01 April 2012

Sermon for Palm Sunday: Caught In The Act

Mark 12:1–34, 14.1-2
Jesus spoke to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the winepress, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. 2 When it was time, he sent a servant to collect from the tenants his share of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 But they grabbed the servant, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Again the landowner sent another servant to them, but they struck him on the head and treated him disgracefully. 5 He sent another one; that one they killed. The landlord sent many other servants, but the tenants beat some and killed others. 6 Now the landowner had one son whom he loved dearly. He sent him last, thinking, They will respect my son. 7 But those tenant farmers said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 They grabbed him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
9 So what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Haven’t you read this scripture, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. 11 The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes?
12 They wanted to arrest Jesus because they knew that he had told the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd, so they left him and went away.
13 They sent some of the Pharisees and supporters of Herod to trap him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “ Teacher, we know that you’re genuine and you don’t worry about what people think. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not? ”
15 Since Jesus recognized their deceit, he said to them, “ Why are you testing me? Bring me a coin. Show it to me. 16 And they brought one. He said to them, “ Whose image and inscription is this?
“ Caesar’s, ” they replied.
17 Jesus said to them, “ Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. ” His reply left them overcome with wonder.
18 Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection, came to Jesus and asked, 19 “ Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies , leaving a widow but no children, the brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman; when he died, he left no children. 21 The second married her and died without leaving any children. The third did the same. 22 None of the seven left any children. Finally, the woman died. 23 At the resurrection, when they all rise up, whose wife will she be? All seven were married to her. ”
24 Jesus said to them, “ Isn’t this the reason you are wrong, because you don’t know either the scriptures or God’s power? 25 When people rise from the dead, they won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like God’s angels. 26 As for the resurrection from the dead, haven’t you read in the scroll from Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God said to Moses, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? 27 He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. You are seriously mistaken.
28 One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “ Which commandment is the most important of all? ”
29 Jesus replied, “ The most important one is ‘Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, 30 and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself .’ No other commandment is greater than these.
32 The legal expert said to him, “ Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices. ”
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “ You aren’t far from God’s kingdom. ” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.
It was two days before Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and legal experts through cunning tricks were searching for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. 2 But they agreed that it shouldn’t happen during the festival; otherwise, there would be an uproar among the people.

Through the centuries since the death and resurrection of Jesus, there have been many competing theories of atonement.  “Atonement” is a word used to describe a re-connecting and reconciling between two parties – it literally means “At-one-ment.”  For Christians, “atonement” refers to the way that human beings are reconciled and re-connected with God, particularly through the crucifixion of Jesus. 
            The earliest theory is Moral Influence, taught in the early church, suggesting that the example Jesus sets in his life, teachings, submission to death and resurrection compels us to improve ourselves, thus making us one with God.  Another is Ransom theory, in which Jesus submits himself to Satan as a ransom to pay for the sins of Christians.  A close relative to Ransom theory is Christus Victor, in which Jesus fights, and wins, a spiritual battle with Satan for humans of all time and places.  Satisfaction theory was taught by the 11th century theologian Anselm of Canterbury – satisfaction theory suggests that sin is such an offense against a sovereign God that some punishment must be meted out for God’s honor to be satisfied.  The reformers taught that Jesus died as a penal substitute for God’s people; Jesus took the punishment for sin upon himself rather than allow us to bear it. 
            There’s a problem with all of this, of course.  The problem is that it hoists the blame for the cross on powers outside of ourselves.  As my Lutheran Confessions professor Gerhard Forde once wrote, “the fatal flaw in most thinking about the atoning work of Christ is the tendency to look away from the actual events, translate them into “eternal truths,” and thus to ignore or obscure what actually happened and our part in it. We interpret Christ’s death as though it were an idea, a necessary part of a logical scheme of some sort, as though God were tied to a scheme of honor or justice making him the obstacle to our reconciliation. We exonerate ourselves, so to speak, by blaming the necessity for the cross on God.”[1]
            Look at our gospel readings for tonight and this is evident.  We often pass over the readings following the triumphal entry as if they matter little, when actually they tell us much.  In Mark’s gospel Jesus spends the days after Palm Sunday teaching about love, about forgiveness, about the impermanence of human institutions and the worthless nature of sacrifice without repentance, of sin without confession.  Jesus attacked the powers that be: Caesar, the church, legalistic self-righteousness, and insisted that in the kingdom of God, love, mercy and forgiveness matter far more than purity, exclusion and self-righteousness.  He offended many.  He comforted many more.  But the simple fact of the matter is, when Jesus ended up on the cross a few short days after the triumphal entry, it wasn’t God, Satan or his moral excellence that put him there: it was sinful humanity rejecting his authority to actually do what he taught. 
            Again, Forde:
“But why did we kill him? It was, I expect we must say, a matter of “self-defense.” Jesus came not just to teach about the mercy and forgiveness of God but actually to do it, to have mercy and to forgive unconditionally. It is an act, not an idea. That is his “work.” That is the New Testament. He came to do “what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). Now we are, no doubt, quite open, generally, to the idea of mercy and forgiveness in God and his “heaven,” but actually doing it here for God is quite another matter—especially if it is the absolutely free and unconditional having mercy and forgiving of the sovereign God who ups and has mercy on whom he will have mercy! How can one actually do that here? How can this world survive, how can we survive if mercy and forgiveness are just given unconditionally? The idea is nice, but what shall we do with one who actually eats with traitors, whores, outcasts, and riff-raff of every sort and just blows away our protests by saying, “They that are whole need not a physician. but they that are sick”? Actually doing it, giving it unconditionally just seems to us terribly reckless and dangerous. It shatters the “order” by which we must run things here.
We should make no mistake about it. One who comes actually to have mercy and to forgive in God’s name is just an absolute and total threat to the way we have decided we must run things here. So either Jesus must go or we must. But how can we—mere dying beings—surrender all our plans and gains to him? So Jesus is “wasted” as an intruder. He is crucified between two other rebels against the order of the age, a thief and an insurrectionist. But Jesus is ultimately the most dangerous because his opposition is total; he gives unconditional forgiveness. He has the crazy conviction that such unconditional saving mercy is what God and his “Kingdom” are all about, and that it is the true destiny of human beings which will make them new and pure and whole and won’t ultimately hurt them at all. He seems to think that there actually is “a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God”! In short, Jesus is most dangerous because he actually believes in God and his Kingdom, and because he himself realizes it, does it among us. To consent to that would mean (just as he said!) for us to lose the life we have so carefully hoarded. So he must go. It is a matter of self- defense.[2]
Why did Jesus have to die?  Because he delivered what he promised.  The kingdom of God broke into the world through him.  And through us, forgiven sinners all, the kingdom continues to break into the world.  This building is worthless without a gathered community in its walls who do their best to love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and their neighbors as themselves.  This ELCA is without value without the forgiveness and mercy of its Lord Jesus Christ.  This body of Christ we call the one holy catholic and apostolic church matters not one whit without her Lord Jesus Christ at her head, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins and release of those in bondage to it. 
Hear the truth this week:  we killed Jesus because we wanted to be in charge.  The cross satisfies our thirst for power, not God’s need for satisfaction.  Jesus endured the cross as a means of exhausting our sin so that we would understand that no matter how high our offenses against him might rise, his love is higher and deeper and wider and stronger, and will not be denied.  God is satisfied when God has mercy on us – Glory to that God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever, world without end.  Amen.

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