Paul Knitter's Homily from Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014

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Palm Sunday

April 13, 2014




Today marks the beginning of the most meaningful and sacred time of the liturgical calendar:  Holy Week.


–         Holy Week—when we celebrate the ‘Paschal Mystery’—the pivot on which the rest of the year turns, the focus of our Christian lives.  And today, Palm Sunday, we are called on to declare our commitment to that Mystery, which means our commitment to this Jesus called the Christ.


–         So as we begin this Holy Week, if we’re going to pour out our hearts in Hosannas, many of us need to first clear our heads. What is this Paschal Mystery? What was going on during those days of that first Holy Week? What is the Passion story we just heard telling us?


Many of us are uneasy with the usual answer to these questions: Jesus died for our sins; he died to somehow satisfy God’s displeasure or “wrath” with us, to pay the price, to open the gates of heaven for sinners.


–         Such answers reflect one – just one — of the many early interpretations of the death of Jesus; but it’s the one that assumed prominence, especially because of St. Anselm in the 11th century.

–         This way of understanding Jesus’ death as satisfying God’s anger or justice was, and still is, meaningful for many people.  For many others, it not only does not make sense but it seems to presuppose a notion of an awfully mean God, whom feminist theologians have accused of child abuse.

–         There are other interpretations of the meaning of Jesus’ death in the NT and Christian tradition – other ways of understanding the Paschal Mystery and how Jesus’ death “saves us.”




Before we talk about other theological interpretations of the cross, it will help to listen to the historians of the NT:

–         Historians tell us that Jesus did not die because God wanted him to die; he died because Pontius Pilate and the Roman Empire wanted him to die.  Pontius Pilate perceived Jesus as a threat, a disturbance, to the functioning of the Empire.

–         Jesus’ death was a state execution: the reason for the execution was written clearly in the language of the state for everyone to read: “Rex Judaeorum,” the King of the Jews.  In the Roman Empire, one could be king only if one cooperated with Roman power, as King Harrod did.

–         We know that the picture of Pilate in Matthew’s gospel is not historically reliable. Roman records attest to his brutality, to his readiness to execute or crucify at the least semblance of political opposition.  A few decades before Jesus’ death, the Romans crucified some 2000 political agitators, most from Galilee, at the same time!

–         So Matthew is doing a bit of a whitewash of Pilate. At a time when Matthew’s community of Jewish Jesus-followers were in tension with other Jews who did not recognize Jesus as Messiah, and at a time when the Jewish-Christians were reaching out for converts beyond Israel, they didn’t want to blame Jesus’ death on Rome. So they focused on the Jewish leaders, who indeed were cooperating with Rome, but they went on to put the blame on the entire Jewish people.

–         I’m grateful that the reading of the Passion this morning left out vs. 25 of Matthew’s Chapter 27: “Then the people as a whole (pas ho laos – everyone!)  cried out ‘Let his blood be upon us and on our children.” This was one of the most potent seeds that grew into the Anti-Judaism that has pervaded Western culture.


So the cross was a political, a state execution.  If it would have happened in our recent times in this country, the image that Christians would have in their churches or wear around their necks would not be a man on a cross but a man in an electric chair – or as my colleague from Union Theological Seminary Jim Cone just argued in a recent book, a man hanging by his neck from a tree.  Jesus’ death was a political lynching. The cross was a lynching tree.


–         This I believe is something really distinctive about Christianity, something therefore that people have to recognize when they call themselves Christians. I think Christianity is the only religion whose founder was publicly executed by state authorities.

–         This is what Paul is getting at in today’s reading from one of the oldest documents in the New Testament. He tells the Philippians that in Jesus God manifests Godself not just “in human form” but in “the form of a slave” – doulos – one of those people who don’t count, the utterly oppressed. And as if this were not enough, Paul adds: Jesus manifested God by dying on a cross – the most horrible form of execution then known.

–         So Christianity proclaims not just that God, the Divine, is incarnate in humanity but that God is especially present in a particular form of humanity: the slaves, the oppressed, the marginalized, those who are executed because they speak up.

–         I’m not saying that this makes Christianity better than other religions. Not at all.  But it makes it distinctive.




How, then, does this particular Jew, executed like so many thousands of other Jews and victims of Roman imperial power, save us?


–         I believe that the first verse of today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians answers that question:  We are saved when we “allow the same mind to be in us that was in Christ Jesus.”


So we must ask: what was this “mind that was in Christ Jesus”?


–         Again, following the lead of Scripture scholars like Marcus Borg, Dominic Crosson and Elizabeth Johnson, we can say that it was the mind of a mystic and the mind of a prophet.  Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish mystic who was also a Jewish prophet.

–         He was a mystic in that over the years of his life, probably during what we call his “hidden life,” he came to a profound, personal awareness of Ultimate Reality, of the God of Israel, as Abba, or as my Buddhist teacher puts it, Jesus experienced Ultimate Reality as unconfined, unconditional compassion.

–         This is the Abba God whom Jesus could trust throughout his life, even when he realized he was going to be executed, even when on the cross, as we just heard, he felt abandoned.

–         This is the Abba-God of compassion who also enabled him to forgive and love even his executioners.

–          But Jesus was also a prophet for whom this God of compassion could not be separated from what he called “the Rule of God.” For Jesus, this Abba-God was up to something in this world, seeking to “fix the world” (as the Jews put it) and to bring the world closer to what he called the “Rule of God,” or as a theologian friend of mine translates it, “the Commonwealth of God.”

–         For Jesus, God and Reign of God are inseparable.  A God without the Reign of God is a false God.

–         And this Commonwealth of God was a new way of organizing society – not on the basis of power and wealth, as in the Roman Empire, but on the basis of justice and compassion.

–         And it’s this prophet part that got him into trouble with the powers that be, primarily Pilate and Rome, but also with the Jewish aristocracy collaborating with Rome (NOT the Jewish people!).

–         Yet, when he was in trouble, when the imperial power decided he had to be “disappeared” and eliminated, it was his mystical experience of God as Abba that sustained him and that called him to the nonviolence of loving his enemies.

–         To speak up for the oppressed with nonviolent love for the oppressors – and to do this even to the point of being ready to give one’s life —  that is what can change the world, that is  what can save the world.


And St. Paul calls us to “allow this same mind to be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

–         To have the mind of Christ is to carry on Christ’s life and mission as mystics and as prophets

–         as people who with him and through him experience the reality of the unconfined, unconditional compassion that we call Father or Mother or  Spirit,

–         and to carry on with him in our efforts – different for each of us – to bring our world, our government, our neighborhood, our family a little closer to being the Reign or Commonwealth of God – a world grounded in compassion and justice for everyone.

–         But is this really possible? Is it possible to have the same mind in us as was in Jesus?   Is such a mind really available to us?

–         To answer “yes” to those questions is to really believe what we will celebrate one week from today: the Resurrection.



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