This sermon was given on March 16, 2019 at a Service of Holy Eucharist as a part of the Charles Wesley Society Annual Meeting, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC.
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”
I have a tendency to critique the lectionary readings chosen for days when I’m supposed to preach. And, I’ve noticed this tendency, looking back at previous sermons and remembering my own complaints, however valid they may have been at the time. Today, I’m not going to complain about the lectionary. But, I do want to note how very odd our Gospel reading is. On the surface, it’s not clear about much of anything.
The Pharisees, so often the antagonists in the Gospel narratives, can actually be seen as being helpful in their attempts to get Jesus away from danger. Even as Jesus seems not to care about Herod, that fox. Jesus’s words about his work are esoteric. And, to their original hearers it’s hard to imagine what they thought he was trying to say.
Jesus ends the encounter by declaring that when they see him next, they will quote Psalm 118 – a psalm perhaps used liturgically in the Temple in preparation for Passover – but we’re left wondering just what these original thinkers thought he was doing. I can only imagine that those who heard this speech had no idea what Jesus was talking about. And that just might be the point; as odd as that might seem. But that’s not what appears in this text to those who follow him. In fact, to the believer, this text is not esoteric but points to some of the great truths of the faith; resurrection and Eucharist among them. But you need to spend time following Jesus around to see it.
The text begins with the Pharisees. And it might appear that the Pharisees meant to protect Jesus from Herod. “Jesus, get out of here. You need to leave. It’s for your own good, and maybe even ours. You’ve gotta go.” Yet what they do in the text is to provide the counter-balance for Jesus’s words, the last one’s that we read, which speak not of some random person who may come in the Lord’s name, but of his very self.
Those who will welcome God in whatever way he chooses to come, are those who are able to say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Yet only those who have taken on the mind of Christ, who see the world and everything in it, as God sees the world, will be able to see what is actually taking place.
The Pharisees are historical figures, but in this text, I think they actually represent anyone who tries to tell God how he is to accomplish his work. How often have we tried to make God in our own image, our own likeness? How often have we underestimated his power or his desire to show that power in and amongst the weakest, or the common? After the Angel announced to Mary, a teenager in a backwater, that she would be the God-bearer, filled with the Spirit she says, “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” God does not work according to our expectations. We must learn his.
Stanley Hauerwas once wrote that Christians need to develop taste. And on multiple levels, I think that’s true. Of course there’s always that wonderful joke that Catholics believe in salvation by works, Protestants salvation by faith, and Anglicans in salvation by taste. But Hauerwas has a point. What he’s saying is that we need to develop characteristics, maybe even virtues, that correspond or re-spond to the way God works in the world.
Perhaps we can even say that Christians are those who have developed a taste for grace.
I love to watch my students mature as seminarians and as those who answer the call of God on their lives. It’s quite amazing, the difference between a first year in his first semester and a third year in her last semester. I was talking to a student the other day about how chill his class is compared to some of my first years who fret. And he said, “We’ve got this. By the time we get to this point, we know what’s going on and what’s expected. We even know what grade we’re going to get on our papers when we turn them in!” Obviously, they’ve figured these things out.
But the Pharisees hadn’t. “Jesus, you need to go away. You might die, even here in Jerusalem.” It wasn’t just the Pharisees who hadn’t figured this out. Even Peter, the rock, the leader, was told “get behind me, Satan” because even he hadn’t figured out the ways of God. Compared to our expectations, God does weird things.
God welcomes sinners, every single one of them, and yet offers so much more than welcome. He offers himself. And in offering himself, he offers wholeness, transformation, love, and dare I say it, perfection, even in this life. God is that radical. He has done greater things than make your heart clean or my heart, and yet he offers that to each and every one of us.
God didn’t choose to use the most powerful to accomplish his mission in the world. He chose a ragtag band of wanderers and called them to be his own people so that they might in turn bless the world. God didn’t leave us to our own devices, even as we failed and turned against him. Even in the Incarnation, God didn’t come in power, but rather chose to “leave his Father’s throne, so free, so infinite his grace.” “Emptying himself,” in the words of Wesley, “of all but love.” Coming to us in vulnerability.
Sure, I’m well aware that Jesus when he says that they will greet him with the words of Psalm 118 is pointing to his triumphal entry into the Jerusalem, to the beginning of Holy Week and his ultimate Passion. That’s obvious to anyone who knows the story. And yet, I think he’s also pointing to something else, something in addition to that one historical event.
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord: a phrase to welcome Jesus, and the ways of God. In high church settings, some cross themselves when that line is recited in the Eucharistic prayer, as a reminder of who it is that we’re talking about.
Blessed is the Son of God, who comes in the name of the Father; a phrase that makes sense to those who have developed a taste for the ways of God. For those who have spent time with him, learned his habits. Blessed is the crucified God, who laid down his life for you and for me. Or even blessed is He, who by means of bread and wine, fills his faithful people’s hearts with all the life of God!
Someone who says these words to welcome Jesus just might actually believe that God is crazy enough to offer himself in something as common as bread and wine. And to actually believe that the idea of God coming in something so common, so ordinary, as ordinary as bread, and as ordinary as wine, makes perfect sense.
Ryan N. Danker