April 14, 2019

Our Servant-Leader of Peace

Passage: Luke 19: 28-40; Philippians 2: 5-11

Synopsis: In Luke’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, he stops and weeps over the city because they do not know the things that make for peace. Jesus also weeps for us and our country. Jesus models the way of peace with his humble, servant leadership. This reflects the heart of God and ushers in a dramatic cosmic shift that involves the whole creation. The very stones would cry out if his followers would remain silent and stop celebrating.


What are the things that make for peace? The other Gospels have a more triumphalistic account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that Luke does. Crowds cheer and wave palm branches, which were a Jewish nationalistic symbol much like a national flag. It would be like waving a subversive national flag in an occupied territory, like a procession of people waving Tibetan flags in Tibet today. Chinese authorities would not be pleased.


Things are more subdued in Luke’s telling of the story. Here it’s only Jesus’ disciples who are processing and celebrating, but without palm branches. Even so, some Jewish religious leaders beg him to tell his disciples to stop. There was a real danger that the Roman soldiers keeping close watch on the Jewish Passover celebration would react and crack down on everyone. Things are tense and revolt is in the air.


Only Luke adds the part about Jesus stopping and weeping as he nears the city. He weeps because their leaders and inhabitants do not know the things that make for peace. The clouds of war are already gathering on the horizon and they do not have the imagination or the will to avert what will be a national tragedy because they’re so invested in fighting a war in their struggle for freedom.


We read in Luke’s Gospel, “In the days ahead your enemies are going to bring up their heavy artillery and surround you, pressing in from every side. They’ll smash you and your babies on the pavement. Not one stone will be left intact.” Luke’s writing this after the army of Roman general Titus did exactly that in 70 CE, one generation after Jesus’ death. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, more than a million Jewish people lost their lives.


We can assume that the factual reference to such destruction in Luke’s Gospel is from Luke rather than from Jesus. This outcome would, however, have already been perceptible to Jesus. That’s why he stopped and wept over the city. Let’s fast-forward to our time. I recently saw a TV news story with photos of the destroyed city of Raqqa in Syria. The whole city is pounded into rubble from extensive American aerial bombing and heavy street fighting.


Jesus also weeps for our country. Last Sunday I mentioned that half of our discretionary national budget is spent on war and preparing for war and that we spend almost as much on our military as the rest of the world combined. I refuse to fully identify with either of our political parties because both are so tied to the thinking and priorities of our military-industrial war machine.


Why do we think we’re justified in massive aerial bombings and selective drone strikes in far-away lands, with barely a thought to then helping repair the destruction we created? What makes us think we have the right to do such things? And why can’t we make the connection between sending soldiers into war zones and the gun violence in our own communities? Too many of our soldiers return home as broken people with severe physical, psychological, and moral injuries from the things they experienced and participated in.


Jesus models a radically different way as he rides a lowly donkey into Jerusalem. For me, this calls into question our global system of competing nation-states with their armies and national borders. We assume that this is how the world needs to be organized because we have never known anything different. Even our history books are organized around our wars. Jesus turned this system on its head as our servant-leader of peace. He tells those alarmed religious leaders that he cannot command his disciples to stop celebrating because if they did the very stones would cry out. All nature is caught up in this cosmic drama. According to biblical scholar Fred Craddock:

This dramatic language reminds us of that which we sometimes forget: all life is from God, the whole universe shares together bane and blessing, life and death, and in the final reign of God “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21) Of course, if we are silent, the stones will cry out.[1]


Jesus’ humility, his servant leadership, and his way of peace, reflects the heart of God. His entry into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey signals a dramatic cosmic shift, which then results in his torture and death from the hands of those think they’re the rulers of our present world order. But they will not have the last word and are defeated in the victory of God when Christ is raised from the dead. As followers of Jesus, this drama forms our lives as individuals and, even more importantly, the communal life of our fellowship. This’s what Paul conveys so powerfully in his letter to the Philippians when he instructs them to imitate Christ’s humility and servant leadership.


Let me say right up front that how we understand this and seek to live it out depends a lot on our social location. Being humble and living a life of servanthood will mean one thing if I’m a powerful white male on the top of the pecking order and unable comprehend what life is like for them. Let me give an all too common example of not hearing others.


Men, why is it that women often experience being not heard by us; we then, maddeningly, hear the same point when a man makes it? Or why is it that we’re so quick to counsel patience and submission to those who are experiencing exclusion and subtle forms of oppression? Come on guys! We especially need to come to Jesus and be born again.


On the other hand, for those of us who are oppressed and excluded, it will mean learning to believe in ourselves and to stand up for ourselves using the power of nonviolence. That’s what Jesus did. Unfortunately, those is power often see this as disrespectful and as insubordination. That’s why Jesus was crucified as a subversive with the mocking sign “King of the Jews” nailed on his cross.


Furthermore, we tend to look at this primarily as a personal matter when privilege and self-centeredness are baked into the very structures of society. That’s why it’s so hard for those of us who come from positions of privilege to even be aware of it. What does it mean to lay down our claims to privilege as Jesus did in order to take on the role of a servant?


We think we know the lives of poor people or minorities when we’re hard pressed to identify even one of them as a friend. We then find some of their actions disrespectful and threatening. Ask yourself if you have a friend from another ethnic or social background. For me, as an older white male, it’s important to know some Hispanic, Asian, or African American people well enough to understand what life’s like for them. I’m also a better person when I can learn from friends who live from paycheck to paycheck or are unemployed and struggling to pay their bills. We’re all poorer when we only hang out with people like ourselves.


In my lifetime the church has struggled to fully include divorced and remarried people and women in leadership. Many were convinced that a woman could no be a pastor. We have never completely admitted this to ourselves, but we also struggle to fully include people of color.  We feel more comfortable around people like ourselves.


Right now churches are struggling over including LGBTQ people. I’ve been in settings where we debated this without having any of “those” people in the room. No matter what your position is, it may be better to remain silent and to regard others as better than yourself if you do not have a close LGBTQ friend who can help you understand what it means for her or him to follow Jesus. The same is true if you’re not able to maintain friendships with people who are not sure or think that same-sex romantic relationships are sinful.


Paul is helping the church in Philippi to be a diverse community that draws on the gifts and strengths of all their members. Paul commends them for their shared love, compassion, and sympathy, and attitude. This shared life is so important when differences arise among us—as they inevitably will.


We need to check ourselves that we’re not acting out of conceit or selfishness. Paul tells us to regard others as better than ourselves. This especially applies to those of us who come from positions of privilege. Christ is our model in giving up all claims to privilege in order to serve without any view of personal gain. God therefore exalted him.


For us to confess Jesus Christ as Lord is to embrace his way of humble servant-leadership. This goes hand in glove. As with Jesus, it will include suffering and perhaps even death. Its not a matter of securing my life. I can lay in down because it’s God who exalts us.


[1] Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 228.

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