“What was it for?” Palm Sunday 03/24/2013 (Click on title for audio)

On one side of town, Jesus made his way down the Mt of Olives on the back of a donkey and entered the city through the east gate. On the other side of town, legions of soldiers, Roman reinforcements marched their way through the west gate.[1]

It was the start of the High Holy Week of Passover and a million or more Jews from all over the Mediterranean basin had come to Jerusalem. Passover is the time to remember and celebrate God’s mighty act of Exodus when God brought the people out from under Pharaoh’s oppression, and led them into the Promised Land. And now during Passover, the whole city was churning with a restless hope that once again God will act to free God’s people, not from Pharaoh this time, but from the heavy hand of the Roman Empire.[2]

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, fearing that Passover’s remembrance could tip into revolt, has called for military reinforcements – a show of muscle to remind the populous who calls the shots and whose town Jerusalem really is. And those legions of soldiers that entered Jerusalem, well they must have been impressive. War horses snorting and pawing at pavement, sun glinting off shields and sharpened swords and spears.

And of course Jesus was aware of all this for he crafted his entry into Jerusalem in such a way that is not only in sharp contrast with the procession of Roman might across town, but that also provocatively evoked the Passover’s expectations. His entrance was essentially an enactment of, performance art really, of the words from the book of Prophet Zechariah that tell of the battle to be fought on the Mount of Olives at the end of the age and proclaims “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” (Zech 9:9).

And the crowd around Jesus that day also clearly made the connection to the Prophet Zechariah’s words. For they sang Hosanna “O Save” a cry of acclamation reserved for one victorious in battle, for a king returning from conquest.[3] They spread their cloaks on the road and others cut branches from the trees and wave them — “Hosanna” “Blessed is the King!”

What a contrast: Jesus on a humble donkey; Empire on war horses. Disciples with palm branches; soldiers with swords.


But as impressive as it is, have you ever stopped to wonder “What is it for?” “Why did he do it?” Two processions entered the city that day, but only one King lived to see the week’s end. And it wasn’t Jesus. So, why did he do it? Why such a provocative entrance? Why come to Jerusalem in the first place?

The doctrines of our faith tells us: “Because he had to.” That this final anguishing week and the crucifixion that is coming had to happen. Jesus had to go to Jerusalem and he had to be crucified because that was what was needed in order to save us from our sins.


Now most of the time, we stop here. Most of the time, especially this time of year, we nod our acquiescence to the cross without speaking the gnawing questions of “Why?” that still may be on our hearts.


But sometimes, we do. Sometimes we give voice to our questions and over the last several weeks I have heard many of you do so. “How is it” you ask, “that Jesus’ crucifixion saves us?” “How can anything good come out of a cross death?” you wonder. “If God is Love why would God sacrifice God’s child?” you protest.


Now I do not think that there is one right way to answer these questions. And each of us, I believe, must do the hard work of faith and grapple with them in the light of God’s love and pray that a sliver of understanding may dawn for us.


But over the millenniums the church’s answer to these central questions of faith has coalesced around some primary doctrines or teachings. The most central doctrine or teaching as to the “why of the cross” was first articulated over a thousand years ago by the then English Archbishop Anselm and is referred to as the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. It teaches that humanity had deeply failed God and owed God for the depth of its failing. But the problem was, we did not have the capacity to repay God because we were so deeply flawed. So out of God’s mercy, God offered Jesus, who is not flawed, to die in our place, thereby cancelling out the debt that we owed God. By Jesus’ blood, so to speak, the ledger was wiped clean and we again are reconciled and restored to God.

Does that sound familiar? Have you heard this teaching before? The trouble for some, however, is that as familiar as it may be, it can, for some, raises more questions than it answers.


