Sunday, 24 March 2013

Mission and Motivation

Today is Palm Sunday, and it's one of those days in the Christian calendar when we often sing songs of triumph and lively Hosannas.  Maybe we ought to read what Luke actually said...

So first, two readings
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever!
Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’
Open to me the gates of righteousness,that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God, and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever.

Luke 19:28-40
After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now 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!’

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

Mission and Motivation
It seems to me that there is a lot of confusion surrounding mission. But I think before we even start thinking about mission we need to take a step further back.  That’s because if we’re going to talk about mission then we absolutely have to begin with motivation because we need to be sure we know why we want to communicate our faith. I also want to set aside the idea that mission is just giving money to poor people. That’s not mission per se, that’s simply what we should do because we have resources which they need. Helping others in need should have no strings attached. We help others because that’s why God gave us resources to do so.

So what then is mission? Too often I have seen mission portrayed as basically, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong. You need to believe what I believe or something bad will happen to you when you die, if not before’. Is that really mission? If it is then it’s not exactly effective because experience has shown me that a lot of people turn their back on the Christian faith because of that approach.  It has a degree of certainty about it which brooks no space for question or disagreement, and once we allow that into our practice it’s a very short hop indeed into a fear-based fundamentalism where the leadership says, ‘If you don’t believe what I tell you to believe you are going to hell.’ Or simply, ‘Obey me’. Yet that kind of Christianity is all too common. Why? I think it’s down to motives, the desire to prove to others that you’re right and they’re wrong, and if you have a good salesperson they can get numerical results for you. But it’s wrong.

It arises, I feel, because of a misreading of scripture that allows triumphalism to obscure humility and love, and I find that in some church circles there is a constant battle between these opposing ideals. In fact sometimes it seems to me that triumphalists don’t read the same version of the Gospel as I do. Nowhere is this more plain than in the contrast between the two readings we have today.

The first reading comes from the hymn book of the Jewish temple, the book of Psalms. The context appears to be one of a great military victory having been won against the odds. All glory for this is given to God who helped them defeat the enemy. The motive is one of thanksgiving.  It’s also worth noting that the line, ‘Save us we beseech you, O Lord’ roughly translates as, ‘Hosanna’, the words that are usually found on the lips of those accompanying Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, a triumphalism that Luke completely rejects, as I’ll come to in a moment.

But let’s just stay with the Psalm for a moment.

In its context there is nothing wrong with this. If, as it seems, it is celebrating a military victory won against the odds then you can understand them being joyful. And if, as it seems, the victory was won because of the intervention by God, then it is a good thing to ascribe praise to God.  For example in the last world war people often talked about the miracle of Dunkirk, that the sea was so flat calm for so long that it allowed so many soldiers to be rescued. In that instance many people gave thanks to God for what they perceived to be a miracle, and one which helped the eventual defeat of an evil military power.  So yes, in its context there is no problem with the Psalm. The issue I have is when that is then spiritualised so that the sentiment can be used triumphalistically in the context of the Gospel of Christ. Then it becomes a weapon against those we perceive to disagree with us, which in turn creates a spiritual blindfold that stops us from seeing people who should be being loved.

Triumphalism arises from having the wrong motives so that instead of seeing people who God loves, all we see are faceless targets who we try to get to agree with us so that they can fill our pews.

But we don’t see a triumphant entry when we look at Luke’s account. Usually our minds are filled with images of a huge crowd of people waving palm branches and shouting ‘Hosanna in the Highest’. It’s even called the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Well you will have to put all of that imagery away when you read Luke’s Gospel because he doesn’t record any of it.  No palm branches are being waved and none are being strewn on the ground. No one has come out from Jerusalem to welcome Jesus in with their, ‘Hosanna in the highest’, and Luke makes it plain that it is only the disciples of Jesus who are welcoming him in. It was probably quite a crowd of disciples, not just the twelve apostles, but nevertheless the people making a fuss were the ones who came with Jesus to Jerusalem.  And not only that, but the words that Luke records them shouting out are quite different from what you read in Matthew and Mark’s Gospel. Here there are no cries of ‘Hosanna in the highest’, that uniquely Jewish phrase that we picked out from the psalm. No, instead the disciples shout, ‘Peace in heaven’, and ‘Glory in the highest heaven.’

