Palm Sunday: Look on death and believe in life

Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green

Based on readings: Luke 22:14-23:56

The Passion narrative leaves us at the threshold of Holy Saturday. Jewish days, following Genesis, begin in the evening: ‘And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.’ So as Good Friday ends at the tomb in the light of the dusk we are at the beginning of a long day.

As we approach the end of this story, we are confronted with the uneasy feelings left by betrayal, injustice, suffering and death. But the close of Saturday promises a new beginning — a new creation, a liberation and a putting to right of the world. Here is the world we inherit and in which we mostly live. Between the memory of suffering, of a generation, a nation, a person whom we have loved and lost, with the fearful knowledge that we are the inheritors of this broken Good Friday World; and the promise, we dare to hope in, that the fragile meaning and uncertain hope will emerge with the dawning of a new day. Saturday is of course the final day of creation, the Sabbath on which God rests.

At any time the grief of the pieta, the silence of the tomb may threaten to choke us with the fear of Good Friday’s return. What makes Christians different, what marks us out from secularism, which can only ever look backwards to the ambivalence of history, is the belief that love is somehow eternal. What is sewn in love on Good Friday in Christ, for us, is reaped in joy on Easter Sunday. The agony of the darkness of noon is pregnant with glimpses of light from the coming morning. And for our pilgrimage on Holy Saturday, this means that all our grief and suffering is shaped by and may be borne in the hope of resurrection.

John Donne wrote that ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less’. Perhaps it’s only part of our Euroscepticism, but the madding crowd of urban life has diminished our connectedness with one another, and we have largely displaced death out of sight to hospices and professional care.

Reading the Passion is an invitation to draw us back to solidarity with those who suffer, to connect us with one another, and remind us of our common mortality; to help us consider our humanity and draw us towards God revealed in Christ through this story. In the same sermon Donne writes that ‘any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’. How much more then does Christ’s death diminish us when we reflect upon it? And so as we reflect on this memento mori, we might listen for the bells ringing out in Putney Vale and the shadow of death, with Donne’s injunction: ‘never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ 

It is not easy to look upon suffering. Typically we avert our eyes or walk on more quickly. Today we are invited to dwell on those most human of matters; to look on death and believe in life. Christianity is the only religion to have at its heart a story of utter godlessness, suffering and pathetic humanity. To this day we remain surrounded, should we have eyes to see, by the same enduring godlessness, suffering and pathetic humanity. The challenge we face is to see in it the revelation of divinity and to be inspired through it to love God and to serve our neighbours.