‘Sent to Serve’ (a sermon for Maundy Thursday on John 13.34-35)

A Rule of Life is a tool some Christians use to become more intentional about their plans for following Jesus in a practical way. Some rules are large and detailed, like the one St. Benedict developed for his monks in the sixth century, which is still used in Benedictine monasteries today. It dots every ‘i’ and crosses every ‘t’ and doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation and adaptation. Other rules are more like general principles and guidelines, giving a lot of leeway for individual Christians to figure out how to apply them in their daily lives.

Last year in the Diocese of Liverpool in England, Bishop Paul Bayes introduced a Rule of Life like that. He challenged all Christians in his diocese to take it and think about how they would live it out in their own lives. This is a bare bones Rule that asks for a lot of thought and prayer on the part of those who use it. It’s simply this: ‘Called to pray, read, and learn. Sent to tell, serve, and give’.

I like this Rule because it gives lots of leeway for everyone using it to try out different ways of applying it, ways that work for them. We can easily see that praying, reading and learning are three avenues of receiving strength and wisdom from God—that’s the ‘input’ side. And we can easily see that telling the good news, serving others, and giving generously are integral parts of active discipleship—that’s the ‘output’ side. But each of us needs to decide for ourselves exactly what that looks like in our daily lives.

Now you may be thinking, this is all very well, but what’s it got to do with the Maundy Thursday story?

Simply this: When Bishop Paul first proposed this Rule for Liverpool diocese, some people criticized him because the word ‘love’ doesn’t appear in it anywhere. Surely love is the centre of the Christian life, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we name it, then? Shouldn’t we specifically mention ‘love’ as one of the ways we’re called to follow Jesus? After all, in our gospel for tonight we heard Jesus say,

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13.34-35).

This is it, says Jesus! This is the essential sign of true Christian faith—loving one another as he has loved us. And if this is so important, why wouldn’t we name it as a central part of our practical, daily discipleship?

In principle I agree with this, but nonetheless I’m going to support Bishop Paul here. My reason is that ‘love’ is an English word, and the Gospel of John wasn’t written in English. It was written in Greek. And one thing linguists will tell you is that no word in one language is ever the exact equivalent of a word in another language. The donor word will have additional shades of meaning that can’t be captured by any single word in the receptor language, and vice versa.

In modern English the word ‘love’ is used in all kinds of ways. Some people love hip hop music and listen to it all the time, to the great annoyance of their friends! Some people love curry. Some people love the poor and demonstrate it by volunteering in soup kitchens. Some people love elderly relatives and give hours each week to serving them. Some people love their spouses or romantic partners. Some people love their old jeans. Some people love their favourite political party.

Are we using exactly the same concept here? Of course not. None of the situations I described above is exactly equivalent. Some of them are vastly different from each other. And yet we use the same English word for them.

But one thing many of them have in common is an emotional component. Love is a something we feel. We may do something active because of our love, but our love itself isn’t an action. It’s not a verb. It’s an emotion, often located in our ‘hearts’.

Greek has a word like that: eros. Eros is desire for something wonderful. You can feel eros for a beautiful person, or a sumptuous meal, or even for God. But eros isn’t about helping or serving. It’s desire for an experience of participation. Today we use ‘eros’ primarily to describe sex. In the ancient world it was a wider word, but the basic principle is still true.

But when the New Testament writers talked about love, they used the word ‘agapé’. Agapé means love in action. It’s something you do, not something you feel. When you visit elderly relatives, clean up for them, drive them to medical appointments and so on, what you’re doing is agapé. Agapé isn’t what you’re feeling (there’s another Greek word for family affection!)—it’s what you’re doing. Likewise when you hammer nails at a Habitat for Humanity building site, or give to World Vision, or stick with a friend who’s struggling with addictions even when they’re a nuisance. No matter what you feel, you are living agapé.

Jesus is the prime example of agapé for us. In our Gospel he says “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”. How does he love us?

