that faithlessness was enough to make Him stop loving them.
This says to me that we can call upon that same grace that He offered the others. He who forgave His executioners from the cross saying, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do” can surely be trusted to forgive and restore us who are called by His Name when we have failed and fallen short, even though we do it every day. When St. Paul said in Romans that nothing could separate us from his love, the Apostle meant nothing. So as we enter into this sacred week, and we face the reality of His death on our behalf, and we even hear God reproach of us on Good Friday, we must keep in constant focus that what we are hearing is not the wrath of an angry god but the call to come home from a Father who loves us with an everlasting love. Amen.