This event in the last week of Jesus’ life, this joyous riding into the holy city on a donkey with cheering crowds around, was the first of a series of events planned by Jesus as his final teachings. He knew the religious and political powers were poised to silence him, and he wanted to enact the heart of his message:
- that God’s kingdom (or kin-dom) is not that of domination over others
- that it is the humble and poor who are close to God’s heart
- that his way is the way of the cross not of the sword
On the long road to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration Jesus had been teaching his disciples about the path that would lead to his suffering and death, but they hadn’t taken it in. They were still dreaming of power and glory, as his popularity was at its peak. When he’d arranged for the loan of a donkey to ride into Jerusalem, he was saying to them, “Look, this is the kind of king I am: not like the Emperor on his battle charger surrounded by heavily armed soldiers, but like a peasant going out to work in the fields.” It was street theatre and parody. It was a teaching by action. And the ordinary people loved it: they’d heard of this great teacher, and welcomed him like a hero.
But the event seems to end on an anti-climax: Jesus goes to the temple, looks around, then leaves the city to go back to his friends’ house in Bethany for the night because it’s late. After that big build-up with the crowds around them, I wonder if the disciples were disappointed….
Next day there’s more action: Jesus returns to the temple, goes right into it, and chases out the people buying and selling sacrificial animals there, and the money-changers. He quotes the scriptures that say God’s house should be a house of prayer, but it has been made into a den of thieves. And then? He simply leaves the city again.
According to Mark it’s a back and forth journey into Jerusalem and out again, four times over a few days, sometimes taking action, sometimes teaching, sometimes talking with his adversaries, until his last time there when he gathers the disciples together for the Passover meal he had arranged, that we know as the Last Supper. And it was on that final occasion in Jerusalem that he was arrested.
This entering and leaving Jerusalem that Jesus did, stepping in and stepping back, taking action then withdrawing, challenging and teaching and then leaving – it makes me think of the ambivalent relationship Christians have always had with the centres of religious and political power. And Palm Sunday is all about power: who wields which kind, and to what end.
One of the greatest and most destructive temptations Christians have been faced with, over and over again, is to exert power over others by force. I’m referring here to things like forcing others to convert to Christianity, or invading countries under the guise of bringing the gospel, or banning religious and cultural practices that are labeled as heathen. I recently read a very hard-hitting book called Unsettling Truths, written by Mark Charles, an American of Navajo and Dutch descent, and Soong-Chan Rah, a Korean American. They write about how Christianity went from being a persecuted minority group of believers to a powerful political force after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and wedded it to his political ambitions. And from there theologians and Popes developed doctrines that Christian powers could wage war on “infidels”, force people on pain of death to be baptized and convert to Christianity, enslave “savages,” claim and colonize lands they supposedly discovered, and enrich themselves with enormous wealth. And thus Christendom was born - this idea of an earthly Christian empire with great political power.
The authors bluntly describe Christendom as a heresy. And they ask, “How did [we] get from following a Saviour who was persecuted and executed for his faith to a church that enacted persecution and executed its enemies in the name of Christ? How did we get from the Holy Spirit enabling the followers of Jesus to speak the languages of the nations [at Pentecost] to Christian missionaries washing out native children’s mouths with soap for having the gall to speak in their own tongue?” (Unsettling Truths, p66)
The royal road, the road of empire and dominion, is a dangerous one. We know the old saying: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When the Christian faith is joined to this road of empire and dominion it loses its way. Jesus chose a royal road less travelled: the road of self-giving, non-violence, forgiveness, humility. The only power he wielded was the power of God’s love. When Simon Peter swung out with a sword to defend Jesus when the soldiers came to arrest him, Jesus told him to put it down. The only power we are to wield as followers of Jesus is the power of love.
But earthly power is so seductive. And our faith can be co-opted in order to gain power. When the British were building up their vast empire, the missionaries were key players. The reason we have a global Anglican Church is because so many lands were colonized by the British. That’s why the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion can only ever be the Archbishop of Canterbury, firmly planted in the motherland. That’s why there are so many Union Jack flags in Anglican churches. But do we ever stop to ask what message this is sending to people from other backgrounds? Do we ever reflect that our Anglo roots might be a stumbling block to those whose people suffered under British colonial rule?
In a few minutes we’ll hear the great patriotic English song Jerusalem. It was written circa 1808 as a poem by William Blake, and it both asks questions and exhorts to action:
- And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green? [The answer is no, but there was a legend that Jesus came to England as a child.]
- And was Jerusalem builded here among these dark Satanic mills?
- Bring me my Bow of burning gold: bring me my Arrows of desire…
- I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant Land.
The message is that it’s possible to build the new Jerusalem, to create heaven on earth, right here; to transform our world and put right what’s wrong and corrupt and destructive, and that this will take all the power we have. The problem, though, is that more than a century after Blake wrote that poem it was set to music in 1916 by the composer Sir Hubert Parry, midway through the First World War, and was used to stir up patriotism and to encourage people to support the war. And it’s been used since by a wide variety of British political organizations to promote their ideologies: the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Assembly and the Liberal Democrats have all sung that hymn in their party political conferences! It’s become an expression of specifically English patriotism, and doesn’t go down well with Scottish nationalists, for example, or with those who struggled to throw off British colonial rule.
(Interestingly, Parry chose to give the copyright of the hymn to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.)
The conundrum is this: following the way of Jesus will and should affect the way we act and vote and behave as citizens, including our politics; but if our faith gets tangled up with the ruling powers of empire in such a way that we become the oppressors, we become the colonizers, we become the forces that deny others their rights, then we’re betraying Jesus all over again.
As Anglicans we have to think about that. How much are we still an English church, a predominantly white church? In what ways could we intentionally become more inclusive, and be active in undoing the wrongs that were done to indigenous peoples and colonized peoples? We need some of Blake’s ceaseless “mental fight” to tackle these issues. But not his sword.
Jesus enacted the way of the humble king, the servant, the upsetter of the powers that be, as he drew near to his death. He chose the royal road less travelled. And he taught his followers that the way of sacrifice and self-giving is the way that leads to new life.
The age of Christian empire is over, Christendom is ended, and that’s a good thing. Popes, bishops, churches don’t wield the worldy power they once did, and we’re having to face the legacy of harm that was done in the name of our faith. If that makes us humbler, if that makes us more like servants and less like bosses, then we’re closer to the way of Jesus.
This Holy Week we follow Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, as he knelt and washed the disciples’ feet, as he taught them about servanthood and sacrifice, and as he allowed himself to be arrested and put to death. His power is the power of love, nothing more and nothing less. And his path leads to the cross, to ultimate powerlessness.
Yet we know and proclaim that beyond the cross came a new life that was unimaginable. And it’s in that new life and the power of resurrection that we put our trust. Amen.