Palm Sunday 2018
Fifty-five years ago this week the Beatles released their first album. It included hits like “Please, Please me," “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “Do You want to Know a Secret.” I loved that album then. I still do. Last summer, my daughter asked me to choose a song for her and me to dance to at her wedding reception. “That’s easy” I said, “Let’s dance to John Lennon’s version of Twist and Shout," which I consider to be the best song on that first album. My daughter was thrilled with my choice, “That’s cool, Dad,” she said. I mention that because I was ten years old when the Beatles came on the scene. I fell in love with them quickly and for about the next decade of my life I, along with everyone else in my generation who did not idolize the Rolling Stones, idolized them. I had a happy case of Beatlemania. I eventually grew out of that state of semi-idolotry but I still do love the Beatles' music, especially that first album. I always will.
But my love for the Beatles is not unconditional. As great as their music was, Beatlemania led many, including the Beatles themselves into a dark place. The Beatles music at first was relatively innocent. They sang about experiences that were important to teenagers at the time. They had a hit song called, “I want to hold your hand”. It doesn’t get more innocent or sweet than that. But gradually they lost their innocence. The Beatles began to smoke pot and their music reflected it. Then they moved on to doing LSD and to glamorizing that experience. Then they went to India and got into transcendental meditation, openly embracing pseudo-eastern mysticism. Then they began to write angry songs about "revolution." The revolution they advocated was less political than it was cultural and sexual. Their own personal life styles of sexual promiscuity and drug use set bad examples for the millions of teens who saw them as cutting edge icons defining what it is to be cool. The message sent by their music and lifestyle was not lost on their adoring fans: cool people are liberated—liberated from the taboos and old-fashioned morality of a tired and out-of-touch Christianity; cool people are open-minded to finding new ways of being in the world un-bound by the prejudices and superstitions of Christian orthodoxy. The end result of this counter-cultural movement—a movement that would have gone nowhere nearly as fast without the Beatles and their music—was that millions of young people lost their faith and forever lost interest in the Faith ( Jude 3). And a whole generation of kids who might have become Christian apologists became agnostic hippies and drop outs rejecting the Faith before they ever had a chance to even understand it. That’s no small thing. It was major cultural tragedy the effects of which we are still feeling today.
How different might our social history have been and how different might we as a people be today had the Beatles been faithful Catholics who went to mass every Sunday or born-again Christians who went to Bible Study on Wednesday night? What if they had not been sexually promiscuous and rejected pot and other drugs? Might they have defined cool for our generation in other terms? Could it ever be cool to be Christian? What if John Lennon instead of writing a song called “Imagine," a sad paean to his pathetic atheism, had written a reverent hymn to Jesus? We might be singing a Beatles hymn today in church. Is it so hard to imagine? Was Jesus really so un-cool?
After church today someone will ask you what the sermon was about and some of you will say, “He preached about the Beatles and said he didn’t like them.” Be kind. That isn’t fair. I love the Beatles. But I regret what has happened to our society in the last fifty–five years since the Beatles came along, and I regret the advent of what’s become a universal and ubiquitous pop culture, born of Beatlemania that is, at its core, dogmatically secular and anti-Christian. You might argue in rebuttal that I have no cause to be so critical. Jesus taught that love is the aim of life and the Beatles music celebrates love. After all one of their best songs has the refrain, “All you need is love.” What could be more Christ-like than that?
All right, you make a point. There’s no denying that Jesus taught us before and above all things to love one another (Mt.22.34-40; Lk.10.29-37). And every Sunday before the offering I quote the words of Saint Paul to the church in Ephesus, “Let us walk in love as Christ loved us.” ( Eph.5.1-2) I think we all agree that Jesus stood for love. And so did the Beatles. So does the Pop Culture, or so they think. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that when the Beatles sing “All you need is love” they are defining love in wholly humanistic terms. “The love you take is equal to the love you make," whatever that means, is how John Lennon put it in another lyric. The significance of Jesus, by contrast, is that his love for us was more than human. He revealed to evil and selfish men and women by his sinless life, his prophetic death and his inspired resurrection, the very nature of divine love. “No greater love has a man than this “he said, “that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13) True love is sacrificial. And no one has ever made a greater sacrifice for more undeserving and largely ungrateful people than that which Jesus Christ made for the whole world by his willingness to accept torture at the hands of Pontius Pilate and death by crucifixion.
That’s why we’re here today: to remember what he did for us by his suffering and death on a cross and to know what it means.