I can remember my confirmation class. Sprawling on the overstuffed couches in our equivalent of the tower room, listening to my pastor, I remember being deeply troubled by this doctrine’s teaching about why Jesus died on the cross. I remember wondering “Why, if we did owe something to God, why couldn’t God just forgive the dept, cancel the loan?” I remember thinking “Why doesn’t God just change the equation all together and not hold humanity hostage to a dept that seems to be of God’s own accounting. Why go through all the grizzly machinations of the cross to balance the ledgers?”

And just this past week, some of us were wrestling with “Why God would insist on the suffering of God’s child. What kind of God would do that we wondered?”

And didn’t God already do away with this kind of sacrifice of that sort? Remember that story in the Hebrew Scriptures when God steps in to stop Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac, and tells Abraham not to hurt the boy? And remember Jesus stepping in and stopping the crowd from stoning that woman who was caught in the act of adultery? Remember how he turned their blood thirsty hunger for punishment into reflective self examination by challenging them: “let the one without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)?

So for many, this teaching that God called for the sacrifice of Jesus in order to cancel the debt that humanity owed God, at best does not make a lot of sense any more, and at worst is down-right troubling.


And so many are then left with these central questions of faith unanswered: “Why the processional through that east gate? Why come into Jerusalem? Why a cross death? What was it for?” Now if that is true for you, and I am not saying it should be, for many still do find a sliver of understanding through this teaching of substitutionary atonement and that is well and good, but if unanswered questions still trouble you, I invite you to consider some new ways of thinking about the cross that are coming out of the scholarship and prayer of people like Mark Heim, Biblical scholar and pastor who is a professor of theology at Andover Newton Theology School.(4)

In the teaching of the substitutionary atonement, it is understood that God uses the cross to solve a problem that God has with God’s people. “People cannot repay God for what God is due so God will use the cross in order to make Jesus a sacrifice that repays humanity’s debt.

But in Heim and other’s teaching, it is understood that God uses the cross not to solve a problem God has with God’s people but to resolve a problem that people have with each other. And what is that problem humanity has with humanity? Well: It is the cross.

Let me explain.

Ever since the beginning of human communities, ever since the time of Cain and Able, a contagion of rivalry, competition, envy and violence has infected the way that we relate to one another. However, good and blessed we fundamentally are as God’s children, in our living with each other over time we succumb to and are acculturated by patterns of relational violence. We begin to think that the other is out to out-do us in some important ways that threaten our ability to be on top, we learn that might makes right and that violence is the most effective way of solving the difficulties this way of relating inevitably brings.

And if you are a ruler and those you rule are starting to get restless under your authority, history has shown that the most effective way of restoring peace is by redirecting that restless energy and channeling it against a common enemy, regardless of whether that enemy is truly guilty of what it is that is charged. Jesus after all was not the first to ever be crucified. Crucifixion was a well honed practice of keeping the peace in empire.

What is important in this way of violence is not practicing justice but retaining control, and if that means sacrificing someone so that order can be maintained, so be it. The ends justify the means. Look at the trial of Jesus. Pilate is clear Jesus is not guilty of any capital offense but Pilate is also perfectly willing to use Jesus’ death as a means for restoring order, as a spectacle to distract the people away from their Exodus longings and revolutionary undertones.

This is the world that Jesus came into that day when he came in through that East gate on the back of that lowly donkey. No wonder, he wept and cried “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace.”

Why does Jesus come into a city that surely will kill him? I am increasingly convinced that God wanted so desperately to save us from this torturous way of relating to each other. Jesus came in to Jerusalem in order to deliver us from all that the cross represents as an instrument repression, control, fear, violence and death.

God does not need Jesus to die on the cross to satisfy a need that God has. But God and Jesus in their loving embrace of each other and all humanity knew that it may take a cross death for God to break apart forever our paradigm of violence and fear and break into the human heart in a new way.

