Peace Themes in Easter

Biblical Passages

Matthew 21:1-11: As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Luke 19:37-42: When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

John 20:19-20: On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Ephesians 2:11-18: Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Colossians 1:19-20: For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Palm Sunday and Peace

1. This is one of the important days in the church calendar. Two names are associated with it:

(a) The triumphal entry, as Jesus is hailed by the crowds as he comes into Jerusalem after three years of itinerant ministry.

(b) Palm Sunday, because the crowds cut down palm branches and spread them in his path.

2. Some of those cheering in the crowd, perhaps many of them, would be familiar with a strange old prophecy (Zechariah 9:9-10) about a donkey. This prophecy about a triumphant king coming into the city, encouraged the people of Jerusalem to shout when they saw their king riding into the city on a donkey.

3. No wonder there was huge excitement! Could this be the long-awaited Messiah, the king like David who would deliver Israel from her enemies? As Jesus entered the city the crowds cheered loudly, shouting ‘hosanna’ (God save us), and others asked who this was.

4. He was a northerner, of course, from a nowhere town in Galilee, but rumours about him had spread widely. He was a prophet – but was he the deliverer? What would he do in Jerusalem?

5. What an anti-climax! After this wonderfully dramatic entry, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, Jesus only does three things:

(a) Instead of kicking out the Romans, he kicks out the Jewish traders.

(b) Instead of assuming the throne, he heals the blind and the crippled.

(c) Instead of staying in the city, he goes off to Bethany for the night.

6. Imagine the confusion and disappointment of the crowds. As so often, Jesus surprises people and goes off-script. Again and again, he tries to get people to understand that his kingdom is different and his mission is different from what they are expecting.

7. The donkey was a clue, especially if the crowds had remembered the next verse of the prophecy. This king is not riding a warhorse and he will not lead a revolution. He rides a donkey and he comes to bring peace and an end to enmity.

8. Why does he expel the traders? Maybe they were exploiting people, or maybe they were excluding the Gentiles from the Court of the Gentiles. Maybe Jesus’ actions say that the way to God is free and open to all – the crippled, the poor and even the Romans!

9. Not much of a triumphal entry then! But shortly Jesus will be lifted up for all to see – on the cross with an inscription above his head – ‘king of the Jews’. Three days later he will be raised from the dead and after this will ascend to the Father’s throne, where he will be greeted by myriads of angels. This is the real triumphal entry!

10. So, as we follow Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, what do we learn?

(a) His kingdom is not what we expect, so we must always be open for its surprises.

(b) His kingdom comes in humility, gentleness and with concern for the poor.

(c) His kingdom establishes justice and opposes exploitation and exclusion.

(d) His kingdom refuses the way of violence and models the way of peace.

Interpreting the Death of Jesus

1. The historic creeds of the church do not provide an authoritative interpretation of the death of Jesus. There are several motifs, images and explanations in the New Testament (some of which draw deeply on Old Testament resources), but no single interpretation.

2. Various ways of interpreting the death of Jesus have been popular at different times, all of them reflecting to some extent the cultural context in which they emerged. All claim biblical support, but none of them has attracted universal acclaim.

3. Here are six different ways of interpreting the death of Jesus, advocated by theologians from past centuries.:

(a) God’s honour has been offended by the rebellion of human beings. If our relationship with God, our Master, is to be restored, God’s wounded honour needs to be satisfied. The death of Jesus honoured God and allows us access to God once more.

(b) God’s heart has been broken by the ruptured relationship with fallen human beings and God longs for this relationship to be restored. The death of Jesus demonstrates the extent of God’s love, melts our hearts and draws us back into relationship with God.

(c) God’s law has been broken by the disobedience of human beings and due punishment must be imposed if order is to be maintained. Jesus, who was innocent, died to take this punishment upon himself so that guilty human beings could receive God’s forgiveness.

(d) God’s purposes for human beings have been challenged by Satan, who has deceived and corrupted us. The death of Jesus seemed like a defeat but it is actually the triumph of God over the powers of darkness, liberating us to live in God’s kingdom.

(e) God’s lordship over human beings has been usurped by Satan, who has captured and enslaved us. The death of Jesus was a ransom paid by God to Satan to set us free – but the resurrection means that Satan has been tricked and has lost everything.

(f) God’s relationship with human beings has been polluted by our sin. If our relationship with God is to be restored, we need to be purified. The death of Jesus is a sacrifice taking away sin and washing us clean through his blood.

4. Some explanations fit better in some contexts than others. Some might be adaptable for a changing culture. Some require a lot of background information, biblical and cultural. Some may be unusable in contemporary culture – satisfying wounded honour, tricking the devil, punishing an innocent victim in place of the guilty.

5. Anabaptist Christians, and others, are wary of interpretations that involve notions of divine violence or God seemingly identifying with those who crucified Jesus. Paul Fiddes writes: ‘If God is seen as killing his Son then this endorses the murderer and torturer rather than the victim.’

6. We may want instead to work with notions of restorative justice, reconciliation, peace-making, sacrificial love, identifying with the victim, absorbing the consequences of sin, Father and Son (and Spirit) together bringing salvation.

Resurrection and Peace

1. Easter Sunday morning is the high point in the church year. We’re still looking ahead to the Ascension of the risen Jesus and to Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit, but those events were made possible by Easter Sunday.