There are many in the world today who would say that his death doesn’t mean anything special. It just means that one day long ago on a hill in Jerusalem a very good man was unjustly executed by religious bigots and was bullied to death by a tyrant. It just means that nothing in this world will ever change until people learn to beat their swords into plowshares and love one another. It’s the oldest story in the history of humankind: good guys finish last.
There’s only problem with that interpretation of the story of Jesus’ death. Jesus was many things, a humble man who lived at home with his mother until age thirty, a prophet who put his life on the line to proclaim the word of God; a king come down from Heaven to rule Israel in peace. But the one thing he was not was just a good man. A good man is the one thing he could not have been.
“ For heaven’s sake”, some are thinking, “how can you stand in the pulpit of a church on Palm Sunday and say that Jesus was not a good man?” I say that out of respect for him because anyone who honestly examines his life and takes him at his word sees that Jesus did not leave us the option of regarding him as just another good man. He was and could only have been one of two things. He was either the “righteous one” of whom Isaiah spoke: the sinless, sacrificial victim who would by his death “make many righteous” (Is.53.4-12), the Savior to whose coming among us to stay all the prophecies of the Old Testament point (Mt.13.16-17). Or he was a bad man, a liar, deceiver and blasphemer who pulled the wool over the eyes of his disciples and to this day continues to sew religious discord and controversy wherever his name is mentioned. Either way he was not just a good man. He was either much more than that or much less than that. He either was who he claimed to be: the Christ and eternal king of Israel whose rule, he said to Pilate, “is not of this world” (John 18.36). Or he was, as his accusers said, a magician whose occult powers to work so-called “miracles” came not from God, whom he blasphemously called “my Father,” (John 5.17-18) but from Satan (Mt.12.24). In other words he left us no choice but to either worship him as God’s Son or reject him as an impostor. But to marginalize him as a good man is not an option. He ruled that out the day he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.
What does a donkey have to do with it? It was not by accident that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. His choice of vehicle for this triumphant parade may have seemed foolish to some but it was deliberate on his part. Remember what he said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”(Mt.5.17). One of the prophecies that he had to fulfill was the word spoken by Zechariah, “Your king will come to you humbly and riding on a donkey” (Zech.9.9). By doing this, Jesus publicly identified himself as the humble king of Zechariah’s prophecy. If it was just a random act of foolishness, Jesus had every opportunity to tell the crowd that he was not really a divine king and that they shouldn’t be waving palm branches and welcoming him as the Savior. But he did not do that. He let the crowd think what they were thinking, that their long awaited king had come at last. So you see, after he did what he did on that fateful Palm Sunday there was no going back. There was no retreating after that into the safe space of saying, “Hey man, I’m just like you. I just want love and peace to rule the world. That’s all I’m trying to say, man. All you need is love.” No. He presented himself to Israel as their king. After that, he would either prove to them that his rule was eternal or they would hang him for blasphemy. The irony of the story is that in order to prove himself the eternal king, they had to first hang him for blasphemy.
In a few minutes from now, before the offertory, I will once again say to you, “Let us walk in love as Christ loved us”. But that is not all of it. The full quote is this: “Let us walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph.5.1-2). The reason Jesus surrendered himself to death and allowed himself to be tortured and crucified by men from whom he could easily have escaped had he wished, was that he came to earth to die for us. He who was sinless came among us as one of us to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. This was something, an eternal redemption that he alone being, by virtue of his divine nature, God’s only begotten Son could accomplish. And it had to be accomplished because we need more than love. Our salvation depends in part on our commitment to a life of good works (Titus 2.11-14), “do everything in love”, the apostles said repeatedly (1Cor.16.14). But for there to be any hope of salvation in the first place, we need our sins forgiven, we need the curse of eternal alienation from God set upon our race by God as the punishment for Adam’s original sin, to be lifted. That is what Christ accomplished for us by his death on the cross. That’s what he meant when he uttered with his last breath, “It is finished”(John19.30).
By his death, he established for us all the means by which we might be in full communion once again with God (Jer.31.31-34). That is why it is misleading to say, “All you need is love” when what we need most of all and first of all is what Jesus Christ gives us: baptism for the remission of original sin and Holy Communion for the forgiveness of our actual sins. That’s the food and drink of our soul’s salvation; that is the sure foundation of world peace; that is where eternal hope and true love is to be found: in the blood of Christ shed for the sins of the whole world on a cross (1 Pt.1.17-19; 1 John 2.1-2).