So what does this mean? Why the difference?

It seems that Luke wants us to understand this event differently from the other Gospel writers. There is no sense of a nationalistic fervour. There is no sense of anyone getting ready to rebel against the state. The palm branches waved by people in the other Gospels suggest that some of those present thought Jesus was in the same mould as the triumphant Maccabean freedom fighters, entering Jerusalem after the uprising against the Seleucids nearly two hundred years earlier. But Luke will have none of that.  And the word, ‘Hosanna’ would have meant little to Luke’s readers because he wasn’t writing for Jews, and he wasn’t writing about anything remotely militaristic, so instead he used the word, ‘Peace’. He wanted his readers to be absolutely clear about the motives behind the actions of Jesus.

So Luke paints a very different emphasis to Mark and Matthew, presumably so that his non-Jewish readers would have no misconceptions of Jesus and his followers acting triumphalistically. He is underlining that Jesus was a peaceful man. And that allows him to explore, with his readers, why such a peaceful man was crucified. And here is the nub of the issue:

Jesus was not a triumphant kind of character.

But he was counted as dangerous because he spoke of a deeply subversive kind of peace where those who were formerly counted as on the outside by the religious leaders were treated as the true insiders of the kingdom of God, and where those who claimed titles for themselves and tried to be seen to be important found themselves at the back of the wrong queue.  Jesus came with a message of love and of justice and of righteousness. Those were his motives and that’s why he was so dangerous to the religious and political powers. They didn’t know what to do with him. Jesus’s message had no hint of triumphalism in it. It was one of freedom from guilt and shame, and of being accepted by God, whoever we are and whatever we’ve done.

And when you set people free, you can’t control them anymore, and political and religious leaders get very nervous about losing control over people.

His motives were the needs of others, both spiritual and material, and there is no space in compassion and humility for triumphalism. There is no need to prove a point about right theology or doctrine. Mission is about reaching out to others because we care. It is about continuing the work of Christ in the same Spirit, of helping set people free from whatever kind of bondage they are in, spiritual, material or physical.  We don’t do that to get them to believe in Jesus; we do it because he did it. If we’re not doing it out of love then we shouldn’t be doing it. When I share my faith and what seems like good news to me, that Christ makes God intimately known under a new covenant, it’s not because I want to get people to agree with me, it’s because they have invited me to do so because we have already become friends without any ulterior motive.

Have a look at this from Philippians 2:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...”

Do nothing from selfish ambition. Look to the interests of others, regardless of what they believe. Be like Jesus. So I wonder where Christian triumphalism comes from. Why do some feel the need to sing songs which sound like battle hymns? Why do we sing, ‘Onward Christian soldiers’? Do we honestly think that Jesus would sing such words? Didn’t he say to Peter, ‘Put away your sword’?

Jesus’s message was deeply subversive because it challenged established power structures, just as it continues to do to this day. So I would have to say that unless we find ourselves wanting to help others, we’re not being Christlike and we’re not capable of meaningful mission. And if we want to be seen to be doing mission, then we’re in the wrong psychospiritual space.

Mission for Christians is about setting people free through Christ. As Jesus put it, ‘I came that they would have life, and have it in all its fullness.’ That’s the freedom which is finding me. But as soon as I find myself being tempted to browbeat someone with that then I shut up, because it ceases to be about freedom.

If I’m not good news then nothing I say will be.
If we need other people to agree with us, then we’d better do some careful thinking as to why. If nothing else it inhibits us from recognising that other people also carry good news, and I know that I personally benefit from listening to, and sometimes being challenged by, the views of others. But if we love people and want to help them purely because that’s what Jesus did, with no ulterior motive, then our motives are more likely to be right and we can simply get on with loving a world that’s hurting.

(Reference: Roots mag. Issue 64. 16.)

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