Sunday of the Passion
It is not hard to recognize that Matthew thinks the events which we will remember this week are of central importance. Our Gospel lesson that recounts the last supper, betrayal, trial, suffering and death of Jesus takes up two full chapters. If we extend our consideration back to the event we observed at the very beginning of this service – Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem – we find that starting from chapter 21, Matthew uses seven full chapters into order to tell us about what happened during Holy Week. Fully 25% of the Gospel of Matthew focuses on this one week of time. The focus on Holy Week is even more pronounced in the Gospel of Mark. There, almost 40% of the Gospel deals with events of this one week.
Based on what we learn from the Gospel of John, we know that Jesus’ ministry lasted about three years. Matthew spends 25% of his Gospel covering just one week of these three years. In fact, if you didn’t have John’s Gospel you wouldn’t know that Jesus made multiple trips to Jerusalem as a faithful Jew who went on the pilgrimage to celebrate the religious festivals. If you only had Matthew’s Gospel, you would think that Jesus only made one trip to Jerusalem – a trip that ended in his death.
Matthew and all of the Gospel writers focus on the events of this one week. And yet when we consider the events of this week, it is easy to conclude that Jesus is a failure. At the beginning of today’s service we heard about how Jesus entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Like an election event this was carefully choreographed. Jesus arranged for himself to ride into Jerusalem mounted on a donkey. It may sound odd to us, but because of the Old Testament background of King David and King Solomon it is a scene that has royal and messianic associations. Many in the crowds perceived it this way. Matthew tells us that they went before him and followed him shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
And yet when he entered Jerusalem and people in the city which was stirred up by his arrival asked, “Who is this?” the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” They call him a prophet … and that’s all. It is an answer that we already know from Peter’s confession of Christ, is the wrong answer.
All during this week Jesus will meet with opposition as the Pharisees and Sadducees take turns attacking him. One of his own inner circle of apostles will agree to betray him for thirty pieces of silver. The rest of the apostles will abandon him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter will summon the courage to follow Jesus to his trial, only to deny there that he even knows Jesus.
At a trial that occurs in several parts, Jesus will be mocked by Jew and Gentile alike. He will be sentenced to death, tortured and humiliated. And then he will become the picture of powerlessness. Nailed to a cross he will die a death that in his world is the ultimate proof that you are failure as a Messiah – that you are a false Messiah. Those who pass by will deride him saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” The chief priests, with the scribes and elders will mock him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”
The Son of God? The Messiah? He will die crying out just before his death, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And then in a hasty burial, Joseph of Arimathea will place him in a sealed tomb. It will be a rush job, and so women who care about Jesus will feel the need to return after the Sabbath on the first day of the week in order to complete the preparation of the body.
Three years of ministry, and the Gospel writers choose to focus upon this? They don’t seem to know much about “spin.” They present Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah, and yet everything in this account seems to say that he was a fraud and a failure.
Of course, it takes one to know one. And you should have no problem recognizing a fraud and a failure, because you are one too. You claim to love God, and yet often you can’t be inconvenienced with coming to his house or spending time reading and studying his Word. You claim to love your spouse and children, and yet you speak angry words to them and act in selfish ways that hurt them. Again and again you show yourself to be anything other than a saint and a child of God.
And it is because you are a fraud and a failure that Jesus will appear to be one this week. If you follow the world’s script for what a Messiah – what a Savior – is supposed to look like, then Jesus is a fraud and failure. But Jesus isn’t doing it that way because he has come to provide the answer to a problem that the world doesn’t recognize. He has come to provide the answer to sin.
Jesus’ rejection, betrayal, suffering and death is exactly the plan that he has come to carry out. Just before he entered Jerusalem, Jesus predicted his passion for the third time in Matthew’s Gospel. He said, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
Identified as the Servant of the Lord at his baptism, Jesus came to be the suffering Servant. He came to redeem you from your sins. Just after again predicting his passion, our Lord went on to say, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus went to Jerusalem that final time to serve you. He went to free you from sin – to give you forgiveness for all those times you prove to be a failure and a fraud. Matthew and the Gospel writers focus on this one week because it is the most important week in the history of the world. It is in fact the most important week in your life, because through baptism the saving suffering and death of Christ’s passion have become yours. As Paul told the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
The events of this week have freed you from sin. Clothed with Christ in your baptism, when God looks at you he now sees a saint. He sees not your sin, but instead what Christ has done for you in order to win forgiveness. And so already now you know the verdict of the Last Day. It will be: innocent, not guilty.
This is the most important week in the history of the world. This is the most important week in your life. And so this week we pause. We stop our normal schedule. And we come to church. We come to church for the Triduum – the one service the runs over the course of three days. We gather on Maundy Thursday to hear about our Lord’s example of loving service as he washed his disciples’ feet. We hear again about the setting – the night in which he was betrayed - in which Jesus instituted the Sacrament of his true body and blood, given and shed for you. On Good Friday we gather to hear of our Lord’s death as he was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities and then placed in a tomb.
And then on the evening of Holy Saturday we gather for the Vigil of Easter. On Saturday Christ was buried in the tomb, and in this service which has so many ties to baptism, we remember that we were buried with Christ through baptism. Yet sundown on Saturday is also the beginning of Easter. As he had told his disciples, Jesus did not remain dead. Instead he rose from the dead and because of our baptism into Christ we know that we will be raised too.
Where it is possible, this year make Holy Week a priority. Make the services of Holy Week a priority. Come to the services of the Triduum. Come in remembrance of all that your Lord has done for you and receive the forgiveness he gives. After all, this is the most important week in history of the world. And it is the most important week in your life.