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Palm Sunday

Readings: Is. 50:4–9, Ph. 2:5–11 & Mk. 15:1–39

One of the most critically acclaimed movies of this year is

‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’.

Kim and I saw it on Tuesday night, and the main message I took away from the movie, is

“hate begets hate”,

which is another way of saying that if someone takes an action against another person, which is motivated by hate, it will likely provoke an action or response from that person, also born out of hate, towards the person who perpetrated the original action. The process then becomes an escalation of increasingly hateful (and usually violent) actions, that people carry out against each other. This is in stark contrast to the message of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ that we find in the New Testament.

Without wanting to give away the plot of the movie for those who haven’t seen it, the hateful actions of the central characters in the movie, appear to be driven by pride, selfishness and egoism. These characteristics are the complete opposite to the great characteristics of the life of Jesus: humility, obedience and self-renunciation; all of which are mentioned in today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.

In this passage, Paul was pleading with the Philippians to live in harmony with each other; to lay aside their differences, to put away their pride and personal ambitions, and their for prominence and prestige, and to have in their hearts that humble, selfless desire to serve, which was the essence of the life of Jesus Christ. Pride, 1 selfishness and egoism destroy our likeness to Christ, and our relationships with each other.2 This was certainly true for the main character in ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’. Opposing this, we have the example of Jesus, his self-renunciation brought glory to God the Father, who in turn glorified Jesus by raising him from the dead.

Staying with the movie for a moment though, the actions of the main character are brought about by a great personal suffering, and as we heard in our first reading this morning, from the Book of Isaiah, which is the third of what are known as the four ‘Servant Songs’ that appear in Isaiah, the ‘Servant’ also experienced great personal suffering, but the abuse and shame heaped upon the Servant had no power or hold over him, thanks to his knowledge that God, who freed him from any form of blame or judgement, was near to him. This doesn’t mean that someone who is faithful to God’s command, like the ‘Servant’, doesn’t ever experience moments of doubt.

Take the prophet Jeremiah for instance, whose biography seems to have inspired important aspects of Isaiah’s portrait of the Servant. Jeremiah’s road to confidence in God’s care was filled with bitter questioning and times of deep despair. But an important dimension of the suffering of the faithful Servant comes into focus both in Jeremiah’s case and here: Through personal suffering, there steadily grows the capacity for a person to uplift a whole community that has been driven close to spiritual defeat by its own collective suffering. And this is the point Paul makes about Jesus. He

“humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Jesus experienced tremendous personal suffering, but did so with the humility, obedience and selflessness that were characteristic of his life, and his actions have inspired countless of people throughout history.

We hear of Jesus’ suffering in our gospel passage this morning, which is Mark’s account of the ‘Passion of Christ’. There is far too much theological content in this passage to do justice to it in the time we have available this morning, so I will focus briefly on what it says of Jesus’ humility, obedience and selflessness.

Paul wrote in his Letter to the Philippians,

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited”.

Jesus possessed the power of God, and could have easily have saved himself from the insults, abuse and torture that he was to be subjected to with his crucifixion. But he chose not to. He remained obedient to God’s will; and he did so with great humility. He didn’t argue with Pontius Pilate about the charges that had been brought against him by the Jewish religious leaders; he remained quiet and passive. He didn’t cry out or complain when he was flogged by the Roman soldiers, or ridiculed by the bystanders and the religious leaders; he remained quiet and passive. His death on the cross is the most selfless act in the history of humanity. He died so that others might be redeemed. His action was motivated by love; by his great love for humanity.

For me, the ending of ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’ has a sense of redemption about it. This redemption is brought about, perhaps not directly by an act of love, but by a shift in perspective, which is itself motivated by love. This redemption comes through acting from a sense of humility and selflessness, rather than from a sense of pride, selfishness and egoism. Redemption does not come from actions that are motivated by hate; redemption comes from actions that are motivated by love. We need think only of verse sixteen from chapter three of the Gospel of John:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

The Lord be with you.
Fr. Michael.

1 William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians
(Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2003), p. 41
2 Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, p. 45

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