31 October – Reformation Day
transferred to Sunday, 25 October 2020
Psalm 46 (7)
My first parish had a strong worship committee. So strong that when for the very first time I met Henry Poggemiller, a retired pastor in his 80s, that his first comment to me was a question. He asked, “Have you gotten rid of that worship committee yet?”
Of course, his generation may have gotten away with that, mine would not have, nor would I have wanted to.
But it was a strong worship committee, in both senses of the word strong.
With the publication of the Lutheran Book of Worship in 1978 our church adopted a new lectionary, one that was modelled on the Roman lectionary, result of the Second Vatican Council and the Catholic Church’s reclaiming of the Holy Scriptures. We still use a variation of that lectionary today, the Revised Common Lectionary.
In 1978 Palm Sunday became Passion Sunday with a liturgy that consisted of two parts: The procession with Palms and the reading of the entire passion account of one of the synoptic Gospels.
The worship committee had chosen a dramatic reading of the passion story with various people reading the parts of various characters, while the congregation read the part of the masses who demanded that Jesus be crucified. The climax of this was the pounding of nails on the balcony, amplified over the sound system, and finally a congregation that left the church in silence.
It was dramatic for sure, but a celebration of the resurrection as all Sundays are to be it was not.
And ever since I have been skeptical that the two themes of the day, Jesus triumphal entry and the reading of the passion story of Jesus could be combined in a meaningful way.
The theologian Gerard Sloyan points out that the symbol of palm branches became associated with martyrs as in the 144.000 in the Book of Revelation (7:9ff) and later in Christian iconography. However, he points out that long before the association of palm branches with martyrdom palm branches were associated with the victory parades of soldiers and athletes, and the palm branches of Palm Sunday invoke precisely that image of victory.1
And so the Gospels celebrate the victory about to be won (anticipating the victory over sin and death), at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem Jesus is celebrated as king and the Gospel of Luke even repeats the angels’ chorus sung at the nativity, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.”
Contrary to that, our observance of Passion Sunday in Winnipeg had no sound of victory, was absent of any joy, and Palm Sunday had really been turned into a premature Good Friday.
The roots of the celebration with palms go back to third century Jerusalem, and is found in ancient liturgies from others places. However, while the procession with palms was assuming ever greater proportions, from the 11th century on popular piety became more and more passion centred. Sloyan writes that lent became a full-scale penitential exercise and ceased to be a preparation for the three days, the forty days became one long Good Friday.
That piety was big on sin and small on the victory. The focus shifted from the redeemer to the sinner. No wonder Luther felt he could never measure up!
Isaac Watt’s 18th century hymn is an example,
Alas! and did my Saviour bleed?
And did my Sov’reign die,
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Or think of one of my personal favourites, (perhaps because of it’s occurrence in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion),
1 Ah, holy Jesus, how have you offended
that man to judge you has in hate pretended?
by foes derided, by your own rejected,
O most afflicted!
2 Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you?
It is my treason, Lord, that has undone you;
and I, O Jesus, it was I denied you,
I crucified you.
You may also notice that many of those hymns speak of Jesus and I, they focus on me, on the individual, almost as if we had not been called and baptized into a body, the church, the body of Christ.
That I had crucified Jesus was also part of the upbringing in the church of my childhood. And it is not wrong, yet it shifts the emphasis from sin as the state of fallenness, to sins as in the things in which we sin. Jesus came to save us from our sin, Jesus did not come to count our sins.
And a piety that focuses on my sins, shifts the focus from Jesus’ work of salvation, from God’s love for the world, from his glorious resurrection, to me and my state of sin.
And so in such piety the sinner becomes the object of our devotion, of our contemplation.
That, however, is the human as incurvatus se, as Luther would say, the human being turned in on itself. And what St Augustine may have meant by the expression as of orienting ones life only in regards to immanent matters becomes in misdirected Christian piety a focus on one’s sin and wretchedness.
In our Gospel reading Jesus is in conversation with people who believed in him. He invited them into discipleship and invites them to know the truth. The truth will make them free.
The truth of which Jesus speaks is not a set of propositions, it is not church doctrine, or the Four spiritual Laws. The truth into which Jesus invites them is he himself, Jesus, the One through whom all things were made. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. (14:6) And so to know this truth shifts our focus from our sin, form ourselves, from defensiveness, from defending propositional truths, to Jesus. Jesus is all we need. That is what Martin Luther discovered and it made him free.
And it makes us free still.
And so the focus of our lives is not on our sin, because our life is not defined by my sins or the sins of others but by God’s great love. That is why we remember our baptism, because against all else, our baptism proclaims our identity as God’s beloved. That is why we make the sign of the cross, to remember who we are and to whom we belong.
Remember that Jesus is the truth. He is also the Word (John 1).
In our reading from the Gospel of John Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Thanks be to God.
1A Plea for Unadultered Joy, in Liturgy vol 12, no 4, pg 6 ff