Palm Sunday (C): The Wounded God Meets Us in Our Wounds
By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds speak; And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
– Edward Shillito, “Jesus of the Scars,” 1917
The words above are the closing lines of a poem entitled, “Jesus of the Scars.” Written by the English Free Church minister Edward Shillito in 1917, they are lines pieced together that attempt to make sense of the remarkable suffering and violence unfolding in the very world he inhabited in light of the Christian faith he professed.
I first heard these words as a sophomore at Montreat College in the context of a sermon during Holy Week in 2008. Each and every year, at some point in Holy Week, I return to Shillito’s poem as I seek to make sense of the extraordinary suffering, unspeakable violence, and selfish injustice that continues to exist in the twenty-first century and the nature of God revealed in Jesus as the drama of the Passion Gospel unfolds.
The portion of chapters 22 and 23 of Luke’s Gospel, appointed for Palm Sunday, is a narrative of servanthood, suffering, and self-offering, a narrative rich with meaning for the 21st century Christian seeking to make sense of the world.
This lengthy Gospel lesson opens its first movement with Jesus and his disciples gathered together to celebrate the Passover meal. It was, no doubt, something they had done together previously. On this occasion, Luke tells us that a dispute has emerged: who is the greatest? This is not overly surprising; earlier in Luke’s Gospel, the disciples have already engaged in arguments over who among them is greatest (Luke 9:46-48).
While John’s Gospel records the dramatic event of Jesus washing the feet of his closest friends, Luke’s account has Jesus offering a simple yet direct teaching: “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” By his presence at the table and his emphatic teaching, Jesus invites his disciples and us into a way of life that is built upon service to the other. Jesus serves.
Such teaching does not come without cost, however.
Presumably a short time later, while keeping his custom of prayer, Jesus is arrested in the Garden, but not without incident. After Jesus receives the kiss of his betrayer, the kiss of a familiar friend, the ever zealous Peter swipes the ear of an officer with a sword. In the midst of all that is happening in this passage of scripture, it is all too easy to miss this simple servant act. Jesus offers healing to one of the very individuals who will inflict suffering upon him.
Fast forward a few hours and Jesus is led before the various authorities in rapid succession—the Chief Priests and the Scribes, then Pilate, then Herod, and back to Pilate. At each stop on this journey, the Holy One is mocked and accused. Jesus suffers.
Arriving again in the presence of Pilate, Jesus is found unworthy of a death sentence. Pilate suggests flogging and release, but the crowd has none of this suggestion. “Crucify, crucify him!” In some congregations, the assembly has the opportunity to join in the shouting of these words as they are read in the Gospel, an acknowledgement of one’s own participation in the crowd that dismisses and convicts the Holy One of God.
Led to the “the place of the Skull” carrying his own cross until a man named Simon is seized to bear this burden, Jesus is crucified alongside convicted criminals. Even here, in the moments leading up to his death, Jesus does not miss the opportunity to show mercy; to offer himself to the other. One of the criminals bids him to save himself while the other begs for Jesus to remember him. Jesus’ response is a promise of presence with him in Paradise.
This journey with Jesus in scripture through the final hours of his life concludes for us in the final words of self-offering, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” God made known in Jesus of Nazareth has served, has suffered, and has offered himself fully. Through the charity of another he is laid in a tomb. His disciples walk away and, in terror, they rest. Jesus offers himself.
In this Passion narrative we encounter God who serves and who suffers, the one who self-offers Godself for the sake of the other. This text was written in a time, and we read it in a time, when such an idea could hardly be more counter-cultural. Shouldn’t leaders be served? Wouldn’t we rather put our faith in one who avoids suffering at all costs? Wouldn’t it be easier if God hadn’t offered so much?
The God we encounter at the table, on trial, and hanging from the cross is not like anything or anyone else we can encounter. God, whom we meet in Christ Jesus, is a god who does not avoid the suffering of the world, but enters into it. God whom we encounter around the table is not a god waiting to be served, but on who leads in the serving. God who encounters the convicted criminal on the cross is not a god who shies away from offering himself in mercy, but one who offers himself fully.
In this Gospel text, we journey with Jesus in the final hours of his life. We as readers recognize where we ourselves have not been willing to go with Jesus, and where we are being called to join him—in serving, in suffering, and in self-offering. We do not go there alone. In the wounds we encounter the Holy One, the Christ, whose wounds meet our wounds and invite us all to be made whole.
The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.