Sunday, 17 March 2013

“The emotionality of Holy Week.”: a sermon for Palm Sunday, 24th March 2013

There is a certain predictability to the emotional roller-coaster that the Christian church experiences during the week that begins today and ends next Sunday.  In fact, there is even an element of bipolarity in the experiences of this week, like a person who is subjected to deep, deep mood swings as part of their daily life.

Today, on Palm Sunday, we experience a sense of excitement:        the excitement of the cheering crowds that welcomed Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

On Thursday evening, we experience a sense of growing crisis:  the growing crisis as Jesus celebrated the Passover feast with his disciples and alarmed them as he spoke of being betrayed and of his body being broken; a growing crisis that intensified when Jesus was betrayed, and handed over to the Roman authorities for trial.

On Friday, the Friday we ironically call “Good Friday”, we experience a sense of grief and a sense of anger: 
·        the grief we experience when anyone dies, particularly when a person dies at far too young an age;
·        the anger we experience when anyone dies violently, particularly when the victim of the violent death is a manifestly good individual;
·        the particular anger we feel in this case when the full force of the Roman Empire – an early example of what we now call a “superpower” – was directed toward destroying an individual whose only crime was proclaiming a vision of God’s reign of peace, love, and reconciliation.  (Obviously, superpowers back them behaved just as badly as superpowers behave today, perhaps even worse.)

And then, on Easter Day, next Sunday, we experience a sense of exuberant joy (but mixed with a note of confusion):
·        the mixture of joy and confusion experienced by Mary Magdalene and her friends as they arrived at the tomb to receive the message that Jesus was alive;
·        the mixture of joy and confusion experienced by two disciples who met the risen Jesus on the road, but only recognised him in the breaking of the bread;
·        the mixture of joy and confusion experienced by us all as we realise that all the events of that dramatic week were profoundly for our benefit.  However actively or however casually any of us may seek to follow in Christ’s path, the events of this week were for our benefit.  Christ’s triumph over death which we will celebrate next Sunday was not just his own private victory.  Christ’s Easter victory was and is on behalf of all humanity.

Next week, when we celebrate Easter, we will join in the celebration of the central event of our faith.  Whether we interpret this Easter reality
·        as literally as many Christians do or
·        as non-literally as many other equally faithful Christians do,
we celebrate that event which, for Christians
·        of all denominations,
·        of all theologies,
·        of all spiritualities,
·        of all temperaments,
has made the most profound difference in how we view our life and our death.

And so, during this week, we have these contrasts in the tone and the emotion of our worship.  Some of these contrasting emotions communicate better to the community than others. 

For example, I believe Easter morning is a far better time than Good Friday to invite a person to church who hasn’t been to church for some time.  By its very nature, a worship service on Good Friday is solemn and sombre.  (It would be dishonest if it wasn’t.)

Because of this, a worship service on Good Friday may have the effect of confirming the cultural prejudices many of your friends, relatives, and neighbours may have as to what it is that goes on in places like this church: 
·        the prejudice held by many people in our community that practicing Christians are obsessed with gloom and doom;
·        the prejudice held by many people in our community that practicing Christians are all intent on spoiling other people’s enjoyment of life. 

On the other hand, Easter Sunday with its joy, its celebration, and its festivity, may help undermine these deep-seated prejudices toward worshippers such as ourselves.

And so we enter into the events of this week, with all their almost bipolar contrasts of emotion. 

To underscore the unity of our events this week, the final hymn for our services today and Good Friday will be a hymn which, while it focuses on the cross, seeks to look past the experience of the crucifixion to the event of the resurrection:  “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim …”.  We’ll end our service today with this hymn.

As well, both today and Good Friday, the last words I’ll speak at the end of the sermon, and the last words I’ll speak at the end of the worship service, will be those words which often end an episode of a television series where the plot will not be resolved until a future episode:  “To be continued …”.

Today, we remember Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds.  By Friday, the cheers of the crowd turned to violence at the hands of the Roman soldiers.  But the story did not end there.  Death could not hold Jesus.  In Jesus’ triumph, we experience hope.

To be continued ….

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