“Christ hath humbled himself and become obedient unto death, even death on a cross”
In the Church of my childhood we sang these words each Sunday in Lent as a fixed Gradual verse before the Gospel reading reminding us that the season of Lent prepared us to walk the way of the cross In Holy Week. I cannot hear the Epistle for Palm Sunday from Paul’s letter to the Philippians without hearing the tune and text that are rooted in my sacred memory.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.”
These words are echoed and amplified in our collect for this day,
Almighty and ever living God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility:
This prayer reminds us, as would the evangelist Matthew that the sacrifice of Jesus’ life begins with his birth. In his passion narrative which we have just heard Matthew amplifies the truth that the sacrifice of Jesus’s life begins with his incarnation by applying to his passion a structure that parallels his telling of Christ’s birth to drive home this truth.
Biblical Scholar Raymond Brown puts this plainly, “Matthew opens with Herod the King, the chief priests, and the scribes seeking the death of the child Jesus; as Matthew comes to an end Pilate the governor, the chief priests and the scribes are instrumental in putting Jesus to death.” It is only in these two places in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is called the “King of the Jews.” And if that was not enough in both the infancy and passion narratives there is a “fivefold patter of scenes alternating between those friendly to Jesu and those to seek to kill him.
The verse that always stands out for me the most in Matthew’s passion is the one which follows Pilate washing his hands and declaring he was innocent of this man Jesus’ blood..
“His blood be on us and on our children” His blood be on us and on our children. The words uttered by the chief priests and scribes, the religious authorities who wanted Jesus gone. Gone for upsetting their tenuous relationship, Gone because he stirred up the people and gone because he challenged them.
His blood be on us and on our children. I am a little reticent to preach on this text particularly in this time of increased anti-Semitic violence because some have used these words as a rationale for their antisemitism. To do so completely misses the point. We do well to remember the word of the much loved hymn, “ who was the guilty who brought this upon me, t ’was I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee, I crucified thee. Matthew is not speaking of a people but the religious leaders whom Jesus had already confronted and condemned as a brood of vipers opposing God’s purpose and truth.
And yet unknowingly they spoke a truth not just for themselves but for us all.
His blood be on us and our children. I cannot hear this words without next turning to the words Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, And I am reminded of the first Passover when the blood of a lamb was sprinkled on the doorposts so that the angel of Death might Passover God’s people. His blood be upon us and on our children. We are washed in the blood of the Lamb Jesus. His blood is on us. In the words of the old Spiritual, What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
We Episcopalians don’t talk very often about the saving blood of Jesus particularly outside of the Eucharist. Even the Prayer of Humble Access in this edition of the book of Common prayers has removed the mention our souls being washed in Jesus’ precious blood. I understand the rationale for doing so ( it gave the false impression of a duality in our salvation that Christ’s body cleansed the human body and his blood cleansed the soul) but I miss the imagery.
I wonder why this is so. Perhaps it is because so many of us grew up in traditions that over emphasized Blood atonement. Perhaps it is because bloody is an English curse word. Maybe it’s because we find the whole thing in poor taste. It could be we have embraced a new theological rage that wants to talk about non- violent atonement. I hope not. While violence may not have been required of God, Jesus’ death and resurrection is fraught with violence. He gave his back to the smiters, a crown of thorns pierces his brow, he sweat blood.
Let’s face it sisters and brothers the death of Jesus was a bloody mess. Jesus poured out his blood on the cross as he said he would at his last meal with his disciples. To drink his blood is to proclaim his death until he comes again. It is to proclaim that it was shed for us.
An ancient monastic hymn on the precious blood puts it this way
“To heavens highest height the wailing cry went up
of him who hung in pain, God’s own eternal Son
His saving priceless blood his Father’s wrath appeased and for his Sons full pardon won
Who’er in that pure Blood his guilty soul shall wash
Shall from his sins be freed be made as roses bright,
Shall vie with angels pure shall pleas his King and Lord and precious shine in his glad sight
That is the good News and promise of this day, we have a sprinkling greater that the blood of Abel, crying out for us. We have the blood of the New Passover to wash our sins and sustain our life. Christ poured out his life blood, he emptied himself taking the form of servant and sacrifice. That is the truth we proclaim this day. His blood is on us and we are set free.
I invite you as I conclude this sermon to open your hymnal to hymn 479, Glory be to Jesus” and as you prepare to come to the Lord’s Table to hear and pray its words.