The leaders in Jerusalem, religious and secular, were anticipating with no small degree of anxiety next weekend’s Festival of Weeks, or Pentecost, so called because it fell fifty (pente) days after Passover; a full week of weeks since death was cheated and life stolen out of captivity.
William Barclay explains,
“At least as many came to the Feast of Pentecost as came to the Passover. … never was there a more international crowd in Jerusalem than at the time of Pentecost. The Feast itself had two main significances. (i) It had a historical significance. It commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. (ii) It had an agricultural significance. … It had one other unique characteristic. The law laid it down that on that day no servile work should be done (Leviticus 23:21; Numbers 28:26). So it was a holiday for all and the crowds on the streets would be greater than ever.”
So the leaders in Jerusalem were nervous, because only seven times seven days earlier, at the last large Festival, a scandal had broken loose. Outside agitators had come down from Galilee (the law only commanded the presence of those living within twenty miles of Jerusalem at these Temple festivals; the Galileans could have stayed out of it, but no); they came down from Galilee and provoked the crowds into parodies of Pilate’s parades. They turned tables in the Temple courts. They raised loud protests against the complacent, perhaps even corrupt high priests, and demanded repentance, for the reign of God, they said, had drawn near.
The authorities did what they could. They arrested the ringleader, executed him publicly on the eve of the Festival, pour encourager les autres, hoped for the best. But rumours continued of a restless body, a risen leader, an immortal Messiah. The Galileans still haunted the marketplace, gathering in groups to murmur together. Outside agitators ready to wreak havoc on the Festival of Pentecost.
From the days of the Psalmists, the message has been broadcast near and far: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. I remember seeing the signs around the city, in a dozen languages. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
When it comes to outside agitators, Jesus has to be the prime example, doesn’t he? I mean, yes, the truth of the Incarnation means that he was truly, fully human, created and born of a woman. And yet he was also God. He was in the world, and the world was created through him. He was buried beneath the earth, and he laid its foundations. He rose again, because he bore within him the eternity of life, the life that will not remain where death tries to restrain it. He ascended into heaven, because his place is within God. Talk about your outside agitator!
When he came, preaching repentance because the kingdom of God was at hand; when he travelled the countryside, far and near to his hometown; when he disrupted the dealings in the Temple, borrowed donkeys, took over upper rooms, even people’s family tombs – he was an outside agitator.
Of course, he was also the ultimate insider, the Word by whose authority all things were made; the divine image shared between each of his disciples, each of us.
You might think, with all this talk of outside agitation, that my own anxiety is somewhat elevated as we wait for the verdict in the Brelo case, and the eventual end to the Sheriff’s investigation into the death of Tamir Rice. You would be right. I am concerned. I am praying for the peace of the city of Cleveland.
And like many others, I am still trying to work out what it means to pray for the peace of the city in the wake of a Department of Justice report which shreds its record for peaceful and impartial administration of justice on the streets. Outside agitators, those DoJ investigators, every last one of them.
Let me be clear: I do not know what the verdict over Officer Brelo’s actions in the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams will be or even should be; there are some legal niceties at play which I have not fully unraveled or understood. I do have a few opinions.
Of course, whatever happens, the history and the future of the relationships that rustle through the undercurrents of our city, our county, and our country will not be fundamentally altered by one or two tragedies, by one or two indictments, by one or two reports. Tensions that run back decades, centuries, across oceans, that found their way into the prayers of the Psalmist will not be resolved in a week, or a week of weeks.
Whatever happens, we will pray for peace in the city. And whether I do so at the police memorial or whether I do so at a #BlackLivesMatter rally, I realize that I will always be in some way an outside agitator. But maybe, sometimes, that is just another word for a Christian.
Jesus prayed for his disciples, in that last night before his arrest, and he said,
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
Christians do not belong to the world as much as they do to Christ, and as such we will always be outside agitators. We have been given the Word of God, we have seen what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like: Christ eating with the tax collectors and the tax evaders, lepers embraced, life released. And there is no going back to the old ways of oppression, violence, the many ways in which the evil one sets snares for the unwary.
“Sanctify them in the truth,” says Jesus. “Your word is truth.” And the truth of God’s love for the world, let loose in the person of Jesus, is the ultimate agitator.
Like Jesus, becoming by his Incarnation the ultimate insider, we do not remain on the outside. Love does not stand outside of the city walls and serenade the sentries. Like Jesus, we are called, too, into the lives of those whom we serve. We are called to sit with those seeking hope, to stand with those who need raising up, to turn the tables on oppression and dereliction.
When I became a citizen of this country, a friend asked me why, and I asked her in return, “How can I claim to serve a community in which I have no voice, nor even a vote? ‘Seek the good of the city,’ says the prophet in Exile. I have to throw in my lot with the people of the city in order to love them with integrity.”
I am not going looking for trouble. God knows, trouble finds us easily enough. But I do ask that when we pray for the peace of the city, looking toward the Festival of Weeks, the Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit with great power, that we do so in the spirit of uncompromising truth, fearless compassion, merciful justice and love. That we do not become the people of whom the prophets warned, who speak peace where there is no peace. Jeremiah said,
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace’,
when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11)
Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace’, when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. (Ezekiel 13:10)
Because we are called to seek a deeper peace, one that resonates with the peace of God that passes all understanding, that keeps hearts and minds restless until they are reconciled one to another, and all to Christ.
“Protect them from the evil one,” said Jesus. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
Let us go into our world armed to the back teeth only with peace of Christ. Amen.
William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles, revd edn (St Andrew’s Press, 1976), 21