This weekend gives us two examples of the way he loves us. The most dramatic way is by going to the Cross and dying for us. Jesus’ love is absolute and complete. There’s nothing he won’t sacrifice for us, even his own life. He loves not only his friends, but also his enemies. When his enemies whip him and spit at him and nail him to the Cross, he refuses to fight back or retaliate. He will die himself rather than act out of hatred or revenge.

You and I may be called to do that. Certainly around the world today there are Christians who are called to do that. They live in places where it’s dangerous to be identified as a Christian. But they do it willingly, and many of them give their lives, sometimes in very painful ways.

Of course, there are other ways of giving your life than dying. Some people leave lucrative careers to give themselves in Christian service in poorly paid jobs in obscure parts of the world. I think of people with Ph.D.s in linguistics who are spending their lives in the jungles of South America working for Wycliffe Bible Translators, translating the scriptures into languages spoken by only a few hundred people. I think of colleagues of mine with seven years of university and master’s degrees under their belts, who’ve moved away from family and friends to the far north to serve in the most isolated and poorly paying churches in the Anglican Church of Canada.

These are dramatic examples of taking up your Cross and following Jesus. We Christians are challenged to be ready to do that if we sense God is calling us to it. But most of us probably won’t be called to do it.

All of us, however, are called to follow the other example Jesus gives us: foot washing. This was not a spectacular job. It wasn’t anything romantic. It was a practical necessity. People wore open sandals, roads were dusty and muddy. They then came in for the evening meal. It wasn’t served at tables like ours with people sitting upright in chairs. Michelangelo’s ‘Last Supper’ gets it all wrong! There would be a central table with the food on it, and then people would recline in angled couches all around that table. They would recline on one elbow and use their other hand to help themselves to food. And when they did that, their feet would be in very close proximity to their neighbours’ noses!

That’s what footwashing was all about. Usually the servants or slaves did it when people came in for the meal. But on that night, for some reason, no one had done it. Maybe there was no slave or servant. We don’t know. But we do know that eventually Jesus got down, removed his outer garment, took a basin and went around washing the feet of his disciples.

What does he say next?

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13.12-17).

And this is where we come full circle to Bishop Paul’s Rule of Life. “Servants are not greater than their master,” says Jesus. Agapé is about serving. It’s not about emotions but actions. Bishop Paul’s Rule of Life says we are ‘sent to serve’. That’s where agapé fits in. I would argue that ‘serve’ is actually a better word than ‘love’, because in modern English ‘love’ is such an emotionally loaded word. ‘Serve’ makes it clear we’re talking about actions.

And this is something we’re all called to do in very down to earth ways. The danger of a footwashing service is that we can sometimes forget this. Footwashing isn’t a normal part of our daily lives. But dishwashing is. Clothes washing is. House cleaning is. Shovelling snow from an elderly person’s walk is. Volunteering at a soup kitchen is.

Tonight we serve one another symbolically by washing each other’s feet and hands. But let’s not forget that we have to make the symbol a reality in our daily lives. We do that by looking for practical ways we can serve one another, and then doing it willingly.

And let’s not forget that we need to be willing to receive service as well. So often in the Christian community we’re cheated out of the opportunity to serve because our fellow Christians won’t admit they need help. We need to be willing to be vulnerable, to admit we can’t do everything. We need to be willing to ask for help when we need it. And then, as a community, we need to be faithful to Jesus’ call to serve one another as he serves us. That’s what it means to love. And that’s how people will know we’re Jesus’ disciples.

5 ‘Looks’ of Holy Communion (a sermon for Maundy Thursday)

In the early years of the Christian Church there were all sorts of wild rumours floating around about what those mysterious Christians got up to in secret. One of the more persistent rumours was that they were cannibals. “Haven’t you heard? When they get together they eat someone’s body and drink his blood!” If we find that a ridiculous rumour, that’s because we’ve had two thousand years to get used to the idea! If you were hearing it for the first time – “Eat my body…drink my blood” – you’d be freaked out.

