This last week we welcomed the Archbishop of Canterbury to the city and diocese. Many have commented on his humanity and humour, his easy manner with faith and civic leaders as well as homeless guests at Garden House. When he left us on Wednesday he caught a plane and flew to Rome to be with the political leaders of South Sudan at the Vatican. A stark contrast to touring Peterborough and Northamptonshire seeing projects, but actually another example of how the Christian church can bring the light of love into human lives and in the case of Sudanese leaders, seeking to bring a peaceful resolution to a bitter conflict. What happened during that meeting in Rome has been widely reported in the press, when Pope Francis got down on the floor and kissed the feet of three Sudanese politicians, each in conflict with the others. It was dramatic, powerful and poignant.
When someone with a major role, beit religious or otherwise, stoops down and humbles themselves before others it has a powerful effect of stripping away the power dynamic in the room. No longer is everyone playing the same game, or indeed accepting the ground rules for how it is to be played. Suddenly one has removed themselves from this and that vulnerability is actually a profoundly powerful moment. It says I am not bound by your recognition of my status, but am appealing, bowing down, before something much greater, in this case the power of the love of God which calls us, holds us and brings us together. It is an appeal to those on the receiving end to connect with that divine power and grace, and stop their warring.
If this sounds familiar, well we’ve just heard it retold in the Passion story of Jesus. On Thursday we will see Jesus break the power dynamic of his disciples, and by extension our own, as he takes a towel to wash their feet. The Lord of lords and King of kings makes himself a humble servant, demonstrating and begging that we live differently. We are encouraged to do the same, but there is so much more to this command than to clean shoes or even expand it to whatever acts of loving service we may come up with – from care for the vulnerable to feeding the hungry. It is also a call to break the power dynamic that looks for our own status and power, position and ranking. I learnt a long time ago that the most powerful hand you can hold is the one that is prepared to leave the game, not as some kind of brinkmanship but really walk away. It is the powerful hand that says this game does not define me or control me. That power of powerlessness, that strong vulnerability, can silence and overwhelm.
The whole of Holy Week is a slow-motion exercise in Jesus refusing to play power politics, but rather calling people to a higher command. His riding in on a donkey – a humble beast, his agony in the garden, his arrest and trial – trumped up and facing false accusations, his being abused before the crowd who become a mob baying for his blood, his humiliation on the cross, dying and burial. It is sacrificial and self-giving, it is to place trust in the higher purpose and power. The story of Holy Week, the most important week of the Christian year, overturns our priorities in so many ways. Here losing life becomes the gateway to truly finding it. The ultimate defiance is to refuse to acknowledge the power of the one who threatens and abuses, and to refuse to give them the status of controlling, of defining the moment.
Through this week we see Christ’s power displayed through what looks like powerlessness, but is actually the complete opposite. In emptying himself of the way the world sees power, in terms of coercion and zero sum wins, he subverts it and redefines the purpose of the whole venture. It is in serving and giving that we find the purpose of life more clearly revealed. It is the power of love overcoming the love of power.
Sermon for Palm Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 14th April 2019