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City of God meets City of the World (a Palm Sunday sermon)

April 3, 2012

Mark 11: 1-11

From the beginning of his life Jesus was grappling with his calling. What did it mean to live in the rule of God… to love your enemies as he believed God his Father (Abba) did?

And you can see this grappling in the stories about the temptations in the wilderness … and his emerging sense of the gracious giving and forgiving at the heart of God.

And if you think about the temptation stories, the issue at the heart of them is the question of politics and power. The Satan, the Accuser, offers him power. How would Jesus respond to the temptation of political power? Would he become a politician and if so what sort of politician would he be?

The word politician comes from the Greek word for city – polis. So in a way it’s the right word for today’s reading. Jesus arrives at the outskirts of the city – the city at the centre of his world, Jerusalem. Up till now he has been talking about the kingdom of God, or the rule of God, and what it means to live in a world or city where God is in control?… in this sense he’s been on about politics all along … And so on Palm Sunday (a week before Passover) the people gather to greet him they take up a chant, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”. They are ready to crown him as the new anointed king of Israel, there is a real buzz afoot, expectations are high for God’s action, for a year of Jubilee.

And Jesus does several very significant things. Firstly, he deliberately chooses a young donkey colt. During the same week coming up to Passover it was traditional for the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate to arrive in Jerusalem on his warhorse with a legion of battle hardened troops behind him – it was a fearful and awe-inspiring sight. This troublesome Jewish province of the empire needed to know who was in charge and who was not, who was powerful and who was not. Jesus deliberately chooses the poor mans mode of transport. For a king to ride on a donkey was a traditional sign that he came in peace not war.

The second thing he does, according to Luke’s gospel, is he gets in sight of the city and starts to cry for Jerusalem, saying “if only you had recognized on this day the things that make for peace”. The Romans had a phrase to describe their empire – ‘Pax Romana’, the peace of Rome. Jesus saw a city that knew the peace of Rome but hadn’t cottoned on to real peace, the peace of God. In the midst of the parade with all the hosannas, Jesus recognized in this excitement, the same temptation he felt back at the beginning of his ministry. The temptation of power, and military force as a way towards peace… the temptation of a peace that is maintained by the use and threat of force. “If only you had recognized on this day the things that make for peace”. I think that phrase captures in a nutshell Jesus relation to the city and to politics in general.

The third thing he does according to Mark’s Gospel, is he looks around the temple, and then immediately goes back out of Jerusalem back to Bethany. Perhaps he’s shocked by what he sees, perhaps it dawns on him that his people have lost their way and a protest is needed. Perhaps he goes back to Bethany to plan his prophetic drama that we now call the cleansing of the temple.

Today I want to focus on that moment at the top of the hill when he first saw the city of Jerusalem and heard the voices of the crowd in the background and began to weep. Is that the realization that the way of peace… the path of nonviolence… was not the way of the city spread out in front of him?

It’s like the city of God comes face to face with the city of the World on that hill outside Jerusalem

On Palm Sunday Jesus is revisiting his temptations and steeling himself to demonstrate what it means to live under the rule of God. Just as overturning the tables in the temple was a kind of demonstration or protest, so the donkey ride demonstrated the rule of God. Again the temptation to power by domination was placed before Jesus and again he resisted.

About 300 years later the church faced the same temptation as Jesus. The emperor Constantine, we are told saw a vision of a cross in the sky with the words (translated into latin) “In this sign conquer”. And that point Constantine had a choice. If he knew anything about the faith of the first Christians (including his own mother) he could have seen in that sign a rebuke to all he was doing. It is not with the sword that you will conquer but with the suffering nonviolent love-of-enemy represented by the sign of the cross. If he remembered what Jesus himself had taught he would have known that those who live by the sword die by the sword. But Constantine took the opposite path. Rather than rejecting the sword in the name of the victory of the cross over evil, he made the cross the servant of the sword. He put crosses on his soldiers and slaughtered the enemy at the battle of Milvian Bridge. And for nearly 2000 years the church has continued to participate in this game. Soldiers have worn crosses on their armour and round their necks. And when president Bush continued this tradition in Iraq some of his military manufacturers started putting bible verses on the munitions and even engraved on the sights of the guns.

My point is simply this… when Constantine made his choice, the church was also faced with the same choice that Jesus did in his temptations. Would they join in an alliance with military power? Where Jesus said No, the church ended up saying Yes and gained the whole world.

That’s what we mean by Christendom. We mean the failure of the church to take seriously the way of nonviolence, the way of Jesus. We mean an alliance with military power which meant that the church became a kind of chaplain to the empire. All the babies were baptized, more or less, and everyone was regarded as a Christian, more or less. And the church was an organization that put up buildings in the centre of every town and village and put on worship events for all the Christians, i.e. pretty much everyone, to come along to.

And in many ways that’s the world we have known in the church… we have had churches in every community and going to church has been a normal part of our so-called Christian society… people have thought of the church as in integral part of a well-oiled society, like a cog in the machinery of the wider society. That’s the alliance that Constantine forged.

So what does Palm Sunday have to do with our post-Christendom world? What might that scene where Jesus looked out over Jerusalem where the city of God met the city of the world and the question of what made for peace brought tears to Jesus’ eyes and set him on a path towards the cross, have to do with our situation?

Last Sunday we decided to become a missional church… we decided to be formed in mission (missional formation groups). It was a deliberate departure from Christendom you might say. Sure, in a sense Christendom is past. Church’s no longer have the power they used to. But we decided that it’s not enough any more to be an organization that puts on worship services for people to come to, not enough to do better advertising, have more attractive music… Yes we will worship together, but alongside that, what we decided to do was to embody in small groups the politics of Jesus, the city of God, and to create an encounter between that and the city of the world. We decided that we need to learn together what it means that we no longer live in Christendom (and don’t want to), that this is not a Christian society, and we don’t want a new deal the powerful, that we are missionaries to our society, and so we will follow Jesus, on his donkey if you like, into our own encounter between the city of God and the city of the world.

Today as a church we are up on the hilltop looking at Jerusalem and seeking to rediscover what really makes for peace. Today as a church we are counting the cost of living that mission… the time and energy it will take to embark on this adventure of reprogramming our heads and hearts to become, not a Christendom church… but a missional church.

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