Sermon for Passion Sunday
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
April 10, 2011
We come to another transition point in our Christian Year and in the Lenten Season known as Passiontide. This morning has been traditionally known as Passion Sunday to mark this intentional turn toward Jerusalem as we journey forward for these final two weeks in Lent. Passion Sunday is not to be confused with the Sunday next before Easter or Palm Sunday in which we hear again the dramatic reading of the Passion as our Gospel with all of its difference such as no response to its opening acclamation, the fact that the congregation is seated for the first part, and its abrupt ending with no closing salutation.
I was asked last Sunday why today is called Passion Sunday. One of the central reasons is the words of the Letter to the Hebrews that we heard in our Epistle lesson just a few moments ago. Much like the Book of Revelation, we do not hear a great deal of Hebrews read in our Sunday Lectionary, but I do believe that two dates in which we hear portions of Hebrews in our service stand out as fairly important days – Christmas Day and Good Friday. It stands to reason that those words carry tremendous weight in being assigned on two of the principal days of the Church Year.
This morning being called Passion Sunday is also known as the Sunday of the Atonement.
The church over the centuries has debated the different aspects of the Atonement, and different theologians have offered up their interpretation as to the different theories that make up this particular study of theology. The different notions of the atonement speak about Christ’s death on the cross, and what his death actually means, and what his death actually accomplished.
We can save the different theories for an adult forum class at a future date. The main reason I mention this is because of the way that this relates to our lessons for today.
The Hebrew Holy Feast of Yom Kippur is also known as the Day of Atonement. It was on this day, and this day alone, that the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and offer incense and sacrifices to God for the atonement of the sins of all of the Jewish people and the nation as a whole. There were detailed instructions regarding the garments to be worn, the sacrifices and rituals to be offered, and the manner in which all things were carried out. It was a time for the nation as a whole to call to remembrance their sins, and join with the High Priest as he offered prayers on behalf of the people in the presence of the Most High. In the first Temple the High Priest would have done all of his duties in the place where the Ark of the Covenant was located containing the Ten Commandments, the rod of Aaron, and a container of manna from the wilderness. Atop the Ark were the two facing Cherubim containing the Mercy Seat of God, the place where God dwelt with men.
This annual ritual was the time when an imperfect High Priest, would make an imperfect sacrifice to God, as a requirement of adherence to the Old Covenant. One thing to keep in mind here is that I am not saying that these rituals were wrong or ineffective. I’m not saying or implying that at all. I’m simply pointing out the fact that they were in light of the cross, deficient.
We come to these beautiful words of St. Paul to the Hebrews that are full of hope and promise as we examine what it means to have a greater High Priest, a more perfect sacrifice, and a new covenant that surpasses the old.
In the time of the Old Covenant the High Priest would have been of the tribe of Levi and a son of Aaron, appointed to serve in the Temple. Certainly there were many of this priestly line who were faithful, diligent, and godly in their ministrations. Yet, they were still human beings, and were subject to the very same trials, temptations, and sins as those for whom they offered prayer and intercession. When they offered of the sacrifices they were essentially no different than an ordinary Jew other than they had been set apart for their priestly duties.
When Jesus came to offer himself as the High Priest of the new covenant, He did do in a three-fold manner. First, he conferred richer blessings. He brings into reality the “good things to come” as we heard in our lesson. He is able to effect that which he performs. For the Jew, they hold to a promise that the Christian sees as a reality. What they hope for, the Christian sees as a certainty. Their future is our present.
Second, Jesus passes through a better Tabernacle. On the Day of Atonement the Jewish high priest would pass from the holy place or tabernacle into the Holy of Holies or the presence chamber of God. He through the cloud of smoke of incense was able to experience the glory of the Most High. At Jesus’ death He passed through the tabernacle of His body into the presence of God, beyond the veil of flesh. The Gospels make note of this fact when it says that the veil of the Temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. The barrier between life and death was broken. At His Ascension, Jesus passed through the tabernacle of the heavens to plead His sacrifice in the inner court beyond the veil of things visible.
Third, his atoning work was complete. For the old covenant the Day of Atonement was a something that had to be repeated year after year. For Jesus, He “entered in once for all.” The Jewish Atonement day was annual, our Christian atonement is eternal, and eternally perfect, needing and allowing no repetition. The misunderstanding about Catholic mass is the falsely held belief that the priest was “re-sacrificing” Jesus on the altar. The catholic teaching on the Eucharist in no way considers this a re-sacrifice, but rather a re-presentation of the “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. There is a big difference between the two.
Jesus’ work on the cross is a more perfect sacrifice than that offered by the high priest in the form of bull’s and goat’s blood. The Jewish high priest offered the life of an animal, a lower form than himself on the altar as he was commanded, and when offered with the proper disposition of heart was acceptable to God for the sins of the people. However, when compared to the blood of God’s own Son it’s easy to see that it pales in comparison. There’s no way to look at those sacrifices in the same light ever again when held up against the sacrifice of the Light of the world. Christ’s sacrifice was one of the self, of a Will obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. “The essence of sacrifice is not death, but a will obedient unto death, the uttermost test.” This was pre-figured in the obedience of Abraham and Isaac in which Abraham was willing to offer his only Son, and say to Isaac in faith that God would himself provide a lamb for the burnt offering. Little did he know that it would manifest itself in the way that we now know. For if the sacrifice under the old covenant was able to atone for ceremonial uncleanness, how much more does Christ’s sacrifice in perfect unity with the Sprit of God? “In union with such a willing sacrifice we can rise from dead works to the living personal service of a personal God.”
Finally, Jesus’ sacrifice was the institution of a new covenant. A principal manifestation of Yom Kippur was that the people were renewed in their state of grace with God through the temporal sacrifices offered on their behalf. Christ’s atonement on the other hand brings in a new and better covenant and “the pledge of our inheritance in the kingdoms of grace and glory. Thus, we are baptized into the covenant procured by Christ’s death, and are ‘baptized into His death.’ Baptism is, therefore, only the entrance of the individual into the sphere of the covenant, while the covenant itself was made ‘once for all’ by Christ’s atonement.”
Our liturgy contains these summary of this at the very beginning when we speak of Christ’s “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” When we hear those words in a few moments, let us recall what it took for us to even be able to recite those words week after week, and what makes those words possible. Those words become for us what they say only through the heart of a loving God who wants nothing more than to help us return to the perfected state for which we were created In the Beginning. Our very lives and existence was to be in perfect love, harmony, and fellowship with God and Man. Through our Lord’s sacrifice we are able to catch a glimpse of what that will look like for all eternity. For then we will be able to grasp these notions of the atonement and will then understand its original meaning of being at-one-ment with the God and Creator of us all to whom we ascribe all might, majesty, power, and dominion both this day, and ever more.