Palm Sunday.  March 25, 2018.  St. Francis’, Gainesville

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

I think almost any verse of the Passion according to St. Matthew can serve as an entrance into the whole story.  With a little thought we find that almost every detail of our Lord’s Passion suggests the whole event.  I would like to show you this by considering briefly one of the basic points of the Passion:  that our Lord achieved our salvation by substituting himself for us.  He put himself in our place and took upon himself the punishment we deserved for our sins.  The only truly innocent human being in history suffered as if he were guilty, and so paid the debt owed by our race and ended ‘Satan’s power and Satan’s sway’.  This idea of substitu­tion, if you look carefully, runs like a thread through the Passion.

Matthew’s Passion begins with Judas returning the thirty pieces of silver to the priests.  Judas is stricken with remorse — with a remorse that leads, not to repentance and amendment of life, but to the ultimate sin, which is despair.  So Judas returns ‘the price of blood’, and with it the priests buy the potter’s field, also called the field of blood, to bury strangers in.  The Passion begins with a price paid.  Our Lord’s Passion brings every human being benefit.  Even Judas profits in a way, though he cannot enjoy his profit because of his sin.  Our Lord’s cross pays in full a price to God, the price of Adam’s sin and of every single sin committed by every person since humanity began.  At the beginning of Genesis Cain kills his brother Abel in a field of blood.  Here in Matthew’s Passion is new field, paid for by the price of our Lord’s blood, to bury strangers, people without a home, people who would come to Jerusalem to die.  One field of blood is substituted for another.  One righteous victim, our Lord, replaces another, righteous Abel.  Abel’s blood, shed in the first field, we are told, cried out for vengeance to God.  Our Lord’s blood, whose price buys the new field, will cry better things; it will cry mercy for us.  A verse from the hymn, ‘Glory be to Jesus’, which the American hymnal unfortunately omits puts this point this way:

Abel’s blood for vengeance

                              Pleaded to the skies;

                    But the Blood of Jesus

                              For our pardon cries.

In the next great scene of Matthew’s Passion, we see our Lord substituted for Barabbas, whom Matthew calls a ‘notable prisoner’, and whom we learn elsewhere was a rebel and a murderer.  The innocent Jesus is substituted for the guilty Barabbas upon the cross.  The name ‘Barabbas’ means in Hebrew ‘son of the father’.  Barabbas stands for every son of God, for every man and woman, for all of those guilty since the beginning of Adam’s rebellion and Cain’s murder.  Rebels go free because the one and only obedient Son of God does not go free.  Our Lord dies to save us from our sins and rebellions against God, so that we might become sons of the Father in a new and better way.  The true and perfect Son of God dies for the sake of his guilty brothers and sisters, Barabbases all, so that we might become God’s redeemed children of grace.  Christ becomes the saving victim opening wide the gate of heaven to man below, to Barabbas and to you and to me.

After Barabbas is released, our Lord is next stripped and arrayed in a royal, scarlet robe, crowned with thorns, and mocked by the soldiers, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’  A bit later the soldiers will take our Lord’s robes and cast lots for them.  Here our Lord is mocked and set at naught, but beneath the scorn and the torture, Christians see the atoning substitution.  The Biblical parallel again is in Genesis.  Remember that Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, was envied by his brothers for his coat of many colors.  The brothers seized Joseph and sold him into slavery in Egypt.  Then they soaked his coat of many colors in the blood of an animal to convince their father, Jacob, that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast.  The brothers intended mischief and evil, but God used their evil and their brother, Joseph, as his providenti­al instrument to deliver Israel from famine.  Joseph’s coat of many colors was soon replaced by Pharaoh, who clothed Joseph in his own royal clothes when he made him the grand vizier of Egypt.  In Matthew’s Passion the soldiers unintention­ally, like Joseph’s brothers, save the people by attacking the Father’s favorite Son.  The scarlet robe of the Passion replaces the coat of many colors and the clothes of Pharaoh in Genesis.  Once against a Father’s favorite son will seem to die, but later will be wonderfully restored to his father.  God again will save many alive by turning evil into good, by turning the suffering of an innocent man into the instrument of mercy.

Our Lord is not the only one who substitutes for another in this Passion.  On the way to Calvary, a man named Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross for a time, since our Lord, in his weakened state, is not able.  This substitution shows us our part in the Passion.  Our Lord bore our sins.  Every unkindness, every bit of vicious gossip, every infidelity, every grumble, every disobedi­ence, every Sunday skipped, every mean and wicked thing we do, every duty left undone, is a nail to wound our Lord’s hands and feet.  Every sin advances the spear thrust into his side.  Every evil pierces his heart.  Every wickedness is a thorn pressed down upon his head.  Every indifference is a scourge.  He bears our transgressions to save us from ourselves.  But this fruit of Christ’s victory for us is not given to us unconditionally.  We must take up our cross and follow him daily.  We must join Simon of Cyrene by walking the way of the cross in union with our Lord.  Our Lord died for us, so we must live and die for him.  Our Lord bore the cross for us, so we must take it up and follow him.  Our Lord was crucified for us, so we must crucify our sins for him.

You were taught, I suppose, in Sunday school as I was that we our Christ’s hands and feet in this world.  That is a sound and true teaching, which means much the same as Simon’s bearing of the cross:  that as Christ substitutes for us, so we must follow and substitute for him.  But perhaps you have not thought this idea out to its conclusion:  if we are Christ’s hands and feet, then we will be nailed to a cross and wounded; we will be raised by God’s power to be sure, but even raised we will bear the scars of our wounds.  We bring God’s offer of healing to the world, as our Lord’s Body and continuing presence in the world.  But we are wounded healers, scarred, as was and is our Lord, by the battle against the world, the devil, and the flesh.  On Easter our Lord’s scars are but a minor part of the story — a cause, in truth, of greater joy, since they prove the reality of the Resurrection to doubting Thomas — but in Holy Week it is fitting that we dwell for a time on the price paid for our redemption, on the cost to Christ of his substitution for us, and on the pains of the Passion.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

2 thoughts on “Palm Sunday sermon 2018

  1. While I do not think the cross is optional, if substitution implies that God could not forgive us otherwise, I could not accept it. If it is the way God chose to redeem us out of other possible ways, it makes sense. The atonement is more of a mystery to me rather than something that can be dogmatically defined.


    1. I do think God might have said, as it were, ‘Let them be saved,’ and we would have been saved. I don’t think we can say what God could not do, apart from the principle of non-contradiction. I do think the fact that God chose to save us in a fashion most costly to himself is significant. I do not in a sermon intend to assert too much theological definition about the atonement, but do think it is impossible to read Saint Matthew’s Passion without noticing the theme of substitution. In general, I think we are in agreement.


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