So what does it mean, this special meal that Jesus gave us? I suspect that very few of us could clearly explain what we believe about it and what we experience as we share in it. Many Christian teachers have tried to find ways to help us grasp it. One that has been a big help to me was something I read years ago in a little book by a theologian called Griffith Thomas. He said that it’s helpful if we think of the different directions we’re looking in as we share Holy Communion together. There are five of them.

First, we’re looking backwards – back in time, that is – to the Cross. Paul says:

‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me”. In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me”. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

So Holy Communion is all about Jesus’ death; we ‘proclaim his death until he comes’.

Why do we need this reminder? Because the Cross of Jesus is where we see most clearly the amazing love and grace of God. The Cross is where human rebellion against God reaches its lowest point: God comes among us himself, as one of us, in the person of his Son, speaking nothing but truth and sharing nothing but love. But, as John’s Gospel says, ‘people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil’ (John 3:19). So we reject God, we condemn him and whip him and nail him up on a cross to die.

But what’s God’s response? Not judgement or vengeance, but forgiveness. ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’. On the Cross Jesus demonstrates most clearly what has always been God’s character, even though human ideas have sometimes obscured it: grace, mercy, forgiveness. We have a God who loves his enemies, and that’s the heart of the Christian Gospel. So we need this regular reminder – this dramatic reenactment at the Lord’s Table as the bread is broken and the wine poured out – so that we don’t forget the way Christ’s body was broken and his blood poured out to embody the love of God for the whole world.

We had a parishioner here once at St. Margaret’s who used to look at the cross whenever he received communion. It was very vivid to me. I would place the bread in his hands – ‘The Body of Christ, broken for you’ – and he would say ‘Amen’, and then look up at the Cross while he was eating the bread. I’ve never forgotten that.

So first of all, we’re looking backwards. Second, we’re looking forwards, to the coming of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus gives his disciples the bread and wine at the Last Supper, he says, “I tell you, I will never again drink from this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).

The idea of the kingdom of God as a great feast was very common in the time of Jesus, and it often appears in his parables. He says the kingdom is like a wedding banquet that we’re all invited to – and the invitation list is wider than we often think. He says, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).

Obviously we’re speaking in symbolic language here – when you think of the millions of saints who have gone before us, it’s hard for me to imagine a banquet table big enough to seat them all! But this small gathering tonight, this little taste of bread and sip of wine, is a foretaste of the fellowship we’ll share with all God’s people when his kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. So we’re not just looking back to the Cross – we’re also looking forward to the future, when God heals the world of evil and sin and we’re all joined together around his table as members of his family.

Third, we’re looking upwards, to Jesus, asking for his daily help. We’re asking him not just to be far away from us at the Father’s right hand, but also close to us – as close as the food we eat.

For two thousand years Christians have debated exactly what Jesus meant at the last supper when he said ‘This is my Body, broken for you’, and ‘This is my blood, shed for you’. Some have taken a very literalistic interpretation: the physical form of this bread and wine is changed ito the physical form of the body and blood of Jesus. Others have seen it as being symbolic – just as we need to receive our food and eat it, so we need to receive from Jesus the benefits of forgiveness he has poured out on us at the Cross.

For myself, I stick to the words of Jesus in John 6:35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never been hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. In other words, Jesus is as essential to my life with God as food is essential to my physical life. Just as food sustains me, so the presence of Jesus sustains me. If I’m feeling a deep spiritual hunger and thirst, then I need to come to him and believe in him.

Receiving communion together is one of the ways we ‘come’ to him and ‘believe’ in him. We come with empty hands and hold them out in faith; we receive the bread and wine, looking to Jesus; we eat and drink, and through these simple bodily acts our union with Jesus is strengthened. He lives in us by his Spirit, and his life in us becomes more real and vivid as we share his sacrament.

Personally, there are two prayers I find really helpful just before I receive communion. One is a traditional Roman Catholic prayer: ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and I will be made whole’. The other is a line from an old hymn I’ve known since I was a child: ‘O come to my heart, Lord Jesus – there is room in my heart for thee’. I use these prayers almost every time I receive communion.