2. This is the heart of our faith: Jesus who died is risen! Hallelujah! If this is untrue, we are utterly wasting our time, we are greatly to be pitied, Paul says. Without resurrection, none of the rest makes sense – Jesus’ teaching, lifestyle, miracles, suffering, death.

3. Everything flows from this triumphant surprise – and surprise it was to the disciples, as we see in John 20, and to everyone else. Whatever hints Jesus had dropped, nobody really expected this to happen. Even the absence of the body in the tomb did not persuade Mary or the disciples: they suspected grave-robbing, wept despairingly or went home puzzled.

4. Can you feel the mixture of emotions in this story?

(a) The fear – of going into the tomb, of what might have happened, of what the Jews may yet do to them as Jesus’ disciples.

(b) The grief – with Jesus’ death still seared into their minds and as they still do not really understand what is happening.

(c) The despair – that Jesus’ enemies might be planning to abuse his dead body or prevent his disciples honouring his memory.

(d) The confusion – too many unexpected and inexplicable things are happening too fast.

(e) The disengagement – they just went home or hid away together – what did they talk about?

(f) The doubt – trying to believe but not understanding, the story of Thomas (which we’ll come back to shortly).

(g) The sudden joy and wonder that Jesus was with them again.

(h) No wonder the first two things that Jesus said to them were ‘Peace be with you!’ and ‘Peace be with you!’

5. What does the resurrection of Jesus mean?

6. If Jesus rose from the dead, the way he lived and the things he taught need to be taken with the utmost seriousness. He really was God on earth, living the way God wants all of us to live. His resurrection invites us to follow him and imitate him. It means that God vindicated Jesus – his teaching, his values, his promises, his claims about himself, his proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God, his commitment to the way of peace. Resurrection says that this is all true and trustworthy.

7. If Jesus rose from the dead, we are not left to our own devices as we try to follow him and pursue peace. He is not just an example or teacher from the past but alive today, available to us, praying for us, urging us on and at work within us by his Spirit.

8. If Jesus rose from the dead, all the powers of this age – political, military, economic or whatever – have been put in their place. Corrupt courts, military might, religious extremism and political manoeuvring will not have the last word. Through his death and resurrection Jesus unmasked these fallen systems, showing us what they are truly like. They have been in deep trouble since Easter Sunday, for they have lost their ultimate sanction. We can never again put our trust in such systems. Some are better than others, and we can work and pray for improvement, but we will not put our hope in such things. Many said the world changed on 9/11. Resurrection says it changed on Easter Sunday.

9. If Jesus rose from the dead, the powers of darkness, sin, Satan, evil and suffering have not triumphed but have met their match. Resurrection says that love, joy, truth, freedom, peace, goodness and forgiveness are stronger than we ever dreamed and that these will prevail. Even in the darkest hours, the resurrection speaks of a new day coming when justice and peace will triumph.

10. If Jesus rose from the dead, we can know that death is not the end, death has lost its sting, death does not have the last word and the fear of death is broken. Resurrection says that life is stronger than death and that the promise of eternal life will be fulfilled. Paul says that the resurrection of Jesus is the ‘first fruits’ of a massive harvest: we too will rise from the dead. Death seems so final when we bury or cremate someone, but Jesus likens death to ‘falling asleep’ with the hope of waking again on resurrection morning. We may understandably fear the dying process, but we need not fear death.

11. If Jesus rose from the dead, life after death is not ghostly or ethereal, a resuscitation or a memory of the past. The risen Jesus was the same but gloriously different, fully alive and fully human – and Paul says that he is ‘the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’. The resurrected Jesus is the pattern of our own resurrection hope – more in the final session.

12. If Jesus rose from the dead, the new creation has begun. We have friends who have named their house ‘the eighth day’. Six days for the original creation, then the seventh on which God rested, then the eighth day, Easter Sunday, the beginning of the new creation, the new age. It is not that the resurrection of Jesus is an odd event within history and the world as we know it but the foundational event of the world as it has begun to be, a symbol and starting point of the new world. Resurrection starts with Jesus but continues with us and spreads out through all of creation to bring in the new heaven and new earth. God is going to do for the whole of the cosmos what he did for Jesus on Easter Sunday. Then there will be peace.

13. And, like the first disciples commissioned by the risen Jesus, we are called to be witnesses of these things. If Jesus rose from the dead, he is the Messiah, the world’s true Lord, and we are tasked with telling the world that Jesus is alive, that death is not the end, that injustice and corruption will not last for ever, that the kingdom of God has arrived and that the new and peaceful way of living Jesus showed and taught us can transform our communities.

Holy Week and Easter Prayers from Take our Moments and our Days

God of strength in days of testing,
you deliver us from fear to love.
Pierce our vanity and empty us of pride,
that we may see your image in all humankind
and, like Christ, embrace both neighbour and enemy.

God of glory beyond our comprehension,
you exalt the humble and raise the lowly.
Give us grace to know the mind of Jesus,
that we may follow him through death and into new life.

God of all life,
you break the cold chains of death and draw us into your glory.
Release our frozen hands and feet with the fire of your love,
that we may be forever bound to you
through the resurrection of your son Jesus.

Now may the God of peace,
who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus,
make us complete in everything good
so that we may do God’s will, through Jesus Christ,
to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.