Palm Sunday – April 17, 2011 – St. John’s
We are brought, during this week we call “holy,” back to the originating events of Christianity, to what was most distinctive about it as it began, to what still constitutes the heart of what it affirms about God’s dealings with us human beings. One scholar, James D.G. Dunn, has written recently, “‘God raised him from the dead’ is probably the earliest distinctively Christian affirmation and confession. It is presupposed again and again in the earliest Christian writings.” “As a historical statement we can say quite firmly: no Christianity without the resurrection of Jesus. As Jesus is the single great ‘presupposition’ of Christianity, so also is the resurrection of Jesus. To stop short of the resurrection would have been to stop short” (Jesus Remembered, 826).
That he was raised from the dead, of course, supposes that he died, and within two or three years of that death, disciples of Jesus had shaped something like a short credal formula that narrates the events we celebrate this week. It was taught to St. Paul himself. Writing to the Corinthians, he reminds them: “I handed on to you what I myself received: that the Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” At the end of almost two thousand years, it has been handed on to us, and it is because of what it tells about God and about us that we are gathered here today and will be in the course of this week.
For that statement about Christ’s death compels us not to imagine this commemoration as an exercise in historical reconstruction. It says: “The Messiah died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.” “According to the Scriptures” means in fulfilment of the Scriptures, not in the sense of fulfilling one or two isolated texts, but in the sense of bringing the whole of God’s dealings with mankind to fulfilment, to a climax, the fulfilment of the prophecies of God’s washing our sins away, of instituting a new covenant, of setting our relationship with him on an entirely new and different footing. In other words, from the beginning the story is a story relevant to us: Christ died for our sakes.
That indicates how we should approach this holy week: as one involving us, for whose sake Christ died and was raised from the dead. If it involves that generic “us,” it has to involve the specific “you” and “me” who comprise this “us.” Every one of us has to say: this is my story. It is on account of my sins that Christ died; that his death and resurrection enable me to escape from them; it is to me that the promise of a new life is extended in this narrative of what happened two thousand years ago. If we can engage this week’s celebration with this mind, then the events of so long ago cease to be events simply of long ago and become events in these celebrations and in our hearts and minds, events present in power and light for our lives.