So we’re looking back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there. We’re looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God where we will all be invited into the heavenly banquet hall. We’re looking up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger. Fourthly, we’re looking around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table.

We don’t eat this meal alone. We always eat it with others. This is not just about ‘me’ receiving ‘my’ communion; this is about our unity with others. Paul puts it simply and beautifully in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17:

‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’.

We can see the lovely symbolism here: the Corinthian Christians meeting for the Eucharist in their little house church – small enough that one loaf of bread and one cup of wine is big enough. One loaf is broken and shared – one cup is passed around – and they who are many are one Body.

Which is why the reality of unity is so important. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that if we’re coming to give our gift to God at the altar and suddenly remember a quarrel we’re having, we need to go first and be reconciled to our sister or brother, and only then come back and offer our gift. The early church applied this to the Eucharist too. The sharing of the peace was not just an empty symbol for them; it was a time to go to the person we had something against and make up with them, before coming to the Table with them.

I remember years ago, in a small church, noticing that a man who always came up for communion had not come up that Sunday. I went to him after the service and said, “Is everything okay?” He replied, “I had a fight with my wife before I came to church today, and I just knew I wasn’t in a fit state to receive communion – I have to go home and apologize to her”. That man really ‘got’ the idea of Holy Communion as a call to reconciliation with one another.

So – back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there – forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God – up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger – around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table. Fifth and last, we’re looking into our hearts before we come, preparing ourselves for this sacred feast.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul talks about how the Corinthians weren’t taking the Lord’s Supper seriously. In those days it wasn’t a service like we do now – it was more of a pot luck supper, with prayers and teachings attached. But some of them were coming early and eating all the food, some of them were getting drunk, others were going hungry. What’s this about, he asks? And then he says, ‘Examine yourselves, and only eat then of the bread and drink of the cup’ (1 Corinthians 11:28).

So it’s good for us to have a time of preparation each week before we come to communion. Maybe we can get up a little earlier on Sunday and spend some time in prayer. Are there sins I particularly need to repent of and ask God’s forgiveness for? Are there people I need to call and apologize to – bad relationships to put right? Are there people I’m refusing to forgive?

When the Book of Common Prayer invites people to confess their sins before communion, it says it like this:

‘Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort…’

So the two issues that are flagged here are repentance and reconciliation.

I’m not saying we have to be good and holy and perfect before we can come to communion – of course not. If that were true, none of us could come! The BAS says, ‘God welcomes sinners and invites us to his table’. But, as someone once said, ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there!’ This meal together is meant to strengthen us and teach us to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways. And so we prepare ourselves by repenting of our sins and being reconciled with God and with our neighbour.

So – let’s walk around this one last time! We look back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there – forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God – up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger – around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table – and into our hearts before we come, preparing ourselves for this sacred feast.

As the altar guild are preparing the water for the footwashing, let’s take a few minutes of silence to think about which if these five ‘looks’ speaks most clearly to us tonight, and what we can do to live into it more fully.

Sermon for Palm Sunday on Mark 11:1-11

How do you change the world?

Some people try to change the world with a business plan. They identify a need, they come up with a product that meets that need, and they get out there and aggressively sell it. Along the way they may need to beat down a few competitors. They may need to be willing to take a few risks and work some very, very long hours. If they’re successful, the rewards can be amazing! The world is a very different place now because of Alexander Graham Bell, or Henry Ford, or Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg. But along the way there have been a lot of failed plans as well.

Some people try to change the world with a battle plan. They raise an army, establish an objective, and unleash the dogs of war. Maybe they’re would-be emperors out to enlarge their empires by force. But they might also be would-be liberators, wanting to set their people free. Either way, there’s going to be a lot of blood spilled on the way to their goal. And when they reach their goal, they’re not going to be secure. Victories won by military force can be overturned just as easily, in five years or ten years or a generation.

