"What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul! What wondrous love is this, O my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul, to lay aside his crown for my soul."
These words from an early American hymn form the framework for a Palm Sunday, because this day is about "wondrous love," and this day introduces a week that is about wondrous love. Its focus is God's love poured out freely and completely for humanity, and its Scripture and worship embody this story and reality.
A great deal of Scripture is heard in most churches on this day. A reading from the Hebrew Scriptures invites us to turn and return to God and to God's love, a witness from the New Testament to Jesus' own identity as a slave, a servant, and his willingness to offer all that he is to show divine love. And, then, there are not one but two readings from the Gospel of Mark. The first, short and to the point, telling the story of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, where he is greeted like a king and an anointed one with shouts of Hosanna and palms strewn on the ground. And, then, the second and much longer portion of Mark's Gospel, which tells the story of the betrayal of Jesus, his suffering, and his death -- action by action, step by step.
It is amazing, it is powerful, it is wondrous. The paradox of this story and these events is visible and apparent. Here is an innocent, loving, serving man who is brutally tortured and executed. What begins with exaltation, victory, and triumphant song ends in betrayal, brutality and death.
One Palm Sunday several years ago, I heard a young child ask a powerful question after listening patiently and reverently to the long story of Christ's crucifixion. "But Mamma, why, why did Jesus have to die?" That boy voiced the question that has confronted and challenged people of faith for a very long time. Why did an innocent man come to such a horrid and horrible end? Why did someone who proclaimed love and lived the very compassion of God suffer and die as a common criminal? Why the pain, the cross, the death? "But Mamma, why did Jesus have to die?"
These questions of why connect to other deep questions of why that face us in our lives. Why is there sickness and suffering? Why is there such violence in the human soul? Why wars, pestilence, famine and death? Why, oh why, oh why?
Pat and pious answers to these questions simply do not suffice. Indeed, the only thing that offers a real response to the questions of "why" is the cross itself, not that Jesus' crucifixion gives a simple and surface answer. No, the answers and responses are as deep as the heart of God, as deep as the compassion of God, as deep as the wondrous love of God.
In the 14th century a woman living in Norwich, England, had a series of visions of God and of God's love. One of them was of Jesus on the cross. She saw him and asked the question "why," the question of the meaning of this in a direct way. The response was also clear and direct. "Would you know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well; love was his meaning. "Who reveals it to you?" Love. "What did he reveal to you?" Love. "Why does he reveal it to you?" For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.
Love was and is the meaning of the cross of Christ. "What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul! What wondrous love is this, O my soul! That caused the Lord of bliss to lay aside his crown for my soul?"
The cross of Jesus does not promise that we will understand every "why" of our living. It doesn't promise that we will understand the mystery of Christ's suffering and death in a direct and logical way. It does not promise that we will be able to make sense of the evil and sorrow of this world. What it does promise is this: love, God's love surrounding us and giving us strength, God's love never failing us nor abandoning us. The cross is the sign of solidarity, of God's solidarity with us whatever happens in this life and in this world.
One of the most powerful reflections on the meaning of Christ's crucifixion is offered by Saint Paul in his letter to the ancient church in the city of Philippi. "Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be snatched or exploited, emptied himself. He poured himself out, taking the form of a servant, and he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." He emptied himself, he poured himself out. The Greek verb used here is the same verb used in pouring out a liquid from a pitcher -- emptying, pouring, flowing -- and thus was the love of God shown on the cross itself, emptying, pouring, flowing completely and abundantly.
"What is God's meaning in this thing?" Love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, hope, life -- all shared, all poured out, all flowing. It simply never stops. It flows even to this day, even to our hearts, our souls, and our lives. It is a love that sustains, a love that transforms, a love that encourages us even in the face of the troubles, anxieties and questions of our living.
Paul introduced his description of Jesus pouring himself out with a request. "Have this same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus." "Have the same mind in you." Somehow the same "mind," the same spirit, the same soul of compassion, love and service that Jesus showed on the cross is to penetrate our minds, our spirits, our souls as well.
