Once again, we find ourselves at the empty tomb on the most joyous day of our faith. “Christ is risen!” we proclaim, “Christ is risen indeed!”
Resurrection: The Compass of Discipleship
Salaam and grace to you from Jerusalem, City of Peace!
Once again, we find ourselves at the empty tomb on the most joyous day of our faith. “Christ is risen!” we proclaim, “Christ is risen indeed!” We all have this picture in our minds, I think, that this is the way it was for the disciples that first early Easter morning. But Mark’s account of what happened that day is very different. It says instead that “&they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)
The narratives of Holy Week and Easter powerfully reflect the deepest realities of being human. The disciples, this ragged, rough group of ordinary people Jesus chose to entrust with God’s witness must have been full of fear and confusion on those fateful days. Jesus had taught them again and again that suffering, betrayal and death would come, yet they couldn’t grasp the reality, even as it was happening. With all of the grounding and teaching Jesus had given, they still lost their way in the harsh wilderness of this week we call holy. It was as if Jesus had spent all the years giving them a spiritual compass, but when they needed it most, they failed to follow its direction.
Don’t we all sometimes feel like Peter must have felt that night in the courtyard when he denied Jesus? Lost, confused, unable to find our way? When illness threatens, when families struggle, when we know the betrayal of a friend, when our beliefs and convictions are dashed on the harsh rocks of human reality. Sometimes life can be so overwhelming that we, too, fail to follow the compass of discipleship.
Palestinian Christians feel as confused and hopeless as ever, watching in our modern-day wilderness behind walls of concrete. A young couple came to me the other day who had purchased some land a few years back just a short distance from Jerusalem. Now it is behind the wall and almost worthless. They intend to sell it for whatever they can get and emigrate to the United States. There are dozens of these stories in our church and land, as Palestinian Christians continue to leave their homeland because of the harsh realities of the occupation. So many of our people feel betrayed by the world and wonder – like the words of the graffiti on the separation wall – “Is there anybody out there?” Or, like the words of Jesus that dark day, “Eloi, Eloi, la’ma sabachthani?” (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46)).
Much of the larger world also seems to be without direction, or worse, driven by the same fear that drove the disciples from the tomb. Why, in this modern, civilized world, do we foster injustice, militarization, power politics and ego instead of the values that our faith teaches us: love of neighbor, forgiveness of enemies, doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God? His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has recently spoken of the loss of faith and meaning in our world as a “dictatorship of relativism” and a “strange forgetfulness of God.” The late Pope John Paul II spoke of a “joyful nihilism” that has led to a “silent apostasy” and erosion of faith. The observations of both these faith leaders point to our world’s failure to follow the compass of discipleship.
But this Easter, the Resurrection reminds us: we don’t have to be driven by fear. God calls us to follow a different compass: the cross and the resurrection. This is the compass of discipleship that we need so desperately in our churches and in our world. It revives faith, hope and love in us each day anew. It is not an easy journey, this way of the cross, but the mystery of suffering focuses our faith and gives us the meaning and purpose we need. It is often in suffering that our faith grows stronger and sharper than it would if everything were easy. There are no easy answers along this journey. That is why it is called faith. But faith, hope and love liberate us from fear and death, and enable us to stand fast against meaninglessness, guilt, powerlessness, suffering and death. Faith leads desperate people out of fatalism into defiant hope and action. Faith informs us that nothing is stronger than the assurance of the cross and resurrection of Christ, that even in the worst predicaments and catastrophes in life, God’s grace will prevail. (Romans 8:28).
Mary Magdelene and the other women set out that first Easter morning not knowing how they would roll the stone away. They set out in faith, while it was still dark. In her fear and panic, Mary Magdalene didn’t even recognize the Lord, until He called her name. The disciples fled the tomb because they were afraid. Yet when they encountered the Risen Lord, they saw and believed. They became strong witnesses. So the Risen Lord calls us to set out in faith, even when things look dark around us and we are afraid and uncertain. He focuses our discipleship and helps us restore values in a world crying out for a spiritual compass.
Peter, the one who declared Jesus the Messiah (John 6:68-69) and the one whom Jesus called the rock on whom he would build his church (Matthew 16:13-20), was also the one who denied him three times in the courtyard that night. Yet, despite his wavering faith walk, he became a strong witness of God’s all-inclusive love in Caesarea: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message Jesus sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – He is Lord of All” (Acts 10:34-36). This gospel of peace and God’s inclusive reign in the face of nationalism, religious zealotry and economic oppression must be our compass today for our modern world so mired in greed and fear of one another’s religions and nations.
Our witness should be strong and simple: Our God is risen and calls us to live as people of the Resurrection, sisters and brothers in Christ and of creation, caring for each human being with dignity and justice. God calls us to stand and speak out loudly and fearlessly when injustice, power, violence and hatred dehumanize God’s people. If the Church worldwide does not follow the compass of discipleship, it will not yield the fruits of justice, peace and reconciliation we so desperately need today, and it may become irrelevant and powerless to offer our world the direction it needs.
In the Middle East, there is turmoil and not much hope. The elections were democratic in both Palestine and Israel, but it seems that the world only promotes democratization as long as it approves of the result. The churches and people in the Middle East are becoming more and more convinced that the measure and compass for a lasting peace is justice and only justice. Any democratic scenario that is not based on justice – even if it pleases the Western countries – will not bring peace. We stand firm in our faith that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ and that our spiritual ties to our sisters and brothers around the world grow stronger each day. Yet you must know that all Palestinian people feel the intense pain of the efforts to isolate us both economically and politically. And the current path of unilateralism and isolation will not bring justice or peace, it will unfortunately only breed more despair and violence and further extremism.
As a church, we continue to remind the world – as difficult as it sounds – that a just peace here must be based on a viable, contiguous Palestinian state side by side with Israel along the 1967 borders, a shared Jerusalem, a just resolution for the refugees and shared resources such as water. If we only see this as a political statement, we miss its underlying truth and witness for justice and peace. Any solution which relies on a wall of separation cutting through Palestinian land, which results in a series of disconnected cantons will not bring peace based on justice. I call on Palestinian and Israeli leaders to put aside party politics and seek the true path to a lasting peace for the sake of both nations. We hunger and thirst for justice. History will remember you not by how many votes you received but by how you helped or hindered the search for a just peace and freedom.
Tom Fox, a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq and for a time in Hebron, who was kidnapped and murdered a few months ago, followed a clear spiritual compass. A few days before he was kidnapped, he wrote a reflection about why he was there in Iraq when it seemed so dangerous and they were surrounded with violence:
“Why are we here?” We are here to root out all aspects of dehumanization that exists within us. We are here to stand with those being dehumanized by oppressors and stand firm against that dehumanization. We are here to stop people, including ourselves, from dehumanizing any of God’s children, no matter how much they dehumanize their own souls.
The way of the cross led Tom to danger, suffering and death, yet his life was an inspiration to all. As Tom said, we are here to uphold the worth of every child of God, and to call religions and faith leaders back to that most basic compass path of loving one another as God loves us. In a world that chooses militarization, coercion, isolation and power politics as the answers to conflict, Easter calls us to be active peacemakers and ministers of reconciliation. In a world where some promote fear of the other, disdain of the different, and hostility to other religions, Easter calls us to love our neighbors, welcome the stranger and promote the common values of human life and dignity. In a world driven by fear, Easter calls us to trust in the perfect love that casts out that fear. In a world grasