The Defiance of the Resurrection

Easter Sunday           April 16, 2017

“Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed!”
With these words of joy – words of triumph, words of exultation, Christians throughout the world greet one another this day.

It is one of the rather splendid privileges of these days of social media to see this greeting sweep across the world, as friends in New Zealand and Hong Kong first proclaim the good news, followed by friends in India, and Europe, until finally with the dawn the good news reaches our shores. Christ is risen! Christos anesti!

It is a cry of fierce joy, of defiance. It is echoed in those magnificent words of Psalm 118, words that would originally have cried out in the temple in Jerusalem as a celebration for victory in battle:

The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.
There is a sound of exultation and victory
in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord has triumphed!
This is the Lord’s doing,*
and it is marvellous in our eyes.
On this day the Lord has acted;*
we will rejoice and be glad in it.

And yet I wonder. Sometimes it seems it is difficult for us to join fully and whole-heartedly into these shouts of joy and triumph. Sometimes for us Easter seems more of a problem than a celebration. Because the truth is, many of us find the Resurrection difficult to accept or believe in. Perhaps it seems too good to be true, too much wishful thinking, a happy end tacked onto a realistically tragic story. Perhaps it violates too much the standards of rational truth. We can love and accept Jesus, the teacher and example – but the Resurrection brings us face-to-face with a miracle, and we find it hard to credit the idea that God intervenes so directly in the laws of nature: a dead man is dead. Perhaps we get caught up in the question, “Did this really happen like this?” As I suggested a couple of weeks ago in a sermon on the raising of Lazarus, this is probably the wrong question – but it’s our question, the question which our habits of thought, with their fixation on facts, leave us stuck with. The problem is, our skepticism here leaves us with a faith that can be strong on love, and maybe even manage faith, but with no hope. Just a sad, world-weary resignation. And so we take the Easter proclamation in our mouth, Christ is risen, but it does not spring so naturally from our hearts.

Perhaps it is not meant for us, at least not in our normal state of comfort and self-reliance. Perhaps this gospel is meant for people in another place, another reality, a reality we may find ourselves in from time to time, but which is not our natural home. Perhaps it is meant for those who live with vulnerability and suffering.

It was out of this other reality that I heard this week a voice that moved and disturbed me. It was the voice of a Coptic priest, Fr. Boules George, preaching at Monday evening Holy Week service in Cairo. That was the day after ISIS bombers killed 49 people at Palm Sunday services in two Egyptian churches. You can find this sermon on the internet, in Arabic with English subtitles. The title of the sermon was “A Message to Those who are Killing us”. Fr. George’s message to ISIS was basically three things, three difficult and perhaps surprising things: thank you (!), we love you, and we are praying for you. The sermon both disturbed me and moved me profoundly.

What disturbed me particularly was the part about thank you. Thank you, he said, because you have given us the privilege of dying as martyrs, and so being close to Christ, sharing in his cross. Thank you for cutting short their journey, so that these lucky ones can be with Christ now, sharing in eternal life. I don’t know about you, but I find that hard to hear. Not only would I never preach that, if I ever heard a colleague preach it here I would consider it gross pastoral and theological malpractice.

But I do not live and serve in a church where we can expect to be blown up or murdered by our neighbours at any time. So I am willing to make considerable allowances for Fr George. Living and serving in a persecuted church, there are no doubt things about the faith he understands far better than I. As well, he is not after all speaking to me and you, he is speaking to the fanatics of ISIS. Perhaps his argument that they are doing their victims a favour by letting them be with Christ might well make sense to them, and mortify them.

As much as I am disturbed by aspects of this sermon, by thoughts that might seem even fanatical to my rational Western ears, I am also deeply impressed and moved by the sermon as a whole. There is something truly splendid in its defiance. This is a man, this is a church, that looks death in the face, horrible, violent death, and says: “You don’t impress me. You can’t scare me, leave me in terror. You can’t make me abandon my principles; you can’t make me hate you. I will continue to love you and pray for you, because Christ commands me to love and pray for my enemies. I will even thank you for the evil you are trying to do to me – because that more than anything will show how ineffective your hatred is.”

How I long for that kind of freedom, for that bold, unshaken defiance in the face of evil and hatred. Strange, isn’t it: we who have relatively speaking so little to fear, find it so difficult to find this level of faith; but the Coptic church, who is facing daily violence and death, has found such a joyous freedom. It is as though they have moved to another place altogether, a place where they have death already behind them, not ahead as something to be feared. It is as though they are living the resurrection, even as evil and death is raging against them – because they live so fully out of the resurrection gospel.

That is what the resurrection gospel is, at its root: the ultimate defiance to the rule of violence and death. Jesus was done to death, quite deliberately, by the same thing that is ravaging the Egyptian church. We can call it terrorism, if you like. For Jesus, it was not the revolutionary terrorism of wild-eyed, embittered young men: it was the cold, calculated state terrorism of Pontius Pilate. But while the style may be different, the principle is the same. Both kinds of terrorism are rooted in the same logic of violence: that the fear of death is the ultimate, unanswerable weapon to manipulate and control people. The crucifixion of Jesus, just as much as the Palm Sunday bombings of last week, was meant as a statement, a final statement, that there is no answer to: “We have the final say over your life or death, you are in our power.” It works every time.

Well, almost every time. Because the faith in the resurrection is the defiant faith that death and violence do not have the last word, that the love of God still speaks the last word, even beyond death. And suddenly the spell is broken. Violence and terror had their day, Jesus did not resist, they did their worst, and they still could not keep him down. Out of the faith in the resurrection was born the church of the martyrs, a church that was willing to face down the terror of the Roman Empire. The most powerful empire in the world found itself suddenly impotent in the face of those who were no longer afraid of it.

So too, today, in Egypt, we see the same spirit of the martyrs. They will not reward the violence and hatred they face by giving it power over them: they respond to the attacks with love, with prayer, with joy even. And nothing, I am sure, can be more infuriating to those who hate them, than this refusal to accept their hatred. It leaves the terrorists powerless, pointless, merely pathetic.

That is the power of the resurrection gospel. It is a power that shines most brightly in the face of violence and terror; but it can shine also in our own quieter, though also bitter struggles with the shadow of death, struggles with aging, or cancer, or the loss of a loved one. Death still has power over our bodies – but by the promise of the resurrection gospel it does not have the final word on our lives, our souls, our sense of meaning or purpose or trust. In the face of the reality of death, Christ gives us the gift of that most defiant and courageous of virtues, the gift of hope, the gift of looking death in the face and saying: “You have no power over me. You cannot rob me of my joy, my loves, my convictions. You cannot rob me of myself.”

May Christ grant us to receive his Easter gospel, to let the cry of victory and defiance well up from the bottom of our hearts: Christ is risen! And may he have mercy on his church, both here and in Egypt.