In the Name of Peace
By Dr. Keith Wagner
This morning the children were waving palm branches as they passed through the aisles of the sanctuary. They waved them high with enthusiasm and excitement. You could sense a spirit of joy as they paraded by. In the Mid East the last several years we have witnessed young people waving guns over their heads. Unlike the palm branches which are symbolic of harmony and peace, the guns being waved are symbols of revenge and aggression.
Objects, gestures, verbal and nonverbal behaviors are symbolic of our attitudes and beliefs. Symbols make statements and convey messages. They can be affirming or offensive, depending on how they are used and in the context they are displayed. People get upset when they see the American flag being burned. A cross, worn around the neck makes a statement of one’s Christianity. MacDonald’s golden arches provide a welcome feeling of relief when you are in unfamiliar territory.
Jesus was intentional about the symbol he chose that first Palm Sunday. He selected a donkey to ride on because a donkey in that culture was symbolic of royalty. He wanted to be understood as a “king.” It was a direct reference to David’s son, Solomon, who also rode on a donkey during his ordination. Jesus’ kingship, however had nothing to do with power, force or domination or the masses. His kingship had to do with love, grace and hope. He wanted people to understand that God was reigning over them.
Just as symbols can stir up a crowd, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem stirred up the people. They responded by laying garments on the road in front of him. They gave him a “red carpet” treatment. They honored him as a leader, but as a leader of peace.
Note that Jesus was intentional about selecting an untamed donkey. I believe this was his way of symbolizing the fact that he came to “tame” the world. He understood his mission to bring harmony, peace and love into a world that was in conflict with one another and with God.
The Palm Sunday experience was a totally planned event which symbolized God’s message of peace; peace in the world, peace with others and inner peace. When Jesus finally reached Jerusalem, he wept and said, “If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace!”
The problems of the world in Jesus’ day were no different than our own. People were oppressed and disenfranchised. There was inequality between the sexes. There was greed and corruption in the corporate world. Even the religious community was advocating their practices and laws over God’s love. Consequently many were powerless and hopeless. The world desperately needed a leader who would rally the masses and be an advocate for peace.
During a run over Kassel, Germany, in World War II, Elmer Bendiner’s B-17 bomber took a barrage of flack from Nazi anti-aircraft. He could feel the plane being hit, yet he and his crew returned to base after a successful mission. Bendiner was even more amazed when he was told that a 20-millimeter shell pierced the fuel tank but did not cause an explosion.
He started to ask the crew chief for the shell as a souvenir of their unbelievable luck. But the crew chief told him that not just one shell had been found in the gas tanks, but eleven. Eleven unexploded shells? It truly seemed to be a miracle. The shells were sent to the armorers to be defused, after which intelligence officers came by to retrieve them. The armorers reported something even more mystifying. When they opened the shells, they found no explosive charge in any of them. They appeared to be empty and harmless.
One of the shells, however, was not completely empty. It contained a carefully rolled piece of paper. On it was scrawled a message in Czech language of a prison camp worker. The message read, “This is all we can do for you now.” It was a miracle all right, not of misfired shells, but of peace-loving hearts.
I believe our world would be a more peaceful place if less bombs and missiles were fired and more acts of neighborly love were exchanged.
Jesus was concerned about people’s attitudes and relationships toward one another. This would be symbolized with his death on a cross where he gave his greatest message of all, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The cross is a symbol of forgiveness. Jesus was misunderstood, rejected and ultimately put to death but that did not prevent him from preaching the forgiveness of sins in his last few breaths.
In the gospel of Luke, however his message of forgiveness doesn’t end on the cross. After he is resurrected and appears in the midst of his disciples he reminds them again of this important message. He wants his followers to continue preaching his message. He says to them, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”
Nations will never live in harmony unless forgiveness takes place. Jesus’ message was not one of revenge or even justice. It was a message of forgiveness. Peace is made possible with the practice of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is never easy because it involves surrender. We reach a point where we give up the fight and accept that future conflict is futile. Unfortunately many of us are stubborn and we don’t like to lose. The worst conflict on American soil was the Civil War. Families fought against families, brother against brother. It practically destroyed our nation.
Thankfully, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. His generals wanted to continue the fight with guerrilla warfare. But Lee refused to inflict any more pain on future generations. To continue the war would make reunion of the North and South impossible. Enough blood had been shed, enough damage had been done to American families and communities. The defeat of his army was inevitable but it was time to avoid disaster. It was time for surrender and time for reconciliation.
How many of us continue to wage war with our neighbors, our relatives, or even our brothers and sisters of the faith? As long as a war of words, behavior that alienates and attitudes of stubbornness continue there will never be reconciliation and surely no peace. Peace is only possible when, like Lee, we are willing to surrender and pave the way for unity and harmony.
Jesus also wanted his followers to be at peace with themselves. Others may not like or agree with us, but when we stand for peace others will notice. The Pharisees didn’t appreciate the fact that Jesus’ followers were shouting messages of peace. They wanted them silent. But, Jesus, in good conscious could not do that. “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out,” he said.
I believe the greatest gift Jesus gave us is the ability to be at peace with ourselves and at peace with God. Feelings of inner peace give us the freedom to live our lives without having to measure up to someone else’s standards. Peace of mind enables us to live our lives in the spirit of God’s forgiveness. Inner peace means we reach a point where we can sincerely say, “I am who I am and I am confident that God is ok with me too.”
Recently I showed a film in my Psychology class entitled, “The Self.” In the video there was experiment conducted by Brandeis University by Psychologist Teresa Amabile. She selected two groups of children and gave them paper and various symbols. They were to make a collage. One group was told there would prizes for the best three pictures. The other group was told that at the end of the day some prizes would be raffled off. When the experiment was over those children in the group who competed for the best prizes had created everyday, ordinary pictures. But, those who weren’t in competition had some amazing creations. In other words, competition had stood in the way of creativity. (Discovering Psychology, WGBH Education Foundation, Boston, MA., 1989)
One of the greatest problems with the modern Church is the idea that we have to be in competition. I believe God wants us to be who we are. I used to feel that I had to compete with other churches. Over the years I have learned to surrender and focus on who I am and my own ministry. I am at peace with myself because I believe I am doing the best I can and I don’t have to compete with anyone and neither do you!
God wants us all to strive for inner peace. God wants us to be at peace with our neighbor. And, God wants there to be peace in the world. I pray that the palm branches the children waved this morning will remind us of why Jesus came.
Copyright 2004, Keith Wagner. Used by permission.