It is helpful at certain seasons of the year to recall what we are about when we gather for our weekly celebration. The Sunday of the Passion is such a day. We gather in order to pray. We do not come to prove anything in particular to God or ourselves nor to establish our virtue, but to appear before God who gives us life, to thank God for the gift of salvation. We do it this day with palm branches as the special sign, though bread and wine are the ordinary symbols every Sunday. Salvation means saving and the saving it means is total. It is not only being saved from the consequences of our sins, although that is part of it. It is being saved from death and disease and accident, saved from a life worse than the one we live, saved from a drowning at high tide once a day. The important thing about our being saved or spared is that it happens because someone was not spared. “Death is at work in us but life in you”, Paul wrote long ago (2 Corinthians 4:12). He meant that the apostles died daily so as to transmit the gift of life. It was possible to do so because Christ had died before them for the same purpose. His death is our life.

What does this mean, his death is our life? Is it true in the politician’s sense, who says in defence of his own willfulness and stupidity that the sons of the people shall not have died in vain? Is it true in the patriot’s sense, who says that a thousand thousand deaths are worth it to make us a nation once again? Is it true in the hero’s sense, who gives his life that his people may know peace and freedom? No, Jesus’s death is neither a bargain with heaven nor a gamble nor a calculated risk. Above all, it is not the slaughter of a brave young man engineered by God to excite our pity. It is God’s gift to us of a perfectly obedient life — God’s putting at our disposal the consequences of a life lived so well that all the mean-spiritedness of all the ages, the human disobedience of the centuries, had to snuff it out. Sin had no choice but to destroy it. Yet so powerful was this human life that the sum total of human sinfulness could only be conquered by it, not conquer it. The full tale of hatred from Cain till now is as nothing compared to the love of this life that ended in death.

Isaiah wrote centuries ago about a sufferer who would speak a word to the weary that would rouse them, a man who would give his body up to be beaten, having set his face like flint. This mysterious servant knew nothing of shame or disgrace. He had put his trust in God his help. The well-trained tongue with which he spoke was given him by God.

Many years later, those who believed that Jesus fulfilled the image of this ancient sufferer wrote a hymn in praise of him as the heavenly Adam who waived his rights. They doubtless sang it at their weekly gatherings like ours, even as they ate the meal in which they remembered him:
“He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… Being found in human form [though he was in the form of God]….
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:8-9).

The deepest meaning of our weekly assembly is that it unfolds the meaning of our lives to us in terms of the life of another. We see the pain in our neighborhoods, young people strung out on drugs; real estate agents, landlords, huge corporations growing rich at the expense of the poor. The spectacle of millions of persons displaced by war and violence. Our whole existence is a spectacle of death in the midst of life. The story of Jesus’s Passion is a spectacle of life in the midst of death. We have no time to waste on Sundays with trivialities. “Someone’s dyin’ Lord, kumbaya.” That someone is everyone, and only the death of Christ on the cross has anything to say to it. Is it important for us to celebrate the institution of the holy Eucharist this Thursday? I am sure it is. Our Lord’s death on Friday, burial on Saturday, resurrection on Sunday? I am equally sure. We may not not observe them. But there is a condition. We are not allowed the luxury of crocodile tears: lamenting a death that is far from us while conspiring in other deaths that are near. We may not say, “Let’s keep religion and politics separate,” when they were so intertwined in the Passion and death of Christ. He did not hang on a cross simply because of some theological abstraction known as sin. He hung there because the fruit of sin took the form of power people fearing the peace movement he represented, because they did not want to lose income or power, because keeping the Jews in subjection meant prosperity to the rich Roman colonials. You can see it, can you not? The voice of the poor had to be silenced. What Jesus does for us is remind us what it is to be human. And a world of inhumanity can have nothing to do with any policy so mad as that.