Whose peace?

Every Sunday, the children, as they are about to go to children’s worship, say, “The peace of Christ be with you.” Sometimes they say it together, sometimes one of them addresses us on behalf of all. And it’s not just a churchy way of saying, “Bye now. Take care.” They bless us with the peace of Christ – a peace that takes its particular character and promise from the life and story of Jesus.

They do not fully grasp, nor do we, what all that peace entails, but we envision it together as the consummation of life – the joy of belonging, the forgiveness of sin, the healing of brokenness, the release of captives, the homecoming of exiles, the liberation of slaves, the blessed conviviality of creation and its Creator. As some of us leave and some of us stay, the children say, “The peace of Christ be with you,” and we echo, “And also with you.” The words are gentle gestures, and in speaking them we surround each other with the fullness of our best hope.

In Luke’s gospel, this echo of peace spans the beginning and the conclusion of Jesus’ journey. At Jesus’ birth, an angel of the Lord says to a group of terrified shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Then, suddenly, there is with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Today, as we welcome Jesus into the city, Luke lets us hear, and be part of, the echo:

As Jesus was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

At the beginning of the journey, a multitude of angels sings of peace on earth, and now the multitude of disciples echoes their song with shouts of peace in heaven. Perhaps you find it curious that angels would be concerned about peace on earth and disciples about peace in heaven. Shouldn’t disciples, shouldn’t we, be concerned about peace in our homes and neighborhoods, our schools and streets and houses of worship, peace between groups and nations, peace on earth? I don’t know what to tell you, I don’t write the angels’ songs, but I love how the song of the multitude on the road to Jerusalem echoes the song of the heavenly multitude, weaving together earth and heaven in praise and peace. All things, all creatures come together in the name of Jesus, to the glory of God.

And so we spread palm branches up and down the center aisle like rose petals on a wedding day, and we cover the road with cloaks like patches of red carpet, and we sing with joyful exuberance, welcoming the Lord Jesus into the city.  Today, we pretend that the tall double doors of the front entrance are the city gates, and the table awaits the gathering of the guests who are coming from north and south, from east and west to feast at the royal banquet. We sing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” because we do want him here, we do want him to rule and make all things right and good and whole – but we also remember that this week is not all royal welcome and “Blessed is the king on the donkey.”

And it’s not just they who get in the way of Christ’s reign – they being the temple priests and elders, the Romans or the fickle crowds or whoever else we think we can blame – we ourselves can’t let this king be the king he is, because we want him to be the king we want. Our own visions of a world made right often have more in common with imperial dreams of world domination than with the peculiar way of Christ. We get power wrong, and we half know it, and so we feel a little awkward standing in the gate of the city and watching Jesus riding by on a borrowed donkey. He’s turning our world upside down, and we half know that that is what it takes to make things right, but we only half know it and with the other half we resist the pull of God’s vulnerable love.

We get power wrong. We see the donkey and Jesus on it, but we still want the strong man in shining armor, riding high on a white stallion, who comes to save us and kick them. We get power wrong, because our hearts and imaginations have not been fully converted.We teach our children so say, “The peace of Christ be with you,” but we do it in a world where  other ways of making and keeping the peace have long been practiced and taught.

Every year, in time for Passover, the Roman governor moved his headquarters from Caesarea by the sea to Jerusalem. Passover made the empire very nervous. Large crowds were difficult to control under any circumstance, but add the sacred memory of Israel’s liberation, of the exodus from the house of slavery to the promise land, and the situation could turn quickly from joyful worship to revolt. So Rome made its presence and power known. The governor, Pontius Pilate, entered the city riding on the biggest horse he could find in his stable. Behind him, elite soldiers on horseback, followed by rows and rows of foot soldiers. The procession was designed to impress and intimidate.

Rome knew how to project power and quell any outbursts of enthusiasm that might escalate into a governor’s nightmare. The heavy beams used to crucify the most dangerous troublemakers had already been stacked at the governor’s headquarters; Rome was prepared to keep the peace.

Jesus entered the city from the East, on a donkey, in a very different kind of procession. Jesus didn’t ride at the head of a conquering army to take over the system and put himself at the top. He came to undermine and topple the logic of domination. He didn’t impose his will on anyone. He renounced Satan’s whispered proposals for global dominance. Humbly and boldly, he walked the way of obedience to God’s reign. Doing what love demands was the passion of his life to his final breath.

We call this week holy because the events we recall in prayer, and enact in baptism, draw us into the mystery of God’s power revealed in Jesus. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul urges us. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit … Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Such words were rare and foreign in a city like Philippi, which isn’t to say they aren’t rare and foreign in a city like Nashville.

The citizens of Philippi valued their connections to the imperial household, their privileges as subjects of Caesar. Roman culture valued force, competition, and honor-seeking, and humility was not considered a virtue. Roman society, much like ours, was built on the pursuit of status. You move up, and you socialize with the people who can help you move up even higher. And when everybody is busy moving up, the only reason to look around is to check out the competition with a quick glance over the shoulder; others aren’t even seen.

We call this week holy because in the final days of Jesus’ life on earth the heart of reality is revealed to us, and it’s not relentless competition and survival; it's relentless love and communion.

“You want to talk about status?” Paul seems to suggest. “OK, let’s talk about status.” Jesus had the highest status imaginable: equality with God. Only he did not regard his divine status as something to be used for his own advantage. He emptied himself. He humbled himself. He went down, his mind on nothing but the will of God, loving us with a passion and a vulnerability for which we have no words. On the cross, he died the most cruel and degrading death, reserved for slaves and for rebels against the peace of Rome.

We teach our children to say, “The peace of Christ be with you,” not because we have it or live it, but because we half know that we’re not being saved by being more powerful than others, but by letting ourselves be transformed in the image of Christ. We look to the cross and recognize what we are capable of doing to each other in the name of religion, in the name of justice, or just for political convenience. But we also look to the cross because this dark Friday truth has a glorious, hopeful side: God vindicated the way of Jesus. God raised Jesus from the dead and gave the crucified servant the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

We call this week holy, because the story of Jesus reveals who God is, not despite the cross, but because of it. We look to the cross and we see love that goes all the way for the life of the world, for the sake of communion with us, for the sake of peace.

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