Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Mark 15:12
Palm Sunday 2015
“Crucify Jesus or release him?”
Over the years I have collected catchy titles that various preachers (mostly Baptist preachers) have used for their Palm Sunday sermons. Here are my two favorites: “Hail him to nail him,” and “Cheering to jeering.” Both of these titles portray the preachers challenge on this day: How to span the entire last week of Jesus’ life, from his palmed entry into Jerusalem through his execution there a week later.
So why, you might wonder, does our lectionary cram a whole eventful week into one Sunday’s readings? This is because — sad but true — most of you won’t return to church until next Sunday, Easter Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. And, if you were to skip church on the three holiest days of the church year, you would go right from Jesus’ joyous entry into Jerusalem to the joy of Jesus’ resurrection, bypassing entirely the first Last Supper, bypassing Jesus’ crucifixion, and bypassing life without Jesus until his return to life on Easter Sunday. In other words, your sermon would be, “Hail him and hail him again,” bypassing the nails and jeers entirely. But life isn’t without nails and jeers, is it?
A few years ago, my colleagues in a nearby Episcopal Church tried a bold experiment on Palm Sunday. They concentrated on that day on Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, stripping out all the references to the rest of the last week of Jesus’ life, hoping thereby to encourage more attendance at Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday services. Alas, their experiment failed—an experiment I won’t repeat.
So today we have the last week of Jesus’ pre-crucifixion life all compacted into our scripture lessons. And the question is where to concentrate our attention: on the hailing or the nailing, on the cheering or the jeering. Well, you may have noticed already where in the narrative I got fixated this week. Did you notice, in the ever-so-familiar story, so ably [enacted | read] today by our Passion Gospel [Readers | Players], that there was a slight bend in the text? Did you notice how Pilate lingered when he asked us whether to release Jesus or to crucify him? Did you notice that you weren’t holding a written script to compel a particular response?
How did that feel to you? Did you yell “crucify him” and then feel guilty? Or maybe YOU cast history aside and yelled “release him.” Why did you respond the way that you did?
I got fixated on this aspect of our gospel lesson by a comment expressed in two of our Bible study groups two weeks ago. The comment—more or less—was that Jesus HAD to die to right the wrong of this world, and that Satan wouldn’t have engineered Jesus’ crucifixion had he known that God would use Jesus’ death to provide for our salvation. In THIS context, would you yell “Crucify him!” or “Release him!”?
We have the advantage of knowing the outcome of the story, don’t we? Maybe we would yell “Release him!”, trusting in God to provide the means of our salvation another way. Maybe we, like those who had to make the original choice, would get caught up in the fervor of the crowd and call “Crucify him!”
Call this a theological thought experiment. The trouble with such experiments is that, while they might be interesting in a historical way, they don’t seem to apply to our lives today. So let me ask my question in yet another way, “Do we, today, participate in Jesus’ crucifixion? If so, HOW do we participate in Jesus’ crucifixion?” And, if not, how do we, today, release Jesus anew, alive, into our world?”
For most of us, our lives are a mix of both hailing and nailing Jesus, of both cheering and jeering him, of both crucifying and releasing him—when we pay the stripped and bleeding Jesus any attention at all:
- We crucify Jesus when we abandon him on the cross and pretend that we don’t know him.
- We crucify Jesus when we fail to understand that he is alive today, in and through us.
- We crucify Jesus when we get fixated on the things of this life much that we forget our life eternal.
- We release Jesus when we receive him in the sacraments, the bread and wine, here at the altar and allow the Jesus we ingest move us to be his hands and feet and heart in our world.
- We release Jesus when we are really present in the lives of others simply because Jesus is alive in our lives.
- We release Jesus when we speak his name and share our faith with others.
Will you crucify Jesus this week, or will you release him?