I believe that this means two things for us. First, it means that we do know in a deep way that God does indeed love us. The first and foundational reality of Christian faith and life is that we are loved, that God poured out and pours out love to us.
Having this mind, this realization, this awareness in us changes our lives. It gives us even deeper joy when we experience human love in our families, our friendships and our daily living, and gives us courage and strength when we experience suffering, pain and loss. There is a meaning, there is a meaning that is profound as the "mind of Christ" becomes our mind, and the "heart of Christ" becomes our heart.
But there's also a second meaning to Saint Paul's invitation to have the mind of Christ in us. It is the invitation and the call to demonstrate the same pouring out, the same compassion, the same love in the actions of our lives and our living. On Palm Sunday we hear the ultimate story of Christ's mission, his call, his purpose -- all of which was to show the restoring and reconciling love of God. He did it over and over and over again in his mission and ministry, proclaiming good news of that love, inviting everybody into that love (even outcasts and despised folks), healing the sick, casting out demons, breaking down walls of separation, raising the dead. But now, now, was the culmination of this mission of love poured out, to enter Jerusalem and offer everything that he was, to offer every fiber of his heart, soul, and being, to make a complete and supreme sacrifice, to empty himself and pour out that love. This was the moment of complete and clear mission, of call, of purpose for him.
And when we hear the stories and contemplate the actions described in the Gospel, we come to our own mission, call and purpose as well. "Have this mind in you," Paul puts it. Let the mission of Christ become your mission too. Let the purpose of Christ become your purpose too. Let the action of Christ become your action too.
A succinct articulation of the mission of God's people is found in the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer. The question is asked, "What is the mission of the Church?" And the answer given is, "The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and with each other in Christ." To restore, to reconcile, to renew. That is the mission, the purpose, the call of God's people. It is the mission of showing the serving love and compassion that Jesus showed on the cross.
This mission is at the center of communities of Christian faith -- congregations, churches, denominations -- and this mission is at the center of the individual Christian's journey and life as well. How do we show serving love? How do I show serving love? How do we care for other human beings? How do I care for other human beings? How do we give something of ourselves? How do I give something of myself? These are questions of community and individual mission that come to us this day.
"Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus," exhorts Paul. "Have the mind of the one who emptied himself, who poured himself out, who showed love so clearly and completely."
Palm Sunday is a day for us to let the mind of Christ enter our minds. It is a day to hear the most central and crucial story of the Christian faith and to let it sink in, sink in down deep into our consciousness, our hearts, our souls. "Let the mind of Christ enter you." It is the invitation to hear as a message for the world and for each one of us God's utterance of love. It is the invitation to understand that first and foremost we are loved by God. And then, then it is a day to say, "I will have this mind in me. I will act on this in some real way, through some action of compassion for others."
The results of this are quite amazing. As a pastor, I have witnessed human minds and human life change as the compassion of God becomes more and more a part of a person's life. I have seen the generosity, the service and the caring that bubbles up and pours out of the human heart. As a servant of the mission of the Church, I have seen the same thing happen in congregations, college communities, schools, organizations and even denominations as the mind and mission of Christ enter them. This service can actually change the world through mission actions of feeding the hungry, empowering the hopeless, welcoming the refugee and outcast, representing God's peace and justice, working for reconciliation, proclaiming good news, and forming people of faith generation by generation.
"Have this mind in you." It is the soul filling and soul transforming awareness that God loves the world, that God loves humanity, that God loves me. It is the soul filling and soul transforming commitment to act on and act in that love through service and mission in this world. When the church becomes distracted from that or when I become distracted from that, it is to real peril. When the church acts on that or when I act on it, the Gospel mission becomes real.
"What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul! What wondrous love is this, O my soul! That caused the Lord of bliss to lay aside his crown for my soul." What wondrous love poured out for us. Enter that love. Experience that love. Show forth that love.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed and given into the hands of sinners and to suffer death upon the cross, who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.