The Cycle of Violence Ends Here (a sermon for Good Friday)

We come together today to remember how our Lord Jesus Christ was arrested, flogged, tortured and brutally executed in one of the most painful ways imaginable. And surely, as we think about the Good Friday story, we can have a real sense that on that day, God was truly one of us. God came among us and shared the experience that so many people go through in our world today – the experience of being a victim of oppression, violence and unjust death.

I prepared this sermon at the end of last week, a week in which we saw the gas attacks on Syrian civilians – including children – followed by the so-called U.S. ‘retaliation’, in which fifty-nine cruise missiles were used to destroy the Syrian airfield from which the attacks were launched. This is of course just the latest round in the long tale of violence and brutality in the story of Syria. Government and various rebel factions have been at odds for years, and the process of strike and counterstrike has been going on day by day, causing hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. And it’s set in the midst of a bigger picture: the tensions between Russia and the West, and the long history of western interventions in the Middle East, which don’t exactly have a good track record of achieving long term peace and stability.

It’s not my intention this morning to preach a political sermon. I simply want to point out that this is the world we live in, and it was the world Jesus lived in too. In our world (to use a slightly older example), Israeli gunships destroy a Hamas hideout and kill twelve people; the response is a suicide bombing in which fifty people are killed. You wipe out my village; I’ll respond by wiping out your city. In the world of international realpolitik, this is assumed to be the only safe and wise thing to do. People need to know that if they hit us, we’re going to hit them back, only harder. They kill our innocent people, we’re going to respond by killing innocent people on their side – except, we’ll kill twice as many. The response is more suicide bombings, more innocent people being killed, and so the cycle of violence goes on. Killing leads to more killing; retaliation leads to more retaliation.

Just occasionally, though, we get a glimpse of a different way.

In November 2005 a twelve-year old Palestinian boy, Ahmad Al Khatib, was mistakenly shot in the head by Israeli forces at a distance of 130 metres; it was later shown that he was carrying a toy gun that looked very realistic. His family, rather than crying for revenge, donated his organs to three Israeli children who were waiting for transplants. His father said that their decision was rooted in memories of Ahmad’s uncle, who had died at the age of 24 while waiting for a liver transplant, and that they hoped the donation would send a message of peace to both Israelis and Palestinians.

And so the unbelievable happened. Ahmad died of his wounds on Saturday November 5th 2005. On Sunday November 6th, three children underwent surgery to receive his lungs, heart, and liver. The father of 12-year-old Samah Gadban, who had been waiting five years for a heart, called the donation a “gesture of love.”

Ahmad’s father said he hoped to meet the recipients of his son’s organs. “The most important thing is that I see the person who received the organs, to see him alive”, he said. And so Samah Gadban’s father invited Khatib and his family to a party for Samah when she left the hospital. “I wanted to thank him and his family”, he said. “With their gift, I would like for them to think that my daughter is their daughter”.

My friend Rob Heath wrote a song about this incident; it includes these words:

His Dad said ‘If you want peace, somewhere it has to start.
With this my son has entered every Israeli heart’.
The army said they’re sorry, then braced for violence;
This time, unlike the others, there would be no revenge.

And the chorus goes,

Some people say with just one life
you can change the world.
What if they’re right?

What Ahmad al Khatib’s father was saying was “Somewhere the violence has to stop. If we want peace, someone at some point has to make the decision not to retaliate. I’m going to make that decision. The violence stops here”.

I believe that this is a central part of the meaning of the Good Friday story. Listen to these words of Paul from 2 Corinthians (I’m reading from the Common English Bible).

‘All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

Notice that little phrase, ‘not counting people’s sins against them’. In the conflicts going on around the world today, people are constantly counting one another’s sins against them, meeting violence with further violence again and again. Many of them believe that this is what God wants them to do. But it’s going on in families too. Someone does something despicable that hurts another member of the family; that person retaliates in word or deed, and so the conflict escalates. “Forgive? I can’t possibly forgive him! You just don’t understand how much he hurt me!” And so each party continues to hold the other party’s sins against them, and families are ripped apart, in some cases for generations.