So how is it that Jesus cross death delivers us from the paradigm of violence that has so marked human interaction? First by fully exposing the injustice and brutality of that paradigm for what it is. For when people gazed on Jesus hanging on the cross on that Friday that is coming, many (not all) but many saw how wrong it was. One of the criminals crucified next to Jesus that day saw it. He said “This man has done nothing wrong.” Luke 23: 41. And even the centurion, one of those legions of soldiers who marched into through the west gate with sharpened spear and shinning sword saw it “Truly this man was God’s Son!” he exclaimed when the earth shook as Jesus took his last breath. (Matt: 27:54) And you see it in your questioning, when you sense that something is terribly wrong about this death and have the courage to begin to speak that protest out loud.

And each year, as we step into Holy week and approach the cross again, this new way of thinking about the cross insists that we too must come to terms with how wrong it was that Jesus died a cross death. We must comes to terms with the suffering we see exposed through Jesus death; how wrong it is that so many suffer; that so many lives and futures are sacrificed in the name of greed, self serving power and control.

But we know the story does not stop there. Heim in his teaching continues that Jesus saves us not just by exposing the sin of our violence-filled way of relating to each other but also by offering in its place a new way of being with each other forged in the fellowship of the ministry that was Jesus life and infused by the power of peace, love and forgiveness that is his resurrection.

For on that Easter morning when the disciples experienced in very real ways the living presence of Jesus, they must have been shocked that Jesus came back not to scold them or berate them for their failings of faith. Nor did Jesus head back into Jerusalem to wreck revenge on those who killed him. Instead he offered forgiveness and peace. This is not what they could have imagined. Nothing they had seen before would have led them to believe it could be possible. This was something new. Jesus’ living presence infused the disciples with a power and faith they had not had before. The words Jesus had spoken before his death, were just that words, but now in the light of the resurrection his teachings came alive in them. As they were in Jesus so too was he now in them. And a new way of being together was born. A new community came to life, characterized not by rivalry, control, competition, and violence, but instead by of service, humility, cooperation, and love.

So “What was it all for?” Why the provocative processional, why step into the jaws of hate, jealousy, rivalry. Why the cross?

To put an end to cross deaths. To put an end to employing suffering as a means of social control. To expose a culture of violence and death that chokes the very breath out of humanity for what it is. To enliven a new community infused with the living presence of Jesus, a community living love.


Now what this new teaching about the cross means is that every time we use violence, hate, demean, scapegoat, tear someone else down so that we can be built up; or every time we turn that violence upon our selves, hating our selves in self destructive ways, we participate in Jesus death. We are colluding with the very forces that nailed Jesus to that cross. But every time we love, forgive, serve, heal, lift up, reach out we are living into and out of the new life that Jesus’ resurrection birthed.

So in a very real way, I believe that the life of faith is all about deciding in each moment of each day on what side of the cross are we going to live. Are we going to live a way of fear, violence and hate, a way that leads to so many crosses and suffering? Or can we live out of the far side of the cross? Can we step out of the tomb and into new life empowered by the living presence of God’s love?

When we say that we are Easter people, that we want to live in the Way of Jesus, we are affirming the power of what it is that Jesus did that day so long ago on that cross. We are rejecting humanity’s age old patterns of hurtful and death dealing ways of relating and we are affirming and participating in the beginning of a new community born of care, compassion, service and love.

Therefore, when I now ask myself “What was it for?” I look around and I see you and I see what we are trying to do and be together and I see the way that God is animating and leading our living together. When I ask “What was it for?” I know, it was and is for us; for our life together in love, for a life giving and world changing Way of Love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Marcus Borg and John Crossan. “The Last Week” (Harper Collins: San Francisco, 2006). P. 2

[2] N.T. Wright “What Saint Paul Really Said.” (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI, 1997) p. 26-27.

[3] Footnote, 9, page 39 NT in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Michael D. Coogan, Editor (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2007).

[4] This sermon draws heavily on the work of S. Mark Heim in particularly his book “Saved From Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross” (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co: Grand Rapids, Michigan). 2006.