Because of the Length and complexity of the Palm Sunday liturgy, my sermon was exceedingly short. This was intentional, because I simply wanted people to be led into the liturgies of Holy Week with a brief meditation on the Cross and Passion. The service began at 10:00 am with an ecumenical liturgy of the palms with several of the other Protestant Churches in Cooperstown.Palm Sunday is a paradox. We began our service together, with a great big ecumenical show celebrating Jesus entrance to the city of Jerusalem. Then we immediately changed direction, and heard in extended and agonizing detail, the story of Christ’s suffering. The terrible contrast, even the contradiction between Christ’s victory procession, entering into Jerusalem as a conquering king, and his humiliating death as a Condemned criminal; We remember, even celebrate both today, because somehow, they are the same. In his death outside the city walls, Christ does conquer.
When the disciples came with Jesus to Jerusalem, they had high hopes, but in less than a week they saw all those hopes crushed. Very few people could see that Christ’s death was not the end of that Palm Sunday hope. There were a few who stuck with Jesus to the end, but Of all of the characters in this story, only one seems to have understood at the time what was really happening. The unnamed thief, probably the least likely person, is the only one who seemed to get it. Somehow he perceives that even at the Lowest point, where hope seems to be lost, that the mocking sign above Jesus Head “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is really true. Jesus reigns even on the cross, and he is still triumphant.
One reason, perhaps, that the thief could understand this, while so many who had followed Jesus much longer couldn't, is that the paradox of the cross and of palm Sunday, is not the sort of paradox that can be understood or resolved from the outside. We can’t pull it apart like a riddle, or break it down into its parts and come up with an answer. The cross isn't a problem, a logic game or a puzzle, it is a mystery in the fullest sense. Mysteries are not solved by cold examination from a cautious distance, but by diving ever more deeply into the mystery.
The theologian Walther von Loewenich said “The meaning of the cross does not disclose itself in contemplative thought but only in suffering experience. The theologian of the cross does not confront the cross of Christ as a spectator, but is himself drawn into this event.” In other words we can only understand the cross, from the perspective of the thief in this gospel reading, when following Christ we have taken up our own cross, and we find ourselves at the point where the mystery seems darkest and the contradictions most painful; by seeing that somehow in the moments in our life where hope seems lost, we are perhaps closer to God than we have ever been before.
Until we have hit that point, I don’t think we’re really ready to receive the resolution of this mystery, the resolution that only comes with Easter. The cycle of Holy Week services is there to bring us to a point where our eyes can be opened, and we can look at the cross and see that it is not a sign of defeat, but of victory. This holy week, may we like the thief be able to see Christ crucified with the eyes of faith and pray “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” Amen