Paul is telling us that this is not the way of the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us that God longs for reconciliation with us, but God knows that there is only one way for that reconciliation to happen: at some point, someone has to choose not to retaliate. And so, in Christ, God chose not to retaliate; he didn’t count our sins against us, but chose to forgive instead.

We see this in Luke’s story of the crucifixion of Jesus. Luke wants to teach us that the cross of Jesus is the means by which we receive forgiveness of our sins, and so Luke tells the story in this way:

‘When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”’.

A few verses later we read these words:

‘One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong”. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”’ (Luke 23:32-33, 39-43).

Earlier in his life, Jesus had said these words to his disciples:

“But I say to you that listen: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-28, 32, 35-36).

Now Jesus had an opportunity to put his own teaching into practice. In the garden of Gethsemane, when he was arrested, Peter took out a sword and used it to defend Jesus, cutting off the ear of a servant of the high priest, but Jesus rebuked him and said, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). He then allowed himself to be arrested and taken to the house of the high priest, where he was condemned to die. When the Roman soldiers drove the spikes through his wrists and hauled him up, nailed to the crossbar of the cross, he didn’t respond with curses and abuse, but prayed that they would be forgiven. And when one of the insurrectionists who were crucified with him turned to him in faith, Jesus assured him of eternal life as they hung on their crosses together.

Like the father of young Ahmad al Khatib, Jesus was saying, “No more! The hatred stops here!” And so he loved his enemies, did good to those who hated him, and blessed those who cursed him. He imitated his heavenly Father, who pours out his sun and rain on the good and bad alike; Jesus was merciful, just as his Father in heaven is merciful.

But there’s more to it than that. Paul tells us that ‘God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). Christians believe that Jesus is not just a good man or a great religious teacher; we believe he is the Son of God, and so God has come to live among us in him. What is the nature of this God? Surely the cross tells us he is a God who loves his enemies. The Jewish people who handed him over to death – Pontius Pilate who allowed an injustice to be done to him rather than standing up for what was right – the Roman soldiers who crucified him – they stand for all of us. God himself came to live among us, full of love and truth, but we found his love to be too much of a nuisance and a challenge, and so we rejected him and nailed him to a cross. But the Good News is that God rejected our rejection. God didn’t respond to our outrageous murder of his Son by blasting us all to hell with thunderbolts, or by sending twelve legions of angels to rescue Jesus and kill his murderers. What God said to us, in effect, was “You can kill me, but the one thing you can never kill is my love for you”.

What is our response to this amazing gift of love and forgiveness?

Some people, like the first man who died with Jesus, continue to reject him. They can’t accept that this man is anything more than a failed prophet. They can’t believe that this way of accepting death on a cross is a victory over evil; it looks far more like a defeat to them. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, ‘The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’, and ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). But he goes on to say, ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (25); ‘to us who are being saved’, he says, ‘(the cross) is the power of God’ (18b).

And so, like the second man who died with Jesus, we turn to him in faith, we admit that we have sinned, and we ask for forgiveness and assurance of eternal life. Luke tells us that if we do this, Jesus will gladly give us what we ask for; “Today, you will be with me in paradise”. God offers forgiveness freely to everyone; however, we have to accept that forgiveness – we have to personally appropriate it – because God will not force himself on anyone.

And one more thing: we also are called to walk in the way of the Cross, loving those who hate us, doing good to those who persecute us. As has been done for us, so we must do for others. Towards the end of his life, Peter wrote these words:

‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth”. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:21-25).

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us. The Cross of Jesus is like a great cosmic black hole, sucking up all the anger and rage and rejection and violence that we have ever hurled at God, and letting nothing return – nothing but love. So let’s thank God for the gift Jesus has given us on that Cross. And let’s also pray for the strength to follow the way of the Cross ourselves, which is the path he has set before us.

