This Easter was different. I must have preached on most Easter Sundays in my 30 years of church ministry, but this year was different. I know that Easter should be a time to remember the resurrection of Jesus from the grave; a time for joy. But my heart was heavy. It was hard to rejoice because I knew that a couple of days earlier, on Good Friday, 147 people had been murdered in a university in Kenya, most of them Christians, my brothers and my sisters. Here is the BBC report:
At least 147 people, mostly students, have been killed in an assault by al-Shabab militants on a university in north-eastern Kenya.
Heavily armed attackers stormed Garissa University early on Thursday, killing two security guards then firing indiscriminately on students.
Four of the gunman were eventually surrounded in a dormitory, and died when their suicide vests detonated.
It is the deadliest attack yet by al-Shabab.
The militants singled out Christians and shot them, witnesses said.
I found it hard to enter into upbeat Easter celebrations. I struggled to understand why the world was not more outraged. I guess the death of innocent African students, killed because of their faith, is not as “sexy” as the murder of Parisian cartoonists? The deaths didn’t seem to make much of a dent in the Easter celebrations of many churches either. I didn’t see many churches make mention of this horror in their Easter services. Of those who did, some mentioned in passing that those who died were Christians, so it’s all right. They are with God and we will see them again. I believe this to be true but that hardly makes it all right.
Maybe we are all numb from the daily reports of atrocities and the regular martyrdom of our brothers and sisters. Remember the 2,000-plus Nigerians killed by Boko Haram earlier in the year? I believe most of them were from Christian villages. Daily we are reminded that there are parts of the world where Christians are being targeted for death. Here is a report from 2014.
Isis’s persecution of Iraqi Christians, which has already forced tens of thousands of men, women and children to flee for their lives, is fast becoming a genocide, religious leaders have warned.
Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawod of the Syriac Orthodox church said that Isis’s capture of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, had marked a turning point for Christians in the country.
“Now we consider it genocide – ethnic cleansing,” he said. “They are killing our people in the name of Allah and telling people that anyone who kills a Christian will go straight to heaven: that is their message. (Sam Jones and Owen Bowcott, “Religious leaders say Isis persecution of Iraqi Christians has become genocide,” Guardian Saturday 9 August, 2014 )
At the same time there have also been reports of Christians forgiving those who killed their loved ones.
Even by ISIS’ brutal standards, the video is horrific. Twenty-one Coptic Christians beheaded on a beach in Libya.
Christians across the world expressed horror and outrage at the mass killing, with Pope Francis calling the victims “martyrs” whose violent deaths should unite the fractured Christian community.
Remarkably, though, a leading Coptic Christian bishop says that he has already forgiven the ISIS soldiers who slaughtered his fellow Copts.
Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, was in Washington on Friday for the swearing-in of the United States’ new ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, David Saperstein. Angaelos spoke to CNN about why ISIS targets Coptic Christians, and why he forgives them, even as he rejects their horrific acts. (Daniel Burke, “Coptic Christian bishop: I forgive ISIS,” CNN February 20, 2015)
It looks like the choice between two paths grows clearer by the day. There is the path of hatred and murder. Then there is the path of love and forgiveness. Which path will the world choose? Which path holds the promise of life?
At first glance the path of violence and hatred looks more powerful. It may be useful to recall that the forces of violence and love have come up against each other before. This Good Friday I preached on John 19:28–42. Here is part of that passage:
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. (vv. 31–34, NIV)
Hatred and violence squared up against sacrificial love, and again it looked like violence and death win. And if anyone understood the power of force and violence it would be the Romans and their mighty legions. For a time it seemed like business as usual. The champion of God was dead. Violence had won.
But fast forward to today. Where is the Roman Empire now? Reduced to a few ruins for tourists to visit. But the Kingdom of God continues to grow in the hearts of those who choose to follow the King, even as we await His second coming to remove evil once and for all and to usher in the new heaven and the new earth.
So as love and hatred square up again, we look on with deep pain as hatred struts its stuff. But we remember. We remember that the ultimate battle between good and evil, love and hatred, light and darkness, has already been fought and we remember who came out tops in the last round. This is the most important lesson of Holy Week. We retrace the steps of that fight fought 2,000 years ago as we remember Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter. Jesus died but on the third day He rose again. Life defeats death. Good defeats evil.
Easter is wasted on feel-good activities and glib assurances. Instead let us remember that bout fought long ago, blow by blow, and how God wins in the end and, in remembering, find new courage and faith for the battles we face today.
O my dear, dear brothers and sisters in Garissa, I believe you are with the Lord but I weep for all you suffered and for the unimaginable pain your loved ones must be going through now. We must continue to be strong, to trust in the Lord and to do good as we all await the return of the Lamb that was slain. And He will return.