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A Sermon for Passion Sunday

by Dr. Robert Crouse

King’s College Chapel, 2006


“The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them…

but it shall not be so among you.”  (St. Matthew 20.25)




Our lectionary – that is, the series of Epistle and Gospel lessons appointed for Sundays and major festivals throughout the year – has remained substantially unchanged for well over a thousand years.  Even through the tumults of the Reformation, the lectionary, taken over from medieval service books, remained largely intact, with only here and there a slight addition of subtraction of a few verses.  That stable pattern of public readings, year by year, century by century, first in Latin, then in various vernaculars, has, of course, been immensely important for the shaping of the mind of Western Christendom; and it’s a factor of which we should always be conscious when we try to understand the history of literature, or music, or the other arts, as well as the history of theology and popular piety.


Because the tradition is so venerable, and because alterations to it have been so slight, changes in it should attract our thoughtful attention.  One such change – quite recent, introduced in our 1962 Canadian revision of the Book of Common Prayer, is the Gospel lesson for Passion Sunday (which we’ve just now read).  The old lesson was the story of Jesus’ final conflict with the Jewish authorities before the events of Holy Week.  Now, instead, we have the story of Zebedee’s wife, and her sons, James and John.  It’s a change which somewhat disrupts the logical pattern of the lectionary; but it’s also a change which introduces a striking and important emphasis in the Church’s proclamation of Christ’s Passion.


When I say that this change somewhat disrupts the logical pattern of the lectionary, I mean that, in general, the Gospel lessons for Lent and Passiontide set before our minds and hearts what Christ has done and suffered for us; while the Epistle lessons spell out the practical implications of that for our own lives, to show us how the sacrifice of Christ must, as today’s Epistle, for instance, puts it, “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”


Christ’s sacrifice is not only something done for us, once for all; it is that, certainly;  but it is also something which is done in us, in our minds and hearts, day by day.  Our faithful and thankful acceptance of Christ’s work for us, must also change us, must transform our minds and hearts, must sanctify our lives.


It is that side of the matter – our sanctification – that our Gospel lesson insists upon.  The way of Christ’s Passion demands in us an inner change of direction, a reversal of perspective, a different aspiration, a conversion.  In today’s story, the standpoint of the natural man is perfectly represented by James and John, by their mother, and by the whole band of disciples.  Their aspirations are surely perfectly natural human ambitions. But Jesus contradicts those aspirations, and points a different way.  “You know,” he says, “that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them”.  That is to say, there are certain worldly ways of doing things, certain worldly desires and ambitions:  for the Gentiles, greatness is a matter of power and dominion, sitting on the right hand of majesty, having one’s own way.  But in the Kingdom of God, says Jesus, that’s not the way things are:  “It shall not be so among you.”  Your greatness, your dignity, your nobility, is the humble obedience of the servant.  And there – you see – is the essential meaning of Passiontide for our own inner lives, our conversion.


Lent leads into Passiontide, and it is in the Passion of Jesus that all the lessons of Lent are summed up:  the demons in the wilderness, the demons of worldliness, the demons of false and empty ambitions and aspirations, all the destructive and self-destructive demons of self-seeking must be cast out from us, “by the finger of God”.  “It shall not be so among you.”  Our souls must be filled, instead, with the living bread from heaven, miraculously multiplied for us here in the wilderness:  the word of God himself, the word of obedient and sacrificial love, which is both death and resurrection; death, day by day, to our old and worldly selves, but a new birth in us, day by day, of a life which is eternal.


In our liturgy, we celebrate Christ’s Passion, the sacrifice of Calvary, represented here in bread and wine, the signs of body broken and blood outpoured.  We celebrate the presence of his sacrifice, as something done for us once for all – a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice – something which we gaze upon with adoration and with thankful hearts;  but that same sacrifice, we know, must also be something done in us;  it must be our food and drink, it must have its way in the transformation of our minds and hearts.  “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…”


Amen. +