The Prince of Peace and the Gospel of Forgiveness

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Mon, 04/10/2017 - 8:15pm

Matthew 21:1-11, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday


            It’s clear that Jesus arranged his entrance into Jerusalem to send a message. He had in mind that prophecy of Zechariah which said that the king was coming, but he was coming as a humble one, riding on a donkey. Matthew is so concerned about the details of the prophecy that he pictures Jesus riding on two animals, a donkey colt and its mother. For Jesus, this was a kind of street theater, a mockery of the pomp and circumstance attending the entrance of earthly rulers.

            It’s very possible that on the very same day, the Roman governor of the region Pontius Pilate was entering Jerusalem for his annual visit to the city for Pentecost. He came from the Roman base at Caesarea, on the coast, and he would have entered from the opposite side of the city from Jesus, on a paved road laid down by the Romans. The law required citizens to honor Pilate by greeting him with branches and flowers.

            Jesus is picturing an alternate reality, an alt-parade on the other side of town, on the dirt road coming down from the Mount of Olives through the gate called Beautiful. Pilate enters riding a war-horse, strong and impressive. He wore armor. He was surrounded by soldiers with spears and banners saying SPQR. Jesus enters, on the other side, riding a little donkey, a sign of humility—and perhaps even of weakness, in military terms. He is unprotected. He is surrounded by peasants.

            What is the message? This is the same Jesus who has said earlier in Matthew (11:29), “Come to me. Learn from me, for I am meek and lowly, I am gentle and humble of heart.” He is not one who teaches us to lord our authority over others but to become servants. One way we express this is to give to Jesus the title “Prince of Peace” we learned from Isaiah. He is not the King of War but the Prince of Peace. In this parade, Jesus is, as one scholar [Eugene Boring, NIB] put it, “conspicuously meek.”

            I’m not sure that all the people in the crowd understood this. The palms that they waved (actually they are mentioned only in John’s gospel) had been a symbol of Jewish nationalism since the days of the Maccabees. It was like waving little American flags for the Fourth of July parade. When they said “Hosanna to the Son of David!” it was like saying “Hurray for the Messiah, the Jewish king!” Others in the crowd thought of Jesus as a prophet. Of course, Jesus is a king, in a sense, and a prophet, but he is much more. He is the one who humbles himself for our sake, who gives himself for us and teaches us the meaning of forgiveness.

            Most kings, military rulers, and presidents like a lot of pomp in their parades. During the last inaugural parade, the President had a hard time getting college marching bands to perform so he wound up with military bands and a parade of tanks like Kim Jung-un. But that was pretty much par for the course. The President of the US is hardly a Prince of Peace. I remember back when I was in seminary watching Jimmy Carter’s inaugural parade. He and his wife got out of the limousine and walked up Pennsylvania Avenue, as if to say “I’m not that kind of President—the kind Nixon was, who cared about pomp and status and power.” Jimmy Carter is a great man, but it seems that humility didn’t work out too well for him in Washington. The next president made a point of restoring “the imperial presidency,” as they called it, understanding that the sight of a strong ruler made people feel strong.

            Jesus, though, was more radical than any of our presidents. Imagine an inaugural parade in which the newly elected president arrived dressed in a hoodie and riding a bicycle. That would be closer to Jesus’ statement on Palm Sunday. “I stand with the powerless. My power has nothing to do with violence or the imposition of authority. My kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world.”

            The donkey symbolizing Jesus’ meekness and gentleness is consistent with Jesus’ teaching and his life to this point, and it points the way to his ultimate teaching on the cross. Remember how Jesus’ teaching started out in Matthew 5? “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are the meek…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are those who are persecuted.” Jesus says in the same chapter that it is not enough to obey the command not to murder; he says we must not even be filled with anger and hatred. If you are going to the Temple to make an offering and you remember that someone has something against you—that you have offended someone—leave your offering there, leave church, go be reconciled to the one you have offended, and only then come back to give a gift to God.

Jesus tells us a little later in the chapter not to resist an evildoer. If someone slaps you on the cheek with the back of his hand, contemptuously, just stand there, not cowering but not retaliating, and offer your other cheek for him to punch like a man. If a Roman soldier demands that you carry his backpack one mile, as the law allows, offer to carry the pack for two miles, so that it becomes an act of kindness rather than an obligation. At the end of Matthew 5, Jesus says that it is not enough to love your neighbor; you must love your enemy, because God is like that. Love the Roman soldier. God blesses both the evil and the good; God does not discriminate in his love. Be like God, Jesus says, and love everyone.

