Sometimes, you can’t count on technology, so this week I’ve enclosed a text version of this Sunday’s sermon. I think it’s important to engage in the full breadth of Holy Week and not cop-out Palm Sunday to fast forward through to Good Friday. So at St Francis make use of the Liturgy of the Palms plus Morning Prayer as the Liturgy of the Word with the daily office readings (See the AM readings listed here) to flesh out a eucharistic office service that allows us to keep our liturgical feet firmly planted in the Hosannas–while encouraging our flock to attend Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to share in the Last Supper and the Passion of our Lord. Reflect on the sermon text below as we prepare to fight the good fight of faith, following our Lord into Jerusalem to walk the way of the cross.
When I was in elementary school, if there was going to be a big fight after school, it was going to take place at “the big oak.” It might have been maple tree, but it was just outside between the elementary and middle schools, near the parking lot, with good sight lines in all directions to look out for teachers who might break it up. I only ever got in one fight in my life, when I was a kid…not at the big oak…at the bus stop on the way to school after some kid purposefully stomped in the mud and splattered my new pants. He took me down, but I made him cry. It felt exhilarating! It felt shameful. And it sure didn’t clean the stain on the ‘80s pastel yellow slacks I was so proud of in their preppie glory.
It’s hard for me not to think of grade school memories while thinking of the battle language of our reading from St Paul’s letter to Timothy and the Christus Victor language of Holy Week—the language of Jesus as the One who wins the battle—language that carries us from public accolades today, to sober celebration on Thursday, to unjust crucifixion on Friday, to dramatic resurrection next Sunday.
What battle stories do you think of when the Bible mentions themes of spiritual conflict and victory? I know I wish I had heard the war stories of my dad’s dad, who served in Korea but passed while my father was still a boy. Maybe you or someone you love has amazing war stories of defending freedom; scary stories of fighting for life—one’s own or someone else’s; conflicted stories of fighting for something of unclear moral value—maybe even unconscionable in hindsight; shameful stories of arguments or fisticuffs over what even then were petty, selfish anxieties. No one goes through life without experiencing conflict. No one is ever fully shielded from violence, pain, battle, or suffering. Not even Jesus!
But today, Palm Sunday, the battle’s just beginning. The crowd is roaring and raring to go! The pump is primed to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression! Just say the word, Jesus, and we’ll pull out the swords to cut off some ears, we’ll stir up the pot of the angry masses who long for a mythical bygone Jerusalem or America, we’ll wear the suicide vests to enforce the peace of heaven! If you think we’re too enlightened to be duped into mob rule, man-made visions of heaven being shoddily constructed on earth, peace by the point of the sword, or mere mortals claiming messianic levels of perfection…just turn on the news.
The battle has started, but Jesus never even lifts a finger. Hear these words from our own hymnal:
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle; of the mighty conflict sing; tell the triumph of the victim, to his cross thy tribute bring. Jesus Christ, the world’s Redeemer from that cross now reigns as king.
Jesus wins the battle not by resisting the powers that be, not by kicking butt and taking names, not by amassing a force of fighters…but by turning violence and worldly power on its head. He marches into town on a donkey, not a steed of war. He turns the other cheek…slap after slap, beard pull after beard pull. He forgoes heaven to go through hell for us. He takes all the punishment on himself that we deserve. And he finally dies, only to vacate the tomb 3 days later. This is the battle of Jesus. It starts today, and finishes within the week.
But you and me, our battle has only just begun. Elsewhere, Paul reminds us that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but is spiritual. But here he encourages Timothy and us to walk the path of the Jesus. “Fight the good fight of faith.” What exactly does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean Crusader-style forced conversions. It doesn’t claiming persecution any time someone merely disagrees with you on matters of religion. It doesn’t mean pining for some glorious past in some hyper-spiritualized funk. No, our loving Father is at work among us today to bring tastes of the promised heavenly future into our moment, our earth, our right here right now. And it sure doesn’t mean entrusting our hopes to the presumptuous, the populists, or the bullies who claim messianic-level ambitions but don’t even come close to modeling messianic character.
Jesus the Good Shepherd is neither caliph nor politico. He is King of kings. He dwells in inapproachable light. He alone holds dominion. And he exercises that power with gentleness, humility, peace, and compassion. He models the “good confession” in the face of worldly pretensions and unjust powers-that-be—a confession, conviction, and confounding peaceableness we are exhorted to emulate without backbiting, complaining, or calling down curses. Christ’s glorious majesty should be seen in our virtue and compassion. Our lives should be like icons, windows into heaven by which the greatness of our Savior and King can be seen beautifully and clearly by everybody. And the fight we fight is within us against temptation, against sinful attitudes, against habituated evil; and outside us as ambassadors who bring Good News of heavenly clemency and blessing in both word and deed. We are becoming tangible models and practitioners of the love of Jesus in a sin-sick and grave-bound world.
It’s quite the battle! We’ll have to learn how to hold our tongue when slandered. We’ll have to learn how to offer real help to those who wish us ill. We’ll have to learn to say I’m sorry to people who may not forgive us. We’ll have to emulate the character of Jesus when the temptations are strongest and the immediate benefits are least apparent. It may even mean having to suffer the indignity of having your church defaced and your family separated from you as you’re imprisoned under state sanction, as has been happening in places like China for decades. That’s what it means to walk the way of the cross. That’s what it means to fight the good fight of faith. Thankfully it’s a battle Jesus has already won. And it’s a victory we share with him the more we trust him and the more we reflect his love and glory to those around us. Let us pray…
Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.