Passion Sunday – April 5, 2020

You’ve probably seen the numerous advertisements from local and franchise restaurants that now offer home delivery of meals. Because of the challenges posed by social distancing and stay-at-home orders, local restaurants face a major struggle to maintain some small level of revenue. In an effort to survive in the marketplace, many businesses have embraced the strategy expressed in the familiar advertising tagline, “Pizza Shed Delivers.”

There is a very different form of delivery explained and offered in the Passion Narrative that was proclaimed at this Liturgy.

Matthew’s Passion Narrative describes Jesus as wrongly accused by envious religious leaders, condemned though innocent, and sacrificed like an expiatory offering to God. The crowds who exclaimed, “Let his blood be upon us and our children” (Mt. 27:25), were playing the role of unwitting prophets. They proclaimed Jesus to be like the Passover lamb whose blood was a sign of salvation offered by God. When he died, the earth shuddered, causing the soldiers at his cross to exclaim, “This was certainly the Son of God!” (Mt. 27:54)

Matthew’s Passion Narrative describes Jesus as being a person who lived up fully to his name; the name Jesus means “God delivers.”

Sadly, it is common today to treat God as a provider of religious goods and services. Unfortunately, consumer culture has corrupted even the Gospel message. It is all too common to think of Jesus as existing solely for the purpose of delivering favors and commodities to us, but this is not the meaning of his name.

The name Jesus, “God delivers,” derives from the experiences of the Israelites when they escaped slavery in Egypt and began their desert sojourn to the Land of Promise. Repeatedly, God delivered them from the hands of their enemies.

God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God delivered them in battle against stronger, more heavily armed foes. Finally, God delivered them into the land “flowing with milk and honey.” (Ex. 3:8) “Deliver,” in this sense, means to rescue, to save, or to redeem. The name Jesus, then, means “God rescues God’s People from their sins.” (Mt. 1:21)

The notion that Jesus redeems people from their sins is a common refrain in Christianity, but it requires clarification. There are many definitions of the word “sin” and Jesus was sent to rescue the faithful from one, specific form of sin.

In civil religion and secular society, sin is defined as anything that detracts from or interferes with human (pursuit of) perfection. The religion of the Prosperity Gospel, and all other forms of materialism, define sin as material poverty. The Self-Improvement Gospel, and all acts of self-aggrandizement, define sin as lack of self-esteem. All forms of self-righteousness, whether overtly religious or not, define sin as spiritual poverty.

The Gospel of Jesus, in contrast, defines sin as the worship of human perfection. Consequently, all the versions of religion in the paragraph above count as sin in the eyes of God. All the schemes we use to make ourselves appear better than others, all the excuses we use to pass judgment on others, and all the falsehoods that allow us to deny the imperfection of our lives – these are the sins from which Jesus offers to deliver us.

Jesus’ death is our deliverance because, in him, God accepted and approved human poverty and made it the instrument of our deliverance. We now have the possibility of deliverance from, that is, freedom from the sin that holds us bound to a fantasy of personal perfection; we are delivered by relying on God’s perfection and God’s promise of eternal consolation.

God delivers God’s People from their sins, specifically, from the sins of believing that we can deliver ourselves from sin through our own efforts. This is what it means to say that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Phil. 2:11) Each time we recite the Creed at Liturgy, we claim to believe in deliverance from sin through the death of Jesus. Our claim counts as actual belief, however, only when we live as if God alone is our deliverer.