02 April 2023

The Liturgy of the Passion is a unique Sunday in the church year, should you choose to make this the focus of the first Sunday of Holy Week, rather than the Liturgy of the Palms. The focus of this week’s worship is the extended Gospel reading, which can stand on its own without a sermon, and offers some amazing possibilities for creativity and reflection in the service. This year, with all the suffering that has happened on a large scale around the world, the Liturgy of the Passion can be a good time to remember God’s grace and compassion in our grief, and God’s call for us to be agents of God’s mercy to those who suffer.

May the suffering of Christ touch our hearts again as we worship this week, and may we be those who touch the hearts of the suffering wherever we may find them.

Isaiah 50:4-9a: A prophecy of the obedient servant, beaten and mocked, but vindicated by God.

Psalm 31:9-16: The cry of God’s servant, persecuted and beaten.

Philippians 2:5-11: Jesus’ humility and obedience in his incarnate, crucified life, and God’s exaltation of Christ.

Matthew 26:14 – 27:66: At the Last Supper, Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial, and then at Gethsemane, Judas comes with the soldiers to arrest Jesus and the disciples flee. As predicted, Peter denies knowing him, and Jesus is tried before the priests and then Pilate, abused by the soldiers and crucified as mockers taunt him. Finally, he dies, and Joseph of Arimathea takes his body and buries him, but the priests request that the tomb be sealed and guards be placed to watch over it.
OR Matthew 27:11-54: This is the shorter version of the above reading, running from Pilate’s trial of Jesus to Jesus’ death and the Roman officer’s confession of Christ as God’s Son.

It is only the Gospel reading that changes each year for the Liturgy of the Passion, and the essential elements of the story remain the same with the Synoptic Gospels. The invitation for this Sunday is to meditate on the passion – the self-giving – of Christ, and allow its power, its drama and its impact for our lives to confront us again. If the long reading is used, there is little need for a sermon, and the Scriptures can be allowed to speak for themselves. If a message is to be preached, though, it is probably wise to avoid being either too ‘clever’ – trying to find something too new and surprising here – or too familiar – just repeating old formulae. This is a tough ask, but, perhaps, the key is to create space for the hearers to make their own connections and draw out their own implications. One thing I would certainly avoid, though, is to make the focus of the service a simple “Jesus died for me” message. The solidarity of Christ with all who suffer, the refusal of Jesus to adopt the methods of the system, or to bow to the destructive violence of empire, and the willingness of Christ to give his life in order to live an alternative story are all powerful and exciting options for this week.

GLOBAL APPLICATION: When it comes to Jesus’ solidarity with and compassion for those who suffer, there is much to reflect on. The collective human suffering that gets reported in our news every day is heart-breaking. And what makes it worse is when Christian leaders seek to interpret these events as God’s judgement. Passion Sunday, rather offers us an opportunity to stand, as Jesus did, with those who suffer, and, if we must challenge something, to challenge the system which abuses our planet, and distributes both land and wealth unjustly and which results in far greater loss and suffering for the poor than for the wealthy. Perhaps the best response, though, is to call us to silence, and, if we must speak, to speak through actions of compassion and prayers of lament on behalf of those who grieve.

LOCAL APPLICATION: It is easy to get so overwhelmed by global suffering that the pain on our doorstep gets forgotten. This Sunday it may be good to remember that there are people sitting in our churches who are grieving, who have been abused or rejected, who are living with life-threatening diseases and who have lost homes or financial independence. It is deeply comforting to proclaim again that Jesus stands with all of these people in their pain, and that Jesus opposes any system that uses injustice, exploitation, control and coercion to achieve its ends. It can also be a gift to gently call people into service and compassion in the midst of their own grief, because it is often in serving others that we find comfort and healing for ourselves. In this way, the global suffering and the personal suffering can be brought together, with the cross as the place where they and Christ meet. Finally, it may also be helpful to spend some time in confession acknowledging the ways we contribute – both globally and locally – to the suffering of others, through our thoughtless consumption, our lack of awareness of companies and industries in which fair trade practices are ignored, our apathy and our self-absorption. All of this can be a bit heavy, but it’s important that our worship does not fall into a shallow “happy” mode all the time. While there are times for celebration, there are times for grief, and this is one of them. Yet, within the darkness, even as in the passion of Christ, there is always the glimmer of hope – seen here in the fear of the religious leaders that resurrection will actually happen.

If Not For Your Embrace Of Death
The Mystery Of Your Love
No Dying Today
What Life Can Be

Hymn Suggestions:
O Sacred Head Now Wounded
O Love Divine What Hast Thou Done
Jesus! The Name High Over All
Depth Of Mercy
And Can It Be
God With Us (Link to YouTube video)
Once Again (Link to YouTube video)

A Short Liturgy for Maundy Thursday (Can also be used for Passion Sunday)
A Liturgy for the Celebration of Sacrifice

Video Suggestions

The Last Painting