            Should it surprise us, then, that Jesus chooses to portray himself to the people of Jerusalem as the Prince of Peace rather than the powerful one who defeats his enemies? Jesus’ ministry was focused on extending forgiveness to people. When he touched people who were disabled or ill, he often said to them “Your sins are forgiven,” which the religious people found offensive. In the same Sermon on the Mount we’ve been quoting, Jesus gives the disciples a model prayer. We are to ask God to “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Forgive us what we owe you the way we forgive people we think owe us something. Do not hold our offenses against us, in the same way that we do not hold it against any humans who offend us. Jesus goes on to say, “If you do not forgive others [their trespasses], neither will your [heavenly] Father forgive your trespasses.” Jesus was called a friend of sinners, which was not a compliment, because he was willing to forgive those the religious establishment rejected as wicked.

            I came across a quotation from Reinhold Niebuhr this week: “Forgiveness is the final form of love.” That’s what I tell the bride and groom at weddings; what makes a marriage work is not perfection but forgiveness. I often read those words from Colossians 3(12-14) that were first addressed to the church:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Paul could just as easily have said “clothe yourselves with Jesus.” He does say that elsewhere. This is the nature of Christ: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience—and always forgiving. And that is what Jesus was portraying when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as the king who is humble and meek. This is his way—not the Roman way—and it did not lead to a military victory over Rome but to submission to the Father’s will and suffering on the cross.

            What would it mean if we were actually followers of Jesus rather than followers of Pilate? What if we chose the way of gentleness rather than the way of force? When I chose my theme and sermon title for today, it was before our attack on Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons. I don’t think it is obvious one way or the other what Jesus would want us to do. As you probably know, in the first centuries Christians did not voluntarily serve in the military because they believed Jesus prohibited the use of violence. But after the Christians began to run the government and were in charge of the military, things became more complicated. Beginning with Augustine, theologians developed principles for the just use of war powers. The great majority of wars we’ve been involved in during my lifetime have not met the criteria for a just war, but it is defensible that this attack of the past week meets the criteria for proportionality and being a last resort and not involving civilians.

            Still, as we go forward, Christians who think about what we should do in Syria and elsewhere are obligated to place our loyalty to the Prince of Peace above our loyalty to country. We are still under the command to forgive, for our first response to be attempting reconciliation with our enemies through forgiveness and starting over. That’s not the way the world order is set up, I know. It’s a challenge to figure out what turning the other cheek means when the cheek that has been slapped is the cheek of civilians and children rather than your own. How does the responsibility of the state to punish wrongdoers come into play in the international arena? We won’t answer those questions this morning, but it is always worthwhile to ask ourselves what the Prince of Peace would do. What would Jesus do if he were me in the situation in which I find myself today? What is the course of action our leaders could take that would result in the least harm and the most likely to lead to peace?

            But a simpler question to ask ourselves this morning is “Am I gentle and humble and forgiving?” Is that the way other people would describe me? If the Block Island Times tried to produce a list of the most effective peacemakers on the island, would you even be under consideration? Some of the traits that are the opposite of Jesus’ traits are: defensive, prickly, concerned about rank and seniority, never forgetting, authoritarian. I don’t mean those as a description of a politician, even though they might apply. I’m asking if you are ever more like that than you are like Jesus.

            It is a sad fact that many people who never even try out Christianity are convinced that the church is not forgiving. They assume—sometimes on the basis of past experience—that Christian people are judgmental. Some assume that they are not really good enough to come into a holy place and that they would be hypocrites if they went to church. What would change if people on Block Island understood that the core of our message is forgiveness? I think Pope Francis has been trying to say that with his emphasis on mercy, although he is straightjacketed by certain rules and traditions. What can we do to demonstrate that Harbor Church is a house of mercy where all is forgiven? Like other churches, we have been hurt by the reputation of Christians for self-righteousness, for culture wars, for fighting for our own rights, for being suspicious of gender and sexual difference. But we still have a chance to communicate to our community that Harbor Church is a house of welcome—that’s one of the central pillars of our self-understanding in our mission for the future—and that each of us is a welcoming person, a forgiving person, who is being made more and more like Jesus as we live in his love. May that be our message and our nature. Amen.