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Random Lent Thought for Maundy Thursday: Humble Service

washing-feet-ghislaine howard

The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’, which means ‘commandment’ (we get the word ‘mandatory’ from ‘maundatum).

In the Upper Room, at the Last Supper, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus said to them: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, NIV 2011).

It has often been pointed out that ‘love one another’ was not a new command; something very like it appears several times in the Old Testament, and Jesus had previously given it to his disciples.

What is new is the description of the love: ‘As I have loved you’. The disciples are instructed to imitate Jesus in loving one another.

What specific acts of Jesus are in view here?

At the beginning of the chapter John says of Jesus, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (John 13:1). This is clearly looking forward to the story of the cross. So we can say without hesitation that we’re called to imitate the love Jesus showed for us in the cross. This is sacrificial love, not ‘feeling’ love. Jesus doesn’t show the disciples his feeling of love by dying on the cross for them. The dying is the act of love. ‘Grater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13).

So we’re called to be ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for one another. Am I ready to do that? Probably not. Maybe I need to pray on that.

But I suspect there’s something more pressing for me to pray on. The other way Jesus loved his disciples was to wash their feet. This was the slave’s job, but for some reason no slave had done it that night. Consequently, after spending the day walking the dusty streets of Jerusalem in open sandals, Jesus and his disciples were now reclining on low couches around a table, their feet literally in each other’s faces. The omission would have been painfully obvious.

Apparently no one was willing to do the slave’s job, so Jesus got up and did it. When he was done, he said, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15, NIV 2011).

Many churches (ours included) will remember this action of Jesus tonight by having foot washing services. I love this custom, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is real obedience to Jesus’ command. Foot washing today is unusual and exotic, but in the time of Jesus it was a mundane task of humble service.

What are the tasks like that today? The simple, humble tasks we do for others as ways of loving them? We make each other cups of tea and coffee. We prepare meals and clean up after them. We change smelly diapers. We clean up messy houses. We care for aged relatives as they lose control over their bodily functions. We support organizations working in refugee camps. We sit with difficult people and listen to their problems, for the forty-seventh time.

We used to have a saying in the college i attended: “I’ll die for you, but I won’t run up to the third floor to fetch your sweater for you”. It’s highly unlikely that I will be called on to die for my fellow Christians (though it may happen). But it’s absolutely certain that today and every day I will be called on to die to selfishness and self-centredness by performing humble acts of service for my sisters and brothers in Christ.

I am not very good at this. Lord, have mercy, and help me follow the footsteps of Christ.

(Painting by Ghislaine Howard. For more of her work see ghislainehoward.com)

(This will be my last RLT this year. Thanks to all who have read and commented, here and on Facebook!)

Random Lent Thought for Wednesday in Holy Week: Reconciliation

‘In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ (2 Corinthians 5:19, NRSV). That’s what Christianity is, according to Paul: a message of reconciliation. It starts with reconciliation between God and humans (and note the direction of that – ‘God was reconciling the world to himself’, not ‘God was reconciling himself to the world’). But it doesn’t stop there: Christians are also called to be people of reconciliation.

How does that start? It starts when someone makes the decision not to hit back, not to take revenge. As long as people continue to retaliate – ‘You bombed my village, I’ll bomb yours back’ – then reconciliation can’t happen. Reconciliation begins when someone decides to be the first one not to hit back. ‘You have wounded me deeply, but I am going to absorb that hatred and anger and reply with love and compassion’.

This is what God does for us. Throughout history we humans have rejected God’s way of compassion and love. God has sent his messengers, but we have refused to listen to them. We have preferred the way of greed and violence, selfishness and self-centredness. We have an incredible capacity for messing things up. And when God himself came among us to live as a human being and show us what he is like, we acted true to form: we rejected him and nailed him to a cross.

