Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015

As Jesus dies on the cross, the centurion says, “Truly, this man was God’s Son”. We don’t know exactly what made the centurion say this, though Mark says it is the way Jesus died. Perhaps, except for the cry of isolation from God on the cross, Jesus had suffered without complaint. Perhaps the centurion had been around for the trial before Pilate and seen how Jesus had not defended himself, no matter how many charges were laid against him. Perhaps he too, along with Pilate, believed Jesus did not deserve to die. Perhaps the centurion is simply there to be the outsider who identifies Jesus in his suffering and death as the King of the Jews, something no insider in Mark has been able to do. At any rate, his sentence is the crux of the matter. Whether Jesus is the Son of God or not is what has the city in an uproar the entire week. Emotions run high, and reactions are usually extreme. As we have just moved from procession to crucifixion, I invite you to consider what character or characters you might identify with, now or at some time in the past.

We all want to identify with the crowds shouting “Hosanna”. They are sure that Jesus is coming in triumphal procession to Jerusalem, sure that he is the king who will restore Jerusalem to its former glory. They are excited, but they are not aware of the true nature of Jesus coming. Ignorance is truly bliss in this case. They agree with the centurion, but have missed the point that his messiahship will not be shown through violence.

It is Passover week and so the disciples prepare to eat the Passover with Jesus. Jesus says that one of his disciples, one of the twelve, will betray him. This a shock to the disciples; they are appalled that one so close to Jesus might give him up to the authorities. Judas feels justified in what he is doing. He is perhaps highly resentful that Jesus is not going to be the kind of Messiah he wants, that all evidence points to Jesus really encountering the suffering and death he has predicted. Judas has decided that Jesus is not the Son of God and is ready to get rid of him

In Gethsemane, it is Jesus whose is in agony.  He knows he is the Son of God, but he does not want it to have to be in this way. He prays and prays, but at last he accepts the Father’s will, showing his true identity.

Then there is the betrayal and the coming of the high priests minions to arrest Jesus. They come in hostility, with swords and clubs, which Jesus scolds them for. One of the disciples, in an act of bravado, cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus is surely not in favor of this violent act even if it is done in his defense. The thugs from the high priest scare the disciples, who desert Jesus and flee. Jesus once again feels betrayed. If the disciples once believed that Jesus was the Son of God, they don’t any longer. They are too scared for their own lives to even think about those things.

The scene at the high priest’s house brings more emotion. The religious leaders, unable to get testimony to convict Jesus ask him directly if he is the Son of God. He is resolute in his determination to follow God’s will, so he tells them that he is. The high priest is incensed and tears his clothes. He and the council agree that Jesus must die. He is beaten by the guards, who, with their masters do not believe that Jesus is Son of God.

At the same time Jesus is making the announcement of his sonship, Peter is in the courtyard, denying any knowledge of Jesus. Peter, who had confessed Jesus as God’s Son, now does not want to be counted among those who agree with that sentiment, which is almost no one at this point.

The scene in Pilate’s residence portrays a mass of confusing emotions. Pilate doesn’t know whether Jesus is the Son of God or not. The words he uses are King of the Jews. He knows Jesus is not guilty of the charges brought against him and wants to release him. But the chief priests stir up the crowds to ask for Barabbas to be freed instead of him. Pilate, now afraid of a riot and of his inability to control it, gives Jesus over to be crucified, still confused about his identity.

Color Pilate’s guards contemptuous. They mock Jesus by putting robes on him and a crown of thorns, then hail him as king before stripping him and putting his own clothes back on him. “The Son of God, the King of the Jews,” they are thinking, “We don’t believe that nonsense for a minute”.

Then there is the cross, where people deride him and insist that he come down from the cross so they can believe in him. Jesus, who has increasingly shown no emotion as the emotions of others have escalated, whether in fear or in scorn, now shows great emotion in his cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Increasingly isolated from his supporters who run off or change their tune, he is at last left without even the sense of God with him. Maybe he even wonders if he is the Son of God or not.

The story of Palm Sunday is an emotional one. We get to play the part of the crowd who one day is hailing Jesus and a few days later is screaming for his crucifixion. People have told me they don’t like the Palm Sunday reading for this reason. They would never say “Crucify him.” But we do. We may not yell it out, but every time we try to take control of our own lives instead of putting them in God’s hands that is what we are doing. We don’t want Jesus around. This is our story as much as those who were there. But there are other points of view represented in the reading. What has it been like in your life to be confused about whether Jesus is Son of God or not? What about resentment that Jesus is not the God you want God to be, but is one that allows people to do what they wish, sometimes resulting in pain and suffering for many undeserving human beings. And have you felt what Jesus felt – the fear, the isolation, the suffering?

The centurion brought home the point that it was in his death that Jesus showed himself to be Son of God, dying for love of human beings to bring reconciliation and the kingdom of God. This is just the beginning of Holy Week. There are services on Maundy Thursday, where Jesus institutes the Eucharist and gives the great commandment. There is Good Friday, when we remember with mingled joy and grief Jesus’ self-giving on the Cross. Don’t skip from Palm Sunday procession to Easter without going through what Jesus went through. The crucifixion is the cornerstone of our faith and it deserves our close attention. We need to see what the disciples saw in the upper room, what the centurion saw on the cross – Jesus great love for us. Don’t miss these moments. Ponder them in your hearts, and your Easter will be that much more joyful.


     - Rev. Ann Barker