Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Philippians 2:8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Palm Sunday! What is it really all about? Even the Order of Service today seems a little mixed up and confusing. The Palm Sunday reading is the Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent, not for Palm Sunday. The focus in Advent is on the coming of Christ into our world as we see him riding on a donkey. So, strangely enough, the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday is not about Jesus entering into Jerusalem on a donkey, but about why He entered into Jerusalem and our world. It was to suffer and die. So today we meditate, along with Martin Luther, on the Passion of Christ, which we read in the Gospel reading, His becoming obedient to the point of death, as St. Paul tells us.
Martin Luther raises the question: “How should we meditate on the Passion of Christ?” He states that some people vent their anger on the Jews, or on Judas, or on Pilate and the Romans. But, that is not meditating on the sufferings of Christ. That is merely meditating on the sins and wickedness of people.
Others feel pity for Christ, lamenting and bewailing his innocence. They are like the women who followed Christ from Jerusalem and were chided by Christ and told, “Do not weep for me,” it would be better to weep for yourselves and you children. They make much of the Virgin Mary’s anguish, of the grief and sorrow that comes with such a cruel death. They meditate on the pain Christ felt and how one so pure and innocent fell victim to these mad and angry crowds. They imagine his pain inside themselves as if their feeling of pain and sorrow helps to purify and cleanse their own souls, but never progress much beyond that. They see Christ as a mere innocent victim, whose suffering is nothing more than identifying with us in our suffering in this world. They limit the suffering and cross of Jesus to merely an example of love, but rob it of any power to overcome death and redeem us.
Rather, you must see that his suffering was a voluntary sacrifice of love for us. He was neither an innocent victim nor just identifying with our suffering. He willingly and voluntarily suffered and died to save you. He came into the world just for this very purpose. He was obedient to his Father, even unto death, just as Isaac offered no resistance to Abraham when he was about to be sacrificed. Christ was in control on Good Friday. It was He who orchestrated the entire situation—the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, the Roman soldiers, and Pontius Pilate, yes, even Judas and Barabbas who was set free were part of his eternal plan for your salvation.
Those who contemplate the passion of Christ correctly are those who view it with a terror-stricken heart and a despairing conscience. For, here, as you witness the stern wrath of God upon sin and sinners, this terror must be felt. So great is His wrath against sin that He is unwilling to release even His own dear Son from the payment of the severest penalty for sin. If you seriously consider that it is God’s very own Son who suffers, you will be terrified. If God’s dearest child is punished so mercilessly and forsaken by God, what will be the fate of all us sinners?
Get this through your head and do not doubt that you are the one who is torturing Christ, for your sins have wrought this. St. Peter frightened the Jews when he said, “You crucified him.” Consequently 3000 alarmed and terrified Jews asked the apostles, “What shall we do?” Therefore, when you see the nails piercing Christ’s hands, you can be certain that it is your work. When you behold his crown of thorns, when you see the blood pouring out from his hands and feet and side, when you hear the agonizing cries, you may rest assured that these are your evil thoughts, words, and deeds. For as God tells us through the prophet Isaiah, “I have chastised him for the transgressions of my people.” It is on account of your sins that he suffers. When Christ is tortured by nails penetrating his hands and feet, it is you who should eternally suffer the pain they inflict. And this is exactly what will happen to those who do not avail themselves of Christ’s passion by faith in Christ.
Until now, we have meditated on the Passion of Christ. Now we come to the resurrection of Christ. After man has become aware of his sin and is terrified in his heart, he must watch that sin does not remain in his conscience, for this would lead to sheer despair. Just as our knowledge of sin flowed from Christ and was acknowledged by us, so we must pour this sin back onto him and free our conscience of it. Cast your sins from yourself and onto Christ. You do this when you firmly believe that his wounds and sufferings are your sins, to be borne and paid for by him, as we read in Isaiah 53: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” And St. Pater says, “In his body he has borne our sins on the wood of the cross” (I Peter 2:24). You must stake everything on these and similar verses. The more your conscience torments you, the more tenaciously must you cling to these words. If you try to deal with your sin yourselves, or make things right yourself with God, or appease God by your actions and works of love, then surely you must in the end despair. Do not allow sin to remain in your conscience and deal with it there. It will be too strong for you.
Rather, behold your sin resting on Christ and see it overcome by his resurrection. Then boldly believe that it is dead and nullified. Sin cannot remain on Christ, since it is swallowed up by his resurrection. For now, on Easter morning, you see no wounds, no pain in him, no sign of sin. Thus St. Paul declares that Christ died for our sin and rose for our justification (Rom 4:25). In his suffering, Christ made our sin known and there he destroys it, but through his resurrection he justifies us and delivers us from all sin if we believe this.
Christ has destroyed your sin on the cross. In the words of Martin Luther, “You must no longer contemplate the suffering of Christ, for this has already done its work, but pass beyond that and see his friendly heart and how this heart beats with such love for you that it impels him to bear with pain your conscience and your sin. Then your heart will be filled with love for him, and the confidence of your faith will be strengthened.” Christ’s love for you is due to his obedience to God. Thus, in his suffering and cross, you will find a kind, paternal heart of God. Then you will understand the words of Christ, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” (John 3:16). We know God correctly when we grasp him in his kindness and love.
How does faith in the passion and resurrection of Christ change our lives? True faith is when your heart has become firm in Christ and love, and this love is what stimulates your hatred of sin, rather than fear of pain and punishment. Now, after meditating on the passion of Christ, when pain or sickness afflicts you, consider how trivial this is in comparison with the thorny crown and nails of Christ. If you are forced to do something against your will, or must refrain from doing something you desire, ponder how Christ was bound and captured and led forth to the cross. If you are beset by pride, see how your Lord was ridiculed and mocked along with criminals. If you are tempted by lust or passion, remember how ruthlessly Christ’s tender flesh was scourged, pierced, and beaten. If hatred or envy tempt you, consider how Christ, who had every reason to avenge himself, interceded with tears on behalf of his tormentors. Why should we not be ready to suffer a little grief, when our Lord had to sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane? This is how we can draw strength and encouragement from Christ against every failing and suffering in our life. This is the proper contemplation of Christ’s passion.
Luther says, “Those who make Christ’s life and name a part of their own lives are true Christians.” St. Paul says, “Those who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with all its desires,” (Gal 5:24). St. Peter says, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, strengthen and arm yourselves by meditating on this,” (I Pet 4:1). This then is our true and correct meditation on the Passion of Christ.
Lord, have mercy on us. Amen.