Every self-respecting god in the ancient world would have known how to respond to an outrage like that. Lightning! Thunderbolts! Judgement! But God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ did not. The God who came to live among us in Jesus did not retaliate. He acted like a wimp, some might say: he refused to defend himself, rebuked his followers when they took up the sword to protect him, and prayed that God would forgive those who murdered him.

This is grace: God doesn’t give us what we deserve, but what we need. God’s love for us is truly indestructible. This is the Gospel of reconciliation. And we’re invited to take God up on that offer: lay down our arms and return to him, so he can pour out his love on us and teach us how to live in love. ‘So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’ (2 Corinthians 5:20).

And then we’re called to go out and live in reconciliation with others. As we have been loved unconditionally, we are called to extend that love to others too. As Jesus did not strike back or take revenge, we’re forbidden as his followers from indulging ourselves in vengeance. We’re called to be peacemakers, not war makers; we’re called to love our enemies, not hate them; we’re called to give them food and drink, not turn our face away from them. We’re called to put our loyalty to Jesus and his way above any loyalty to race or nation or political philosophy, and to refuse their command to us to hate and hurt and kill.

‘For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:19 NLT).

Carry on.

RLT for Tuesday in Holy Week: A prayer for today

I love this Holy Week prayer from the traditional Book of Common Prayer (1662 England, 1959 Canada):

Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I note a couple of things from it that I will take into the day today:

First, the cross is about God’s tender love. Some presentations of the atonement give the impression that a vindictive God was eager to take out an enormous temper tantrum on the world, but his good and kind Son was able to restrain him by stepping in the way of the bolt of lightning. Scripture doesn’t bear this out, of course: Paul says ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). The cross is about God coming among us and experiencing in his own flesh the rejection of the human race, and rejecting that rejection: in other words, we nailed him to a cross (which is the way we have so often treated his overtures of love), but he responded with love and forgiveness.

Second, we are called to follow the way of the cross, by ‘following the example of his great humility’ – or, as Paul put it,

‘You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Thought he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross’.
(Philippians 2:5-8 New Living Translation).

How do we follow his example? Let’s close with the words immediately before the passage I just quoted:

‘Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate?Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

‘Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too’. (Philippians 2:1-4 NLT).

Carry on.

Random Lent Thought for the Monday in Holy Week: ‘When I Am Lifted Up’

Yesterday in the liturgy for Palm Sunday I read these words:

‘Today we greet him as our King, although we know his crown is thorns and his throne a cross. We follow him this week from the glory of the palms to the glory of the resurrection by way of the dark road of suffering and death. United with him in his suffering on the cross, may we share his resurrection and new life’.

Many churchgoers like to skip from the glory of the palms to the glory of the resurrection without going through the dark road of suffering and death! Although our attendance at St Margaret’s on Good Friday is usually pretty strong, still there are those who choose not to attend that service in which we celebrate the central reality of our faith – the self-giving love of God pouring his life out for us on a cruel cross.

The cross is such a counter-intuitive way of saving the world! Jesus says in John’s Gospel:

“Now is the time for judgement on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31-32 NIV 2011).

And John adds,

‘He said this to indicate the kind of death he was going to die’ (v.33).

Paul says that the message of the cross seems like weakness and foolishness to the world, but to us it is the power of God and the wisdom of God (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). This message of the Son of God choosing to go all the way to a cruel death rather than turn back from doing his Father’s will – choosing not to take vengeance on his enemies, but rather to pray for their forgiveness – and somehow winning the decisive victory in the battle against evil by the sacrifice of his own life – this message has spread around the world and won the hearts of millions.

It’s not a message of power and glory that draws people to Jesus. It’s the beauty of his self-giving love shown in the ugliness of the crucifixion. This week in the Christian Church we lift high the cross. Yes, of course, we’re going to celebrate the resurrection with glory and trumpets – but not yet. For a few days, we’re going to stay at the cross.

