07 April 2012

Easter in Jerusalem: Then and Now

Written by  David L Johnston
Easter in Jerusalem: Then and Now http://www.elcjhl.org/Admin/Bishop/2012.04_BishopYounan_EasterMessage2012.asp

If Jesus of Nazareth didn't rise from the dead, the Christian faith is meaningless. Worse, it's a hoax. As the apostle Paul wrote, "if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins" (I Cor. 15:17).

This is a blog about the bedrock of Christian conviction. It's also about the Easter sermon of Lutheran bishop Munib Younan sent out in advance from Jerusalem this year (2012). My family and I spent three Easters in Jerusalem while living there in the mid-1990s. This gripping sermon by a Palestinian leader brings together for me faith, personal memories, and the hopes of Palestinian Christians today.

Bishop Younan's title is "Sadness transformed into joyous hope." His meditation is built around Jesus' appearance to two disciples as they were walking from Jerusalem to their village of Emmaus a couple of hours away (Luke 24:13-34).

As they walk and debate the recent events in Jerusalem surrounding their master's crucifixion, Jesus himself joins them. "But God kept them from recognizing him," the text informs us. Jesus inquires, "What are you discussing so intently as you walk along?" Then we read, "They stopped short, sadness written across their faces" (v. 17, NLT).

Earlier in the day, the women who had gone to Jesus' tomb at the crack of dawn found it empty. Two men "in dazzling clothes" told them that Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he had promised. Remembering that this was so, they rushed to tell the disciples the good news. Sadly, their message fell on deaf ears.

These are women, after all, and their imagination must be running wild, the disciples thought (sorry, this is a very patriarchal world). The text reads, "But the story sounded like nonsense to them, so they didn't believe it." Peter, though, just to make sure, ran to the tomb to look for himself. The women were right ... just empty linen wrappings.

The truth is, the eleven apostles were dejected and depressed, huddled behind closed doors and trembling with fear.

Meanwhile, on the road to Emmaus, the two men, though still unaware, were listening to Jesus open the Hebrew Bible to demonstrate how "the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory" (v. 26).

When they arrived in their village, they managed to convince their guest to break bread with them. Then, literally, when Jesus took bread, broke it and gave it to them, "their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And at that moment he disappeared! (v. 31). So they went right back to Jerusalem to tell the apostles their story.

This time the good news had preceded them: "There they found the eleven disciples and the others who had gathered with them, who said, 'The Lord has really risen! He appeared to Peter.'"

Bishop Younan's sermon is all about that radical turn from sadness and despair to exuberant hope. He muses, "No wonder the Emmaus disciples were sad the first Easter, unable to walk another step." Then he addresses the present. "Today it is no different. We in the Middle East are confused, frustrated, and saddened." He explains,

"Everyday words of incitement echo throughout the streets. What are we to believe about the Arab Awakening and the latest developments? What are we to believe about reports coming out of Syria? What are we to believe from voices concerning Iran? What are we to believe from the rumors of war? We hear the incitement from extremists on all sides. We watch how some are trying to shift a political conflict into a religious one. We see the signs of hate and intolerance with the burning of mosques, vandalizing of churches, and threatening of synagogues. As for Jerusalem, it would seem as if we are living in a bubble. The winter winds blow the tall grass this way and then that. Where is truth? Who are we to trust?"

So what about Arab Christians, in particular?

"Recently Arab Christians have dominated the news. It's almost as if the story of our small Christian community has become a political commodity. There are testimonies of faith, stories of hope, and announcements of accomplishments. At the same time, there are accusations and misrepresentations; there are character assassinations and words of incitement. No wonder some people are confused. We as Arab Christians must not be seen as aliens, but as an integral part of the fabric of our societies. In this modern setting of conflicting reports, can we believe that Christ is indeed raised and living in our midst, here in Jerusalem?"

The problem is that the voices that dominate the public sphere are all strident, extremist and absolutist. The bishop adds, "Extremism is not the monopoly of one religion or one nation, but extremism has become the driving force of the entire Middle East. They would suggest that ideas of living together, of loving the other, of respecting the other, all are futile."

Part of the problem is a misunderstanding of Jesus' mission. The disciples, like the rest of the Jews, hoped that Messiah would establish his rule of peace and justice and thereby drive the Romans out of Palestine so it could become Israel once again. No wonder they were so confused. True, they had learned much from Jesus, but the cross-resurrection scenario was just so "outside the box" of their Jewish upbringing.

Bishop Younan puts it this way, "The disciples misunderstood Jesus' teaching. They were being empowered not to rule the world, but to transform the world; to be bridge-builders, not wall-builders." What does this mean, specifically for Arab Christians?

"We live in hope, because Jesus is alive and with us until the end of the age. We Arab Christians, who received this message of the resurrection so many years ago, now keep the hope alive from generation to generation in order to continue to transform hate and division into a living hope that we might have life, and have it abundantly. And as long as this Middle East Church continues its faithful witness, the world will have a tangible sign of the truth of the resurrection."

No triumphalism here; no arrogant mutterings under one's breath, "I'm better than you." To the contrary, the resurrection of Jesus impels his followers to be agents of peace and blessing:

"If the resurrection offers us the least expected surprise, so our hope opens the window to a future of surprises full of love and dignity. This is why we continue to affirm our commitment to the two-state solution with a shared Jerusalem for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, for Israelis and Palestinians."

Sadly, a shared Jerusalem is still a distant dream for the Christians of Bethlehem, only six miles away. A tiny percentage of them and of all those from the West Bank and Gaza will be allowed to attend the Holy Fire service in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher Saturday night or any of the festivities on Sunday. Still, it's the only way forward. May God hear all of our prayers – Christians, Muslims and Jews – for a peaceful and just resolution of this conflict.

So I say "Happy Easter" to all my fellow Christians, wherever you may live! Jesus is risen from the dead! Share in the joyous and profoundly artful action of Lebanese Christians staging an Arab Easter hymn in a Beirut mall. And to my brothers and sisters of whatever faith, join us with rekindled hope that with God's help we can bring peace where there is strife, joy where there is sadness – even and especially in Jerusalem!