Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Palm Sunday 2016

Luke 19.28–40
Isaiah 50:4-7
Philippians 2:6-11
Luke 22.14 - 23.56

Palm Sunday is a shocker, and it’s meant to be. The sudden dramatic turn. We know it’s in the gospels of course but the liturgy of Holy Week allows us to experience it more holistically. There’s a difference between reading a Shakespeare play out of the book, and going to a performance; and there’s another difference between going to a performance and being one of the actors.
Holy Week catches us up in the action. These are the mysteries of our salvation. “Mysteries” in ancient times meant not a puzzle to be solved but something that opens up to us new depths of consciousness that mere brain work can’t reach. This was what the mystery religions of the ancient world were about, or the Christian “mystery plays” of the middle ages.
The mysteries of Christ, which we participate in this week, are the great dramatic turn of human history. Everything we ever thought is challenged, the way things have always been is undermined and undone. It’s as though the backdrop to the stage suddenly starts falling apart and we see a new and different scene coming through.
The old scene was one of tragedy, sin and death, enacted in countless human lives and conflicts from the beginning. The new scene that comes breaking through all that is life and love, tragedy broken open with the sudden unexpected possibility of redemption.
In today’s part of the story the tragedy seems to reach its most definitive and final expression: the crucifixion of the Son of God, the ultimate rejection of him who is ultimate goodness. But even here we can see the cracks in the old scene appearing. And some of those cracks appear in the details that only Luke tells us about.
Firstly, he alone of the gospel writers tells us of Pilate sending Jesus to Herod. Luke has perhaps the sharpest political view of the evangelists: he paints the whole world order as being under the power of the devil and in need of redemption.
So all the “powers that be” have to be shown colluding in the condemnation of Jesus. These are the religious authorities based in the temple, the Roman Empire which governed Judea directly through Pontius Pilate, and the devolved authority in Galilee under Herod Antipas. All of these join forces to reject the possibility of love that has come among them in the person of Jesus. It’s no accident that Herod and Pilate have been at enmity but become friends when they join together in condemning Jesus. This is how human society has always saved itself from rivalrous divisions, by finding a convenient scapegoat to unite against. So Luke is uncompromising in painting the old backdrop of tragedy: the whole world is complicit in sin and death.
But Luke, as he often does, also draws our attention to people on the margins, for it is there that the old scenery of tragedy first begins to crumble and the Kingdom of God breaks in.
So he tells us about the women of Jerusalem, weeping for Jesus, and his last prophecy, given to them, of the fall of Jerusalem that will come about 40 years later.  The authorities who have condemned Jesus imagine that his death will deflect the violence that threatens Jerusalem; Jesus knows better. The authorities are blind to this, but the women may understand.
Then, as he is being crucified, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Again it is only Luke who tells us this, he draws our attention to the soldiers carrying out this brutal task and, doubtless, brutalised themselves. Perhaps the only way they can forget that their victims are human is to forget that they are, too. But Jesus prays for them, so that in Luke’s story the recognition of the centurion after he dies, “this was an innocent man”, becomes a kind of fruit of that prayer. Even brutalised torturers can be saved. The old scenery is breaking up, even among those whose job it is to keep it going.
Luke is also the only Gospel writer who notices the penitent robber. Here is one who in the world’s eyes counts for nothing at all. Scum of the earth, get rid of him, it’s what he deserves. But this most marginal figure, this criminal dying on a Roman cross, makes one of the most powerful and moving statements of faith in the gospels: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”.
What faith! The faith to see that Jesus really is a king, but of an altogether different kind from Herod and Caesar. The faith that Jesus is in truth about to come into his kingdom, whatever appearances might say. And the faith in this robber to realise that the whole way he has been living his life is wrong, is founded on a lie, that he has been in slavery to sin and death. But faith also that it is never too late, faith to turn to Jesus with nothing to offer, nothing to bargain with, simply to ask, “remember me”, because faith tells him that this Jesus, this king, will indeed remember, will never reject any who turn to him, even at the final moment.
And it is to him that Jesus makes the tremendous promise, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Today the old scenery of tragedy that has led you wrong all your life will collapse and dissolve and pass away, and you will enter into the new reality of life and love that is the truth, because it is what God is like, and what God is calling us to.
This is the drama enacted this week. The greatest reversal, the defeat of tragedy and death when they seemed triumphant, the breaking through of life and love, not founded at all on anything we can bring or bargain with but solely on the gratuitous love and generosity of God made known in Jesus Christ.
As we know, by our baptism we are adopted in Christ as children of God, we become part of the new humanity redeemed in him. But this gift is as it were a seed that needs to grow and be nourished through our whole lives as Christians. This nourishment comes to us through prayer, sacrament, study of the scriptures and the liturgy, the annual cycle through which we enact the mysteries of Christ so that they become real in us.

The liturgy of Holy Week is the most dramatic of the year, and offers us an intensity and depth that we could not sustain all the time. Just for these few days the floodgates of the liturgy are opened up and grace and transformation can come flooding through. Because the drama enacted this week on the stage of Jerusalem is the same drama enacted in us by grace: the old scenery of tragedy and sin and death crumbles and falls away, and the new reality comes bursting in, life and love and light in Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns now and for ever.

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