The Power of Love (a Palm Sunday sermon on Matthew 21:1-11)

I once heard a story about a city in South America with a fourteen-lane highway running through the middle of it. Scary as it may seem, at the time this story was told there were no traffic lights to regulate this highway. Instead, at various points along the road there were police towers. Policemen would stand in these towers to regulate traffic, and whenever they raised a hand, the traffic would screech to a halt. One day a small boy happened to get up into one of those towers when there was no policeman in it. He raised his hand as he’d seen the policemen do, and sure enough, the traffic screeched to a halt. The drivers were so used to obeying the occupants of those towers that they didn’t stop to check if the boy was legitimate or not!

Imagine the thrill in that small boy’s heart. “All I have to do is raise my hand just so, and look – fourteen lanes of traffic come to a standstill!” We laugh, because it’s funny, but there’s a dark side to this funny story, too. What that small boy was probably feeling was his first taste of an emotion that has caused trouble throughout human history: the love of power.

‘All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, and we’ve certainly seen plenty of that in the recent past! Some people enter political office already corrupted. Others start out with the best of motives – the desire to do some good, and to serve their fellow human beings. Sooner or later, however, the seduction of power begins to work its evil spell, and it’s a rare person who can resist it. It’s not that politicians are any worse than the rest of us. It’s just that the lure of power is so attractive that we poor sinners find it desperately hard to stand up to it.

Christian churches aren’t immune to this. A clergy friend of mine once said, “There’s a game people play called ‘Church’; it consumes enormous amounts of money and energy, it’s all about power and control, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Christian Gospel!” I’ve watched people play this game; I’ve even played it myself at times. I too have been corrupted by the love of power, which just goes to show that my heart isn’t yet fully converted to the Way of Jesus.

The Palm Sunday story, which we read today in Matthew 21:1-11, is all about the tension between the way of power and the way of love. Let’s think about this for a few minutes.

Jerusalem in the time of Jesus was ripe for a Messiah to come and set it free. The city was under the thumb of the Roman occupation armies. Powerful people in high places had made their peace with the Roman regime and were now doing quite well by going along with its cruelty and corruption. And all the time, ordinary people – the majority, that is – were living in poverty and oppression. What the city needed was a strong king to raise an army in the name of God, kick out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders, and clean things up by force. This was a role many people wanted Jesus to fulfil.

In the time of Jesus many Jewish people were waiting for their Messiah. They believed he would be a descendant of their greatest King, David, and like David he would be a man after God’s own heart. He would come in the name of God, drive out oppression and corruption, and establish the kingdom of God on earth. And so would come about the perfect society, with peace, prosperity and equality for all.

Jesus lived out his life and ministry against the backdrop of this expectation, and some would say he would have done better to go along with it. If we look closely at the Gospel stories we can see that this idea was already taking root in the minds of some of the people on Jesus’ team. In the chapter before today’s reading the mother of James and John comes to Jesus to ask a favour: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21). She believes Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem to become king by force, and she wants to make sure James and John will be his chief ministers and get the most glorious positions in that kingdom. Like all moms, she wants the best for her children – including getting more recognition than the children of other moms. See how seductive power can be, even in people who are committed to Jesus’ mission.

Jesus chose not to take the route of power; he chose the way of love instead. He was a king, but he chose to be a different kind of king – a servant king. He turned away from the temptation to follow the way of power, and chose instead to follow the way of love.

Matthew structures this Palm Sunday story around an Old Testament prophecy from Zechariah. He quotes from it in verses 4 and 5: ‘This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey”’. In its context in the book of Zechariah, this is a Messianic prophecy with a difference, because the king isn’t coming to lead armies and wipe out the enemies of Israel. Rather, he’s coming to bring peace and justice to all nations on earth.

