I am among you as one who serves.
In abstract – in general, we can get our heads around this idea. Sure, Jesus is one who serves. Jesus washes feet. Jesus touches the leper. Jesus heals a sick child. Jesus provides food for the hungry crowd. In the abstract – in general we can get our heads around this idea.
Many of you will be familiar with Mark Twain’s novel, The Prince and the Pauper – and if not familiar with the novel itself, you will be familiar with one of the many television programs or movies or stage plays that have retold that classic tale. Two young men, through a chance encounter, discover that they look almost impossibly alike – yet they come from dramatically different worlds. The one is a prince, heir to the throne and to great power and wealth. The other lives in poverty, among the poorest of the poor. The look-alikes as you will recall, decide to exchange places for a time – and as that wonderful little phrase goes, hijinks ensue. Each is more than a little lost in the other’s world. Each takes more than a few days to find his bearing in a world that functions according to a different set of rules. The pauper doesn’t know which fork to use at a royal dinner. The prince doesn’t know how to respond to the violence or injustice to which he is treated.
A sermon preached today, Good Friday. In this sermon I largely follow the account of Jesus’ work and Jesus’ self-understanding as this is set out by N.T. Wright in his book Jesus and the Victory of God.
Approach the cross that is set before you on a hillside. Lift up your hands and feel the roughness of the wood against your fingers and your palms. This is not the lovely, sanded and varnished cross of a Christian sanctuary – this cross is coarse, weighty with grief. Run your fingers over the dark purple stains that mark the heavy knotted planks. See there on the ground the nails that pierced flesh – pick them up and feel their weight in your hand – the cold iron as cold as death itself, as cold as the grave that now holds him.
What is it you feel as you trace your hands over wood and feel the weight of nails?
You feel the reality and pain of exile. Exile. The people of Israel lived in exile in Babylon for generations – they were sent from their homes, sent from their land, split from their families. They were far from the land, the temple, the city, that made them who they were as the children of God. Of course their exile in Babylon was an event of the past in Jesus day, for they had returned to the Promised Land. Yet they live in exile still. The exile continues. Now they live under the imperial power of Rome in their own land – they live in their own land yet they are not free to embrace their identity and control their future. The exile is over but they are still waiting for an end to exile. They are waiting for one who will lead them out of exile, out of bondage and oppression.
What is it that you feel as you trace your hands over rough wood and feel the weight of nails? You feel the pain of exile. For Jesus enters fully into the exile of Israel. He enters fully also into your exile and my exile. For exile is the lot of the human. Exile is God’s judgment on human sin. We turned or back on God and God’s way, and exile is the price we pay.
Today is a day of paradox – a day of tension.
And the tension of this day comes from the fact that the church calendar lets us choose between two different themes or liturgies for today.
Is it to be the Liturgy of the Passion? Do we focus on the suffering of Jesus?
Or, is it to be the Liturgy of the Palms? Do we focus on the triumphal entry?
If you look at the purple insert that we read together at the beginning of worship today you see at the top it says Palm – slash- Passion Sunday. So we have to ask: Which is it to be? What do we mark today? To what part of Jesus’ story do we turn our gaze?
Passion or Palm?