Palm Sunday is one of those times when the liturgy preaches far more eloquently than I can. If we truly see and hear what today’s worship proclaims, we will walk away astonished, slack-jawed at what we’ve witnessed. So rather than trying to explain a theology of the atonement; rather than examining Roman imperialism and the religious power structure in Second-Temple Judaism; rather than trying in any other way to make rational sense of the events we’re bringing into living memory this morning – instead, I’d like us to consider two simple questions: Who is this man, and why is he dying on a cross?
And I’d like us to put a face on the person who might be asking those questions. I’d like you to imagine her now. Her name is Chelsea, and she isn’t anyone you know … or she’s many people you know. And this anecdote about Chelsea is a true story. As Emmanuel Cleaver likes to say, it’s a true story, and it may have actually happened, too.
Chelsea walks into Macy’s, shopping for Easter. She’s looking for an outfit for her little girl because the family is getting together for Easter brunch, and it’s a longstanding tradition in her family to get something new and springy to wear that day. But Chelsea also wants to find something for herself; after all, moms deserve a little something special for a holiday, too. So she comes to the jewelry counter. Since they’re getting together for Easter, she thinks it might be nice to get a new cross necklace.
So Chelsea starts looking at the crosses … dozens of them, it seems. Every possible style you could imagine – gold and silver, ornate and plain, traditional and contemporary, fine and rough. Who knew you could find so many different crosses? The sales associate comes over, offering to help – “Do you know what kind of cross you’re looking for?” Chelsea examines the options and sees that, even with all the variety, they fall into two basic categories. “Well,” Chelsea says, “let’s start by narrowing it down this way. I’d like one with the little man on it.”
I’ve heard this story told to bemoan the religious ignorance of our culture today. But there is no shame in not knowing something. The only shame would be if we had nothing to offer Chelsea in reply.
So: Who is this little man, and why is he dying on a cross? I can see why Chelsea might look for those answers. She’d be in good company. Everybody in today’s Passion Gospel is asking those questions, too. The Roman governor, the religious authorities, the soldiers, the passersby – everyone’s trying to get a handle on those questions: Who is this man, and why is he dying on a cross?
What would we say? Well, if I know anything about theology, I know there is no single way to answer those questions. But here’s my answer, at least.
In one sense, this man is Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish peasant and itinerant preacher who’s been alienating himself from his own religious leaders by questioning their authority and undermining their credibility with the people they’re supposed to lead. He keeps pointing out how they’re missing the mark by worshipping their religious system more than following God – a God who’s much more interested in seeing people fed, clothed, healed, and forgiven than in seeing people follow religious rules.
Not surprisingly, Jesus has gained quite a following. And that’s brought him to the attention of the Roman authorities – especially when he marches into the capital city with the crowd calling him king and calling out to him to “save us,” which is what that cry “Hosanna!” actually means (Matthew 21:9). Jesus is a threat to everyone in power, religious and civic rulers alike; and starting a riot in the Temple only seals his fate. He’s whipped within an inch of his life and then crucified – a ghastly way to be executed, reserved for the lowest of the low, intended to terrorize anybody else who might think about challenging imperial authority. So he hangs on a cross, along with two lowlifes, until he suffocates.
That’s one way to see who this man is and why he’s dying on a cross. But Jesus is so much more than that. This man dying on the cross is there to rule and heal the very people who are killing him.
All through the story we heard this morning, he’s named as “king.” The chief priests and religious elders accuse him of it. The governor interrogates him about it and even presents him to the crowd as “the messiah” (Matthew 27:17), which means the one anointed by God to rule God’s people. The soldiers dress him up as the emperor, complete with a fake imperial scepter and a wreath of thorns instead of laurel on his head. Even the official charge nailed to the cross ironically proclaims the God’s-honest truth – this is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.
And that’s only scratching the surface. The religious authorities also speak the truth they can’t abide. As Jesus hangs on the cross, gasping for air, they mock him by calling him “Son of God” (Matthew 27:40), the historic title for the divinely chosen kings of Israel. They challenge him to save himself, this man whose very name, Jesus, means “he saves.” They say they’ll believe in him, if God actually bothers to show up.
And here’s the greatest irony: As is so often the case in our own hearts, the reality they most reject is the deepest truth there is. Everybody’s working so hard to deny that Jesus is king and deny that Jesus is divine because, deep down, they’re all terrified it’s true. Only the emperor could be called kyrios, or Lord – the incarnation of divine power on earth. Only the religious hierarchy could command the people how to live. Imperial power and religious power must be unquestioned … unless, of course, God actually shows up in the flesh.
But the journalist on the scene tells the truth. As the Lord and king takes his final breath, the earth shakes, and rocks split, and the Temple’s barrier between people and God is torn in two. And the Centurion, the reporter doing the live shot, names what he sees, with no filters: “Truly, this man was God’s son!” (Matthew 27:54).
So who is this little man on the cross? Jesus, the insurrectionist? No, Jesus the kyrios, the Lord – the true emperor and the true embodiment of God among us. We know it precisely because he doesn’t claim it. He doesn’t need to. This is the One – the one who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself … [and] humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). And in God’s inverted economy, where power is weakness and weakness is power, God reverses humiliation into exaltation, giving him the “name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9), so that we all might see and know the truth: that this little man on the cross, this Jesus, is the Lord – the ruler anointed to follow the great Jewish king David, the emperor who trumps whichever clown sits on the imperial throne in Rome. This little man on the cross is God in the flesh – torn and bleeding flesh – come to bind up and heal every wound we bear. This little man on the cross breathes the Holy Spirit as he gasps for his final breath. This little man on the cross holds his arms out wide to speak this astonishing truth to the world that wants God dead: “See how much I love you?” he says. “I love you this much.” [Arms extended in cruciform shape]