Kings in the time of Zechariah did in fact ride donkeys at times, and when they did so, it had a specific meaning. A king who rode a war-horse was coming in battle or in victory. But a king who came riding a donkey was coming in peace. Matthew is emphasizing this meaning. The word in the original language that our NRSV Bibles translate as ‘humble’ is the same as ‘blessed are the meek’ in the Beatitudes; my Greek lexicon says it also carries the meaning of ‘gentle’ – the very opposite of a soldier going to war.

So Zechariah foretold the Messianic king coming to Jerusalem to claim his kingdom. In our reading, Jesus seems to be intentionally acting out this prophecy. This is actually the only occasion in his life on which Jesus is recorded as riding a donkey or a horse. Normally he walked everywhere, but now he borrows a donkey and rides into the city. His disciples walk with him, and acclaim him as ‘the Son of David’ – a title for the Messiah. Jesus enters Jerusalem, heads straight to the Temple and drives out the moneychangers and animal sellers. He and his followers then take possession of the Temple courts. His disciples must have thought, “This is it! He’s finally going to do it!” They must have been able to practically smell their places at the new royal court!

But then comes the anticlimax. Jesus doesn’t seize power and begin the violent revolution. Instead, he comes to the Temple each day to teach the people, heal the sick and hold debates with the religious establishment. Then at the end of the week he practically hands himself over to be unjustly tried, flogged and crucified, and he forbids his disciples to resist in the strongest possible terms.

Why did Jesus choose this route? Because he knew that driving out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders wouldn’t solve the real problem. They weren’t the real enemy. The real enemy is our human propensity for messing things up, for breaking things, for breaking people and relationships – in other words, the evil and sin that infects us. This is the enemy that spoils our relationship with God and with other human beings. This is the enemy that must be defeated before injustice and oppression can be broken forever.

The way that Jesus chose to defeat this enemy was the strange way of giving himself to death on the Cross. The Scriptures strain human language to try to describe how the Cross accomplished this. It’s as if Jesus offered himself as a willing sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Or, it’s as if Jesus took our place, the innocent dying instead of the guilty, so that we could go free. Or again, it’s as if we were slaves to sin and evil, and Jesus’ death was a ransom price paid to set us free. Or again, just as sometimes the sacrifice of some soldiers in battle brings a tremendous victory over the enemy, so Jesus’ death was the decisive victory over the forces of evil.

The reality of what the Cross means is far beyond our human understanding – that’s why the writers of the New Testament struggle so hard to describe it to us. What is certain is that the power of the Cross of Jesus to bring healing and change to our world is cosmic. But note what kind of power it is – the power of love. Rather than using his power to take revenge on those who murdered him, Jesus chose to accept the suffering and death they inflicted on him, and to pray for their forgiveness. And because he did that, we know that we too can be forgiven, and reconciled to God.

When the great victory had been won on the Cross, King Jesus did indeed send his armies out into all the world. But he sent them out with no weapons but the message of the Good News, and the command to love others as they had been loved by him. This was the only force that spread the Christian message, and yet in the book of Acts we read that those Christian missionaries turned the world upside down.

What would it mean for us to truly follow the example Jesus gives? It would mean that we’d start out as God does – by respecting the free will of every human being and refusing to coerce others to do what we want. In the Christian community, it would mean that instead of trying to force our agenda on the church, we would join with our fellow Christians in listening together for God’s will. It would mean that we would always be more willing to accept suffering from others than to inflict it on others. It would mean that we would be continually reaching out to those who have rejected us with the healing love of God in Christ. It would mean that we would take the hard road of sacrificial love instead of the easy road of playing power games.

“That’s a tall order!” Yes, of course it is! Jesus never said that Christianity would be easy. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The way of the cross is always hard – but it’s the only way to spread the Kingdom of God. So let us resolve today that we will follow the example of Jesus. Let’s speak the truth in love as he did, and let’s be willing to walk the hard road of the cross in love for others. As we Christians learn to do that – to walk the way of love, not the way of coercion – I believe we’ll see the power of God’s love unleashed in a new way to transform the world. That can begin today, in the places where we live, as the Holy Spirit works through you and me.