Some people try to change the world with a political plan. Maybe they’re the first people to articulate a particular political philosophy, like Thomas Paine or Karl Marx. Or maybe they’re just a charismatic leader or a good organizer, someone who can mobilize the party and fire them up and help them believe they can reach the goal – a Margaret Thatcher, a Nelson Mandela, a Tommy Douglas. Whatever their political philosophy may be, they can only put it into practice if they can gain power, which gives them the ability to see their vision turned into laws that people have to follow and policy they have to implement.

So you can change the world with a business plan, or a battle plan, or a political plan.

And then there’s Jesus. What’s he up to this week? How’s he going to try to change the world? What’s his plan?

Well, let’s look at the big picture. You see, we have a problem when we read the Bible mainly in little bits; we don’t notice the big picture, the way the story develops, the twists and changes in the plot. And one feature that has been fairly consistent in Mark’s plot up ‘til now has been that Jesus hasn’t been particularly up-front about his claims. Some of his followers have been using the word ‘Messiah’, but Jesus hasn’t used it himself – he’s used the more ambiguous phrase, ‘Son of Man’. His followers have wanted to spread the word about his healings, but Jesus has warned people not to tell anyone about what he’s done for them (a vain hope that turned out to be!). When he’s been getting a lot of attention in a place like Bethsaida, his disciples have urged him to stay around and enjoy his popularity, but Jesus has insisted on moving on to new territory. It’s as if he’s trying hard not to make too big a splash – as if he doesn’t want to attract too much attention from the Jewish leaders or the Romans. John has a phrase he uses for this in his gospel; he says, ‘Jesus’ hour had not yet come’.

But now all this changes.

Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem as pilgrims for the Passover festival. They would not have come by themselves; they would have come as part of a large party of pilgrims from Galilee, travelling together for safety as well as for fellowship. Their journey would have been about a hundred miles, and as far as we know, Jesus walked all the way. In fact, in all four gospels, we have no record of him ever having ridden anywhere, except this one story. After a hundred-mile journey on foot, he chooses to borrow a donkey’s colt and ride the last two miles, down into the city of Jerusalem. Surely he didn’t just do that because his feet were tired?

Notice the careful arrangements; obviously Jesus has thought ahead. He doesn’t appear to own a donkey himself, but he’s going to need one. Ah yes, there’s that man we know in Bethany – he’s got one we could borrow. So somehow Jesus has sent word to the owner; he’s arranged a signal by which his disciples can be known. And the disciples have made plans for the entry, too – the first century equivalent of the ‘red carpet treatment’ – coats and cloaks thrown on the ground, palm branches waving in the air, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest”’ This, by the way, was not the Jerusalem crowd saying these things; the most natural way to read the story is to understand that it was the pilgrims who came with him from Galilee. A few days later the Jerusalem crowd is going to have a different response: “Crucify him!”

So what’s going on here? Any Jewish boy or girl would have remembered the words of the prophet Zechariah:

‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth’ (Zechariah 9:9-10).

Here comes the king of Israel! But he’s not riding a huge great stallion or war horse like a conquering king riding into the city at the head of his army. He’s ‘triumphant and victorious’ says Zechariah, but then in an almost comic twist he adds, ‘humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (v.9).

Kings in the ancient world did sometimes ride donkeys, and it meant that they were coming in peace, not as conquerors. This fits in with Zechariah’s context – the king to come will cut off the chariot and war horse and battle bow, and he will command peace to the nations.

So this is what Jesus is up to. This is why, for the first time in his ministry as far as we can tell, he chooses to ride instead of walk. He’s intentionally acting out the prophecy of Zechariah. To ride a donkey in procession into Jerusalem was to claim to be the King Zechariah had promised.

So no more subtlety! No more ambiguity! No more trying to stay out of the limelight and avoid the attention of the establishment. Now Jesus is being intentionally provocative. He’s moving right into their face, making his claim. As John says, ‘his hour had come’. What comes next is even more provocative: he marches into the temple and starts throwing out the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals – acting as if he owns the place. After all – if he’s the king, he does!

