Only the One Who Destroys Death Can Bring Peace: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9; John 12:1-18

          On this great feast of Palm Sunday, our epistle and gospel readings call us to respond to even our most severe challenges with the peace that passes understanding.  When the Savior raised His friend Lazarus from the tomb after four days and showed that He is the resurrection and the life, corrupt religious leaders concluded that they had to find a way to kill the One Whom they saw as a threat to their power. The same crowds who hailed the Lord as their hope for a religiously inspired revolution to liberate their nation from the Romans yelled “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!” not long afterwards.  They obviously lacked that peace.

If the ultimate fulfillment of our lives were found in achieving power, success, or even personal happiness by conventional standards, it would be impossible to obey St. Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to “Have no anxiety about anything.”  He was not writing to people who somehow were free of the difficulties that are common to us all.  He did not advocate a way of life that was in such harmony with dominant trends of society that he faced no opposition.  Indeed, the Apostle wrote these words while under arrest for his bold ministry for Christ, for Whom he would ultimately die as a martyr.  The foundation of the peace he describes was not in hope for any particular course of events, but in the confession that “The Lord is at hand.”  In other words, because Christ is coming “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your petitions be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Today we celebrate that the Lord is at hand, for He is coming into Jerusalem as the Messiah, hailed by the crowds as their Savior.  He does not come to usher in an earthly reign or to serve any nationalistic or political agenda.  He enters Jerusalem on a donkey, a humble beast of burden, carrying no weapons and having no army.  He had no well-oiled political machine to tell the powerful people what they wanted to hear or to manipulate the masses.   His Kingdom was and is not of this world. The crowd did better than they knew when they “took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!’”  For this was not a new King David who would make their nation great by conventional standards, but the Lamb of God Who will take away the sins of the world through the shedding of His own blood.  He will reign by being lifted up on the Cross, dying as a victim of brutal capital punishment, descending to Hades, and miraculously rising in glory from the tomb on the third day. In doing so, He will reveal the pathetic weakness of the corrupt powers of this world and even work the death of death itself.

In one week, we will celebrate His great victory, but we are not there yet.  We live in a world that still longs for its redemption and remains all too subject to the fear of death, which fuels insecurity and anxiety about the host of challenges presented to us by contemporary culture and in our own daily lives.  Those who believe that their ultimate meaning and purpose is found in their ability to advance a worldly agenda or attain a goal of whatever kind will always be enslaved to worry fueled by the reality of the grave.  The more successful they are, the more they have to lose, as it could all disappear in an instant.  That is true of our possessions and accomplishments, as well as of our own lives and those of everyone else we know, love, or view as our allies in any endeavor.  Viewing the world in this way leads to fear, suspicion, and resentment and inspires anger, hatred, and even violence toward those we view as potential threats to our wellbeing.  Inevitably, those who do so will see far more people as threats to be overcome than as neighbors to love.

That is exactly how the people who rejected the Lord viewed Him.  They saw Him as a threat to their power, which was based on distortions of the faith of Israel that served the worldly agendas of various groups.  The Romans took advantage of the situation to remind them what they routinely did to anyone perceived as a threat to their power.  That is why Pontius Pilate had a placard identifying the Savior as the king of the Jews attached to His Cross.  Such things are not done by people who are “anxious for nothing.”

Our calling this week is to enter into the profound contrast between the insecurity of the fallen world and the peace found through our crucified and risen Lord.  It is always easy to focus on what is going wrong and to obsess about what we may lose in the future.  While we cannot fully control our thoughts or feelings, Saint Paul tells us that we can mindfully offer our deepest concerns to Christ “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving…”  That is how “your requests [may] be made known to God” Whose peace “which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  This is what we must do in order to share in the life of a Savior Who conquers death, which is at the root of the dark impulses that lead to so much wickedness in the futile effort to raise ourselves up out of the pit of despair.  Only the Lord Who refused the temptation to gain worldly power throughout His ministry has the power to overcome the meaninglessness of the grave.  By offering Himself fully for our salvation on the Cross and rising in glory on the third day, He has destroyed the very basis of the fear that makes true peace impossible for those who live according to the standards of our world of corruption.

Because He has done so, we may lay aside our fixation on earthly cares and obey St. Paul’s advice: “[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  That does not mean simply to speculate about holy things with our rational minds, but instead to unite ourselves to Christ from the depths of our souls.  That is the only way to put the very real problems of our life in this world in the perspective of His Passion.  Christ knew full well that the triumphal entry to Jerusalem would lead to the Cross in a matter of days.  Out of love for us, the Savior entered into the tension between the fallen world and the eternal life of His Kingdom.  In order to bring salvation to us who were enslaved to death, He offered up Himself, accepting the full consequences of the wages of sin in order to triumph over them in His glorious resurrection.

If we want to follow the Savior to His Cross and empty tomb this week, we must open our anxious, insecure, and resentful souls to Him for healing.  He has made even the black night of the grave an entryway into the brilliant light and eternal peace of the Kingdom.  If we refuse to entrust even our worst problems and fears to the One Who has triumphed over death, we will never escape the inevitable anxiety of those who think that they must become their own saviors in this world and somehow raise themselves up from the pit of despair.  But since we all die, who then would ever be free from despair, for who could have hope for life in a world of death?

Especially this week, we must mindfully confront the contrast between our darkest fears and the brilliant glory of Christ’s victory over death. Especially this week, we must refuse to be distracted by anything from entrusting ourselves to the One Who has destroyed the very root of our misery.  The Savior Who rides into Jerusalem on a humble donkey has shown power beyond what this world knows.  He took upon Himself the very worst that the forces of evil can do and then rose triumphantly over them.  When we know from the depths of our souls that the joy of Christ’s empty tomb comes through the terror of His Cross, we will gain the peace that enables us never to embrace despair.   Today the Messiah enters Jerusalem to make even death itself an entryway to eternal life.  That is why we must always say with St. Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything…And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

 

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