PROPER 28 / 25 Pentecost — 18 November 2007
St. John’s, Keokuk —10:00
Mal 3:13-4:2a,5-6 Ps 98 2Thess 3:6-13 Luke 21:5-19
The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.
Do you remember your first trip to the big city? (If you grew up in the big city you will just have to find your own way around this launching device!) There’s something memorable about that experience of being a tourist for the first time in some notable place. I grew up around cities; we lived in Evanston, Illinois, when I was a small child, so I’ve always known that wonderful Chicago vista looking up Michigan Avenue, with the Loop on one side and Grant Park and the lake on the other. During my teens I lived in Denver, Colorado (though Denver was still an overgrown small town in those days). But I went to college in Boston, with all its marvelous historical landmarks; and while I was in college I visited London (still my favorite city in the world) and Paris. But it was only later in college that for the first time I went to New York City. I tried to be very cool; after all, I was no hick, I’d been to Europe! but on the inside I was really wired! Times Square, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, Central Park, St. John’s Cathedral — all the places I’d always heard about—they seemed so real, so “there”! And by comparison I felt so transitory and unreal and small.
Some of Jesus’ followers are doing the tourist-in-the-big-city bit in Jerusalem in this morning’s Gospel. (It’s not quite as obvious in Luke’s account — Luke is very cosmopolitan — but in Mark’s older parallel the disciples are saying, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Eyes like saucers!) Although most Galilean Jews probably went up to Jerusalem a few times in their lives, and some of them many times, even annually (you had to walk for a couple of days from Galilee, but it wasn’t that big a deal), there were undoubtedly some of them who had never been to Jerusalem before, and the crowd that tagged after Jesus was probably predominantly young. So some of them were rubbernecking. This was Jerusalem! This was the Temple of the Lord God of Israel! The very heart of their identity as a people! The seat of God’s Presence, the Holiest Place, the most real place in the world! The very center of the created universe! And when the disciples share with Jesus their awe, he responds: “The day will come when all this will be leveled to the ground.” And forty years later, it happened.
There is something about the institutions of this world—historic places, landmark buildings, famous monuments, long-standing traditions, national allegiances, community values, social customs—which seem to us to have a deep and lasting reality. At this level, we assume that what is, must be; and we conform our lives to that.
Well, in fact many of these things often are signs of deep and lasting realities. Signs. Jesus says, don’t hold on to these things too tightly. But we do. Because our cities and temples are the heart of our identity, the assurance of our security, the guarantee of our control, the warrant for our power. (Precisely why buildings like the World Trade Center and the Pentagon became targets for terrorists.)
I’ve been thinking about power and authority and control lately. One of the issues behind the terrorist problems of our era is an attempt to misuse and pervert religious faith into an instrument of power. Nor is this limited to the Islamic world: often enough in our own Christian history, and by some yet today, there are those who would impose their own orthodoxies by force. Within our own Episcopal Church we continue to struggle with many divisive issues, and although some of them may actually have to do with such important concerns as sexual morality, theological orthodoxy and Scriptural authority, a lot of it, on the various sides, is really about power.
Power. The ability to compel other people to do certain things and to refrain from doing certain other things. And the fact that this may indeed very well truly be for people’s own good is sometimes beside the point. The secular world uses power that way, and it is not only legitimate but necessary that it should do so.
But Jesus says to his disciples: “You know that those who seem to rule the nations are masters over them, and their great ones exercise power over them. It is not that way among you, but let whoever wants to become great among you be your servant, and let whoever wants to be first among you be slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as ransom for many.”
We’ve heard that many times, and it pleases us to think that Jesus means we shouldn’t be heavy-handed or arrogant in the exercise of authority. I don’t think that’s quite it.
Power. The power of the Gospel. Yes, I think the Gospel has power. I think God has power. But I think this power really isn’t anything at all like what we usually mean when we talk about “power” and seek to exercise power.
The Temple in Jerusalem represented the religious power of God’s People Israel (even under the constraints of the Roman occupation). It was inconceivable that the Temple of the Lord God should fall. But of course it did fall. In fact, the temple fell and was destroyed twice, once by the Babylonians (600-some years before Jesus) and once by the Romans (40 years or so after Jesus). Both times the Jewish People emerged with deeper faith and greater fidelity to God. The Reign of God works through, but does not rely upon, human institutions, not even ecclesiastical institutions. The Reign of God does not need, indeed is usually obstructed by, human power.
In the Gospel today Jesus promises his disciples nothing but powerlessness—persecution, betrayal, and death. Exactly what he himself would shortly face here in Jerusalem. We may sometimes be tempted to ask why Jesus did not use his power to save himself from the cross (Jesus himself remarked at the time that he could have twelve legions of angels for the asking). We assume that because the cross was the necessary condition of our redemption, Jesus forbore the use of power. Ah, but Jesus did use his power.
Next Sunday we celebrate Christ the King; in the Gospel we will see Jesus hanging on the Cross. It’s a mark of how far we are from being fully converted to God’s Reign that we still find it so hard to understand that the Cross is what real power really is.
 Mark 10:42-45: Matthew 20:25-28; Luke 22:25-27.
 Matthew 26:53.
© William S. J. Moorhead 2007