Which makes what comes next even more remarkable. Everyone’s expecting a battle plan, or a political plan. What do we do first, Jesus? Go to the Sanhedrin and get their support? Raise up a Jewish army in the name of the Lord of Hosts to drive out the Roman legions?

No – how about we just go into the temple, sit down and start teaching people? Let’s heal people, and talk about the kingdom of God. And at the end of the week, let’s refuse to hide; let’s make it easy to be arrested by the establishment. Let’s submit to mocking, and whipping, and torture, and a rebel’s death on a Roman cross. Instead of grasping for political and military power, let’s allow ourselves to be defeated by the powers that be. And instead of calling down vengeance from heaven, let’s forgive them instead. That’s the plan, boys; glad you asked!

I’m sure Jesus was as disturbed by the abuses of the Romans and the Jewish authorities as anyone else, but he knew they weren’t the most important enemy. The most powerful enemy humans face is inside us: 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 energizes every evil dictator and tyrant who’s ever lived. This is the enemy that must be defeated before injustice and oppression can be broken forever.

Jesus chose to defeat this enemy by the power of love, not the love of power. His whole life was a demonstration of the fact that God is love, and that God loves everyone he has made. God loves us so much that he is willing to come among us, teach us the way to know him, and give us the power to follow him. And when we get mad at him for doing this – when we reject his love – he still refuses to take revenge or force us to follow him. He overcomes evil with good, and hatred with love.

So Jesus doesn’t have a business plan, or a battle plan, or a political plan. Jesus has a love plan. It begins with God reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us, but forgiving us. And it continues as we, the followers of this strange new King, choose to do the things he taught us to do: loving one another, refusing to treat people as enemies, forgiving them, serving them, laying down our lives for them. This is the love that changes the world.

“That’s a tall order!” you say. Yes, indeed! Three chapters before in Mark’s gospel, Jesus 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 the way of costly love. It’s always hard – but it’s the way Jesus has chosen to spread the Kingdom of God.

So let’s resolve again to follow the example of Jesus – speaking the truth in love, and walking the hard road of the cross in love for others. Jesus doesn’t have a business plan, or a battle plan, or a political plan – he has a love plan. It’s the only plan he has, and there’s a place in it for every one of us, as we walk the way of the Cross with him.

Holy Week at St. Margaret’s

This week at St. Margaret’s (as in many other churches) is an invitation to participate, via our communal imagination, in the events of Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, his death and resurrection.

There is preaching, but there is also a lot of participating.

Today (Palm Sunday) at our 10.30 service we have a procession carrying Palm Crosses, as we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, on the back of a donkey’s colt, while the crowds call out ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. Later in the service we have a communal reading of the story of the Cross from Mark’s Gospel, with members of the congregation reading the different parts.

On Maundy Thursday at 7.30 p.m. we gather with his disciples in the upper room as Jesus commands them to remember him in a meal of bread and wine. We also wash each others’ feet as he washed their feet.

On Good Friday at 10.30 we will have a communal reading of the story of the Cross from John’s Gospel. Later in the service we gather around the foot of the Cross as a needy people, bringing our prayers to our Saviour who died for us.

On Easter Sunday at 9.00 and 10.30 we gather in joy to worship the Risen Jesus, who we believe is alive and has promised to be with us until the end of the age. This is why we are a people of joy!

Many Anglican churches have additional services too – perhaps every day of Holy Week, and the Great Vigil of Easter on Saturday too. However, at St. Margaret’s we’ve discovered over the years that things go better if we do less and do it well. By having fewer services, we make it possible for more people to come together for the main events of the week.

Long experience would indicate that the more you participate in this week, the more you will get out of it. The more you will find yourself transported in your imagination to that week two millennia ago, which we Christians believe transformed the world’s relationship with God. I would strongly encourage you to make this your priority this week. Come today to the Palm Sunday services. Join us during the week ahead for all the services – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. You’ll be glad you did.

Have a blessed Holy Week.

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.

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.