Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 24, Philippians 2:5-11, St. Matthew 21:1-17
The Mark on His Shoulder
Many centuries ago, Portuguese settlers on the south coast of China erected a grand cathedral on a high hill overlooking the harbor of Macao. At the front, a massive bronze cross soared high into the sky. The builders believed their masterwork would endure through the ages.
It remained only a few years. A massive typhoon dashed it down as though it were made of Tinker Toys, crashing it down the hill and into the ocean. All that survived was the front wall with that enormous cross protruding heavenward.
Centuries later, a battered ship tore apart out to sea a little ways from the harbor. Some died, a few lived. One man, dazed and frightened, clung to wreckage as the ocean swells heaved him up and then dropped him down. He had no idea in which direction lay the land.
Then a swell raised him up again and he spied a cross. From his vantage point, it was a tiny thing, but it loomed as large as heaven in his vision. When he made it safely to shore, Sir John Bowring wrote those words we have just sung:
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.
One week ago, on Passion Sunday, we considered Christ’s blood. Today, on Palm Sunday, we study His cross.
Time toys with perspective. When St. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from prison, probably in Rome, in the first century, no one said of the cross, “Lo! It glows with peace and joy.”
In fact, people said quite the contrary. The Roman statesman Cicero summed up the feeling: “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime; to flog him is an abomination; to slay him is almost an act of murder; to crucify him is – what? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed.”
Yet crucifixion was common . . . for foreigners, slaves, insurrectionists against Caesar . . . for anyone deemed to be of a sub-Roman species.
In Philippi, no cross adorned a lady’s bodice or dangled from her ears; no cross appeared embossed on the cover of a book, no cross topped a steeple, poking the sky in the city center or on a high hill outside of town.
We read in St. Matthew’s gospel:
“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you’” (16:21-22).
The author of Hebrews tells us Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame . . .” (12:2). Its very purpose was to ensure maximum humiliation, inflicting excruciating pain and making a public spectacle of the victim. Passers-by hurled insults as they toddled down the roadway past the tormented figures whose life was seeping out of them.
The early church adopted much the same understanding. Early on, worshipers of the risen Lord developed a distinctively Christian art . . . but the cross was scarcely on the canvas. And the truth, simply put, is that the cross of Christ was wretched marketing.
A new religion in need of converts put before the world miracles, healings, the resurrection, the ascension . . . anything but the crucifixion. It’s almost impossible to find in the early art, and where it does appear it wipes away the blood.
One rare early example, at Santa Sabina in Rome, hunkers in a corner, almost out of view. And he who takes the trouble to seek it out finds in it nothing to rouse his passions. The few early crucifixes that remain today make no more than a muted appeal to the emotions.
How long did it take for the church to present the crucifixion as part of the complex of events that form the core of the Christian faith? The Christ nailed to His cross as the compelling image that draws men unto Him? Not until the 10th century did Christian artists paint the crucifixion in that light.
So, which is it, shame or glory? Paul leaves us in no doubt: It is in our Lord’s shame that His glory dwells.
The apostle has seized on a hymn that was current in his time for our epistle lesson for today. He wants his readers, from Philippi to Tulsa, to find in Christ the pattern for their dealings with one another. To see humility – even abject, self-denying humility for the sake of others – as the road to glory.
Paul reaches a crescendo of Christology here. In the entire Pauline corpus this is the most glorious paean to his Lord and ours.
In the church in Philippi, as elsewhere, the memory of Jesus’ way of living and dying is slipping away into the mists of time. False teachers are introducing strange doctrine. Could this Jesus truly have been the Christ? King of kings and Lord or lords?
A king arrayed himself in purple and gold and reigned supreme. He crushed his enemies; he did not submit meekly to them. If Jesus was Lord of all, was He not Lord of Caesar, too? Yet one of Caesar’s petty provincial functionaries, a fellow named Pontius Pilate, had hung Him on a cross.
Paul’s answer: Do not conceal the cross; rejoice in it. For it is on the cross, bleeding, that Jesus Christ emerged the victor. He vanquished sin and death for you and for me. In our Lord’s humiliation is His exaltation. In the 45th chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah. God says through His prophet, “I have sworn by Myself . . . that to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath.”
Now we discover in Philippians the Father’s transfer of this promise to His faithful Son. And in the Son’s exaltation is His humility, for the Father demonstrates His vast power in raising His obedient Son out of the grave and exalting Him to the heavenly throne from which He will rule over all that He has made.
One week from today we will celebrate Easter with gladness in our hearts. And so we should, for our Lord’s resurrection proclaimed His power. When He arose from His tomb outside Jerusalem on that bright morning His very Person embodied and announced the most basic Christian creed: Jesus Christ is Lord.
The empty tomb proclaimed His power.
But let us not rush headlong into Easter, failing to pause before the cross and ponder long and well, for the cross stands at the heart of our faith. As you gaze upon that cross – without which there is no atonement for sin – hear these words from the fifth century, uttered by Pope Leo the Great:
“The sacred blood of Christ has quenched the flaming sword that barred access to the tree of life. The age-old night of sin has given place to the true light . . .
“The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascended above all the heights of heaven to the right hand of the Father’s glory is ours. If then we walk in the way of His commandments, and are not ashamed to acknowledge the price He paid for our salvation in a lowly body, we too are to rise to share His glory.
“The promise He made will be fulfilled in the sight of all: Whoever acknowledges Me before men, I too will acknowledge him before My Father who is in heaven.” So said Pope Leo.
