Toorak Uniting Church

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Riding Toward Peace

Psalm 118: 1 – 2, 19 – 29 and Mark 11: 1 – 11
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
1 April 2012

…For I also had my hour; one far fierce hour and sweet.
There was a shout about my ears and palms before my feet.
~from The Donkey by G. K. Chesterton

There is a psychiatric condition called The Jerusalem Syndrome that can affect normally psychologically healthy people when they visit Jerusalem. It seems to be related to the encounter with a place that has an overabundance of religious significance. Interestingly it is not specific to one particular religion. It can affect Jews, Christians and Muslins.

The Jerusalem Syndrome is the phenomenon whereby a person who seems previously balanced and devoid of any signs of psychopathology becomes psychotic after arriving in Jerusalem. The psychosis is characterised by an intense religious obsessions and delusions and typically resolves to full recovery after a few weeks or after being removed from the area.

(from Wikipedia).

It has something to do with the stories, myths, mysteries, messiahs and symbols, associated with this city that overwhelms some people. And to visit the Old city of Jerusalem with its sacred sites, churches, mosques, traders, pilgrims and tourists is an overwhelming experience for anyone. It is a remarkable place to be and there is almost an anxious energy as one walks through the narrow streets and lanes that pervade this maze like walled city.

Peace in Jerusalem
It’s commonly said that when a person arrives in Jerusalem and after they have spent a day there they feel as if they could write a book explaining what this place means. But after a week they have difficult writing a chapter. By a month they are struggling to find a sentence that could sum up the experience of being in Jerusalem. And after a few months they discover that there is but one word that must be pursued in this ancient and modern city and that is the word Shalom in Hebrew, Salaam in Islam, Pax in Latin and of course Peace in English.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May those who love you be secure. Ps 122:6 and prayer for peace in Jerusalem, because when the faiths who claim Abraham as their father are at peace – Jews, Christians and Muslims – then peace can flow more freely throughout our world. What a strange thing that a tiny population in a country one tenth the size of the state of Victoria has such an influence on peace and conflict in the rest of the world.

In the 1st century AD, Jerusalem was a religious and spiritual crossroads in the ancient world and since then it has been a place that the religiously and politically powerful have sort to possess. And even now in the 21st century it remains a place not so different as it was in the time of Jesus.

Our story from Mark’s gospel could in fact almost be re-enacted and wouldn’t be out of place in the Old walled city of Jerusalem today. The narrow streets, the ethnic and religious diversity, the traders and swarming pilgrims, all crowd into this city in the 21st century, as they did in the 1st century. So the sight of a band of followers leading a procession of man mounted on a donkey declaring a message of peace even could be a part of the activity in this modern world in Old Jerusalem as it was in the ancient world.

Bringing the New Way of Peace
Mark’s story of Jesus entry into Jerusalem really represents the heart of the message the followers of Jesus wanted to share with the world around them. The story and the actions of the characters in the narrative draws together the radical message that Jesus had lived and taught to his followers. In one sense it is a very simple message of love, hope, faith, joy and peace and yet at the same time, one of the most difficult and life challenging pathways that anyone could follow through life.

In this Palm Sunday story, Jesus comes to the centre of religious power mounted on a donkey; a domestic animal and not the war-horse or the white steed of the conqueror. Now, whenever I would mention that fact in my previous congregation, Derek, a faithful member of the church, would always remind me that donkeys have had a bit of a bad press in our modern world and that they were used in the ancient world in both religious and military processions. True, but here we have the "King" and "Commander-in-Chief", on a borrowed animal, arriving to claim victory and sitting at the same height as his followers – this is a new way to talk about victory.

The Biblical scholar John Dominic Crosson sees great significance in this scene. He suggests that in the Roman Empire and remember in Jesus’ time Israel was a vassal state, it was under the authority of Rome, that the Romans had a strong a definite way in which peace comes to a nation or the Empire and that was war, victory, peace. In face the motto of the Roman Empire was Pax Romana "Rome brings Peace." But Crossan argues that the way of Jesus was very different. Instead of "peace through victory" for Jesus it was "peace through justice and non-violence."

