By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, a re-post from April 2019
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3.1-2)
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! (Luke 12.51)
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, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven! (Luke 19.37-38)
In imagining ways to hear Scripture from the lens of “wild lectionary,” we tend to jump to details of life on earth: water, trees, animals, mountains. This focus on earth is challenged by this week’s passage from Luke, as Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem for what we’ve come to call “Holy Week.” For Luke tells us that “the whole multitude of disciples” proclaimed as Jesus came down the Mount of Olives, not “peace on earth,” but “peace in heaven.” What can they be thinking? What is the relationship between heaven and earth when it comes to making peace?
Certainly the disciples who have followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem are expecting a Davidic messiah, who would rout the Romans and give reign to God’s people in Jerusalem. Throughout Luke, as with Mark and Matthew, the disciples yearn for power over others (e.g., 9.46, 54; 22.24). As they approached the City of David, however, Jesus told a parable meant to throw cold water on these delusions of power (19.11-27): in the world of imperial authority and violence, resisters are not rewarded, but are condemned and slaughtered (18.22-27). If they knew how to discern the times (kairos, 12.56), they would be aware that their arrival in Jerusalem will not lead to them triumphantly seizing of power, but to their rejection and crucifixion.
As it is, however, they celebrate Jesus’ royal entry not with a cry expecting messianic peace on earth, but “peace in heaven.” They may not understand the nature of Jesus’ messiahship, but their words seem to catch one key element that we ourselves often miss, perhaps only unconsciously. As Paul (or someone writing in his name) says, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6.12) This bifurcation of heaven from earth offers an apocalyptic perspective, one shared by Jesus (and Luke) from the very beginning of the Gospel, as old Zechariah and young Mary are given revelatory Good News by the angel Gabriel (Lk 1.11-38), and Jesus’ baptism by John is blessed by a Voice from the opened heaven proclaiming Jesus God’s beloved son (3.21-22). Throughout Luke’s story, we thus must always be aware of the competition between empire and creation, Caesar’s realm and God’s realm, for the hearts, minds and bodies of God’s peoples.
The first quote at the top of this post highlights what is at stake. Just when Tiberius and Pilate and Herod are entrenched in their places of power, the Word of God comes not to the elite in Rome or Jerusalem, but to the son of a minor priest in the wilderness. Luke thereby invites his hearers and readers to be asking at each step of the Way: which voice “from above” do we allow to fill us and animate our thoughts, perceptions and actions?
The call for “peace in heaven” recognizes that there is, in fact, a war in heaven (Rev 12.7ff). The roots of this scenario are in the books of Daniel and 1 Enoch, texts from two centuries or so before Jesus, inviting God’s people to see through the lies spun by imperial leaders into the deeper truth of God’s reign on “the other side of the veil.” Both texts contrast “one like a human being” who is given power directly by God with “beasts” or rebellious angels who use deception and verbal violence to mislead and seek to dominate God’s people on earth. From God’s perspective beyond time, the war has already been won (Rev 20). But from our perspective on earth within the flow of time, the war is ongoing so long as people are still tempted by the “heavenly” voices that would lead us away from exclusive loyalty to God. Until this war is concluded, there cannot be true peace on earth. Instead, there must be ongoing listening and discernment to recognize and to respond to God’s Voice alone.
But for Wild Lectionary readers, what does this tell us about God’s compassionate care for all of creation? Listening more closely, we hear that “heaven” (Gk, ouranos) means both the parallel realm that is all around us in which God reigns (e.g., Lk 17.21)—despite the resistance of rebellious spirits— and the visible, tangible place in which the sun, stars and moon find their homes. For these “heavenly” creatures—along with angels, cherubim and seraphim—are also part of God’s “wild” realm. It is from this realm that Jesus predicts that signs will appear to reveal the impending collapse of the imperial realm (21.25-28).
What might this suggest for our own discipleship, as we celebrate Holy Week and beyond? Consider, for example, how easily we allow the words and actions of Trump to “get under our skin.” We here are not likely to approve of or imitate our petulant president, but we are tempted to allow his words and actions to grab our attention and fill our consciousness. And, of course, that is exactly his goal: to make it all about him.
Perhaps this is why Jesus only rarely speaks directly of the Roman Empire and its leaders. To do so is to give power to those in “heavenly places”: not the human officials themselves, but what they embody. Jesus and Paul both knew well that seeking to take on the empire on its own terms would allow the “powers” to control the narrative. Instead, both counsel and model discipleship that focuses on, in the classic words of Dorothy Day, seeking to “build the new world in the shell of the old.” As long our attention is focused on the voices from Rome, Jerusalem or Washington, we cannot easily hear the Voice that calls from the wilderness of both earth and sky.
May we who seek peace on earth for all God’s creatures strive for the peace that comes from heaven/sky (cf. Lk 12.30-31). We do this best when we turn our attention away from the voices that would wage war on God’s reign and turn toward the only Voice that can truly animate us to embody peace, on earth as it is in heaven.
Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on land, creation and environmental justice themes in the texts of the revised common lectionary, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.