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Friday, 27 March 2015

Turning expectations upside down

Here is my sermon from yesterday's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook, which focused on the events of Palm Sunday. An audio version of this sermon will shortly be found at the website of the London Internet Church.

At my first training weekend as a curate the first Bishop to address us, the then Bishop of Barking, David Hawkins, performed a handstand to demonstrate the way in which Jesus, through his life and teaching turns our understanding of life upside down. Jesus had a marvellous way of subverting people’s expectations. He did it when he called on the one without sin to cast the first stone. He did it when he, their Master, served the disciples by washing their feet. And he did it on the occasion of his entry into Jerusalem too.

Some people at the time expected him, if he really was Israel’s Messiah or King, to lead an armed rebellion against their Roman oppressors. As his ministry had gone on these people had begun pressing him to declare his hand and make it crystal clear whether he was the one to lead this armed rebellion or not. Jesus chose the moment of his entry into Jerusalem to declare his hand, but not in the way that those people expected. Instead of coming into Jerusalem as a warrior King on a war-horse leading an army he came unarmed and riding on a donkey.

In doing so, he was pointing all those who knew the Hebrew Scriptures well to a passage in Zechariah which says this: “Rejoice, rejoice, people of Zion! Shout for joy, you people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you! He comes triumphant and victorious, but humble and riding on a donkey – on a colt, the foal of a donkey. The Lord says, “I will remove the war-chariots from Israel and take the horses from Jerusalem; the bows used in battle will be destroyed. Your king will make peace among the nations; he will rule from sea to sea, from the River Euphrates to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9: 9 & 10)

By entering Jerusalem in this way, Jesus made it crystal clear that he was the King - the Messiah - that was expected but also that he would not be the kind of King or Messiah that they was expected. He would not come as the warrior King who will destroy Israel’s enemies or oppressors. Under his rule the only things to be destroyed are weapons themselves – the war-chariots, war-horses and bows that the Zechariah passage spoke about. He came as the Prince of Peace, not as the Warrior King. He came as the King who humbled himself by riding on the lowest, poorest form of transport – a colt, the foal of a donkey – not as a King who exalted himself on the largest, fastest steed. Later on he would wash his disciples’ feet as a way of saying that peace comes through service. And he was preparing to sacrifice all, including his own life, in order to serve his enemies by saving them.

Sometime after Jesus’ death and resurrection the Apostle Paul explained in his letter to the Ephesians how Jesus had made peace among the nations. He said: “Christ himself has brought us peace by making Jews and Gentiles one people. With his own body he broke down the wall that separated them and kept them enemies. He abolished the Jewish Law with its commandments and rules, in order to create out of the two races one new people in union with himself, in this way making peace. By his death on the cross Christ destroyed their enmity; by means of the cross he united both races into one body and brought them back to God.” (Ephesians 2: 14-16)

Instead of destroying the enemies of Israel as some expected, Jesus came to love his enemies and unite them with his own people, making peace. Paul then goes further to say that there are no distinctions either between slaves and free, between men and women, or between those thought of as civilised and those thought of as barbarians, all are one in Christ. The implication is that there are no barriers or divisions that should separate, for all can be one in Christ.

As a result, we are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus by being peacemakers in our homes, communities and workplaces. Just as Jesus did the reverse of what people expected, by loving those who were thought of as the enemies of his people and sacrificing himself in order to bring those two groups together, so we need to do the same in relation to the divisions we experience in our own time and culture. Church needs to be a place and space in which we reverse people’s expectations by living and demonstrating Jesus’ embrace of all.

Now, we need to acknowledge that the Church hasn’t always had a great track record in doing this. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Slave Trade, for example, all seem to have been the reverse of what Jesus did. We need to show real sorrow over that history and the effect that it still has in certain parts of the world today. But there have also been great examples from the Church, even in our own lifetimes, of people like Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu who have tried to follow much more closely in Jesus’ footsteps.

We can learn from the example of such people so that we too become people who reveal Jesus in our world by following where he led in turning people’s expectations upside down and sacrificing ourselves in order to bring peace between all people regardless of any distinctions.


Candace Bogan - Give Me Jesus.

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