Obey as He obeyed and be exalted as He is exalted.
Jesus did not enter history as kurios, “Lord.” Only at His HH HhhhhHh
His vindication – after He arose from the grave and ascended into heaven – did He hear that lofty title from any other than His disciples. He came as doulos, here rendered “bondservant” and elsewhere “slave.”
The first Adam had sought God’s knowledge so that he might elevate himself to God’s stature. The Second Adam, Jesus Christ, who is God, humbled Himself to the point of death – even the death of the cross.
For the cross was always His destination. The artist Holman Hunt has portrayed Jesus as a young child running, arms outstretched, to His mother. His form projects a shadow in the shape of the cross.
In another work by Hunt, Joseph and the boy Jesus are at work in the carpenter’s shop with Mary looking on. As Jesus stops and stretches, the sun throws a cross-shaped shadow onto the wall. From the day of His birth, and an infinity before, He was bound for the cross.
He “made Himself of no reputation.” In other translations, He “made Himself nothing” or He “emptied Himself.” In the form of man, He humbled Himself; in the form of God, He emptied Himself.
He is the Suffering Servant of whom Isaiah prophesied: “He poured out His soul unto death” (53:12).
And all the while, He is God, the purest expression of the Father the world has ever known or can ever know.
When they placed a crown of thorns upon His head, they tortured God.
When they mocked Him, they mocked God.
When they spat on Him, they spat on God.
When they struck Him, they struck God.
When they crucified Him, they crucified God.
At the cross, all things meet. If the cross is not at the center of our faith, we are indeed without hope. Absent the atonement, there is only the void. As we saw last week in our lesson from Hebrews, the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away our sins. Only the blood of Christ can cleanse us.
On the cross, God exchanged His pure white robe for our filthy garments, taking our sins like a sooty black cloak upon Himself and clothing us in His righteousness.
On the cross, God gave us the exemplar of Christian obedience.
On the cross, God provided for us the enormous blessing of the Eucharist.
On the cross, God nullified justice and bestowed upon us the fullness of His mercy and grace.
On the cross, God offered us at ultimate cost to Himself the most profound outpouring of His perfect love.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1Corinthians 1:18, 22-24).
“Christ crucified” is really the only story we have to tell. If we preach and teach anything other than Christ crucified, if we preach and teach anything in addition to Christ crucified, we locate salvation where it cannot be.
We abandon the offense of the cross. Nothing but the cross shows us the utter blackness of our sin, a subject not much in vogue in Paul’s day or in ours. Pride builds us up, humility drags us down – that’s how we think.
But only humility spawns obedience. A praise chorus, lifted from James 4, comes to mind: “Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord/And He will lift you up/Higher and higher . . .”
A noble thought. I wonder how I would have handled matters back then had I appeared in place of our Lord. But I think I know.
I’d see this unholy mess man has made of God’s good creation set right before you could say, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Evil? I’d blot it out. Oppression? I’d obliterate every corrupt, villainous government that ground its own people under the heel of its boot.
In other words, I’d do what all those adoring souls lining the road with palm fronds on a Sunday 2,000 years ago wanted Jesus to do. I’d restore order to the created order – as I saw fit. Then I’d install myself on the throne and make sure everything I fixed stayed fixed. That’s what I’d do.
But Jesus, being the very nature of God, took on the nature of a slave. What does a slave do? He abandons his own will and does the will of his master. Jesus, in His life no less than in His death, sacrificed Himself.
He made Himself perfectly obedient to His Father on high: “Not My will but Thine be done.”
Jesus, Creator of all, appeared in His creation not as its King but as its servant, not as its Master but as its slave.
He had to be stopped. Because He came in peace. If He were not struck down He would wage peace in every place where hatred and hostility held sway. We must topple the Prince of Peace, nail Him to a cross to preserve our pride against His insurrection of humility.
And so if Jesus is my model of a man maybe I should consider that God has purposes beyond my frail human understanding. Maybe it shouldn’t take me a lifetime to figure out that He allows sin and death to reign in the world He called “good” and “very good” to demonstrate for us the ravages of our rebellion.
It is we who have staged the insurrection and it was Jesus who hung on the cross reserved for insurrectionists . . . and slaves. The lowest point of God’s life as Jesus of Nazareth became the highest point of human history. St. Augustine would say, “Proud man would have died had not a lowly God found him.”
We see all around us the consequences of leaving out the offense of the cross. The Western church of the 21st century has begun with a faith grounded in the greatest sacrifice in history and emptied it of all sacrifice. What remains is a church indistinguishable from that culture that surrounds it . . . that engulfs it.
Shall we wonder that the young and idealistic, the poor and despairing, hark to the imam’s call of self-emptying and self-giving, of the glorious death of the martyr? Do we truly marvel that they run like hell from a religion that promises them that pursuing it will cost them absolutely nothing?
There’s a story about a monk who prayed without ceasing that he might have the marks of our Lord upon his hands and feet. In a vision, he was given sight of a mark on the Lord’s body the world had forgotten.
That mark was the deep bruise on His shoulder. Jesus carried His cross before He was nailed to it. The monk learned he could have the marks on his hands and feet only if he first bore the mark upon his shoulder.
So, beloved in the Lord, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” Behold the cross, that glistening symbol of His victory, and ours. Today, the crowds shout hosannas to our God. On Friday they will shrill, “Crucify! Crucify!”
And on Sunday next He will arise from His tomb and publish abroad the good news of His victory over sin and death.
May God grant us the humility – His humility – to walk with Him every step of the way. Amen.