That fits with this enter of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem. He comes as a conqueror, but not with military might, but to conquer the human heart through love and justice. So the followers of Jesus appropriated the messianic prophecy of King David’s returning to bring freedom and peace to Jerusalem. But they turn the message on its head.

Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!

There’s a sign on a church on the corner of Doncaster Rd and Blackburn Rd that I pass on the way to TUC in the mornings. The messages on the signboard are sometimes cute, other times preachy and occasionally profound. The one that’s on the sign at the moment probably fits into all categories. It says, "Jesus is coming again, so don’t miss it for the world." I thought about it as I turned on to the Eastern freeway and put it into my own words and it would be something this;

"The life and message of Jesus can transform us and our world to the point where the Spirit of Jesus soon will be alive in all of life, in all humanity. Don’t let the things that are trivial and of little value in this world blind you to the coming of the real thing – life in all its fullness."

They may need a bigger sign and a longer interval at the traffic lights for people to read it. But what I want to illustrate here is that the words of the Biblical message 2,000 years ago, relevant to the people of their day, that is, "Jesus will come again" needs the same kind of re-interpretation that the early followers of Jesus brought to the coming of Jesus as the anointed one into Jerusalem of their day. The people of Jesus’ day looked for a war-horse and they saw a donkey; they expected a war-lord who would expel the Roman through war and violence and they got a preacher of peace and non- violence; they thought that peace would be imposed on their neighbour and they discovered that peace begins in their own hearts, that they are the bringers of peace and hope and justice.

Peace on April the First
Sometimes one of the most effective ways to get the message across is through parody or satire or even mockery. And there does seem to be a good dose of that in this story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Was Jesus mocking the religious authorities? Were those early followers of Jesus taking the sacred traditions and the belief that King David the saviour of Israel would return and lead the people to a military victory and turning it on its head? I think the simple answer is yes! The message of Jesus was so radical that it demanded new ways to capture the attention of the society. As far as these early believers were concerned it was not business as usual, it was business as it had never been before.

Those who have power always long for continuity, but we all know that there are times when the world has shifted and we need a wakeup call, we need, even if we don’t like it, to have a tree shaken so we can experience reality and look at things in a different way. What is that at the back of the church…? I have never seen anything like that before…? So strange…what do you think it is…? Happy April fool’s Day!!

You know there was a festival in the Christian Church in the 13th and 14th century called the "Feast of Fools," also called the "Feast of Asses." The festival celebrated the reversal of privilege. So the choir boy would be a bishop for a day; the village fool would be the King for a day; the refuse collector would be the mayor of the town and so on. If you have read Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, you will know that the character, Quasimodo the bell ringer is elevated to King for a day during the celebration of the Feast of Fools. However, the annual celebration of The Feast of Fools was finally forbidden under the very severest penalties by the Council of Basel in 1431. Why was such a popular celebration banned by the medieval church? I suspect it was because then as now that those with privilege and status do not like to be parody and I think they want to control the story of Jesus……

Controlling the story of Jesus
I had a great experience talking with the four year olds at our kindergarten last Friday. I was asked to bring the Easter story to them – not an easy thing to do. I made sure I had plenty of props and wanted to put the story in context. So I began to tell them about the message that Jesus told to his followers; the meal he shared with his friends and followers; the donkey he rode into the city of Jerusalem; the palms the people waved; his death at the hands of those who did not like his message and the new life that he spread throughout the world. To be honest I played down the death of Jesus. I was aware of their tender age and the pain and suffering of death. In this case the death of Jesus. We got to the end and the hands shot up; "Why did he die? How did he die? When did he die? My cat is named Bernie! Why did he die? Did he die? What did he die from? Why did he die? Last year my grandpa died!

Maybe part of our problem is that we don’t feel we can ask the questions that are on our minds and so we settle for the easy answers that are given to us by those who seem to have the power. We don’t have peace because those who have the vision that only war will bring peace hold the power.

But I don’t think so. I think that the one who has shown through his life and teaching is the one who can shape and reshape our lives to both live in peace and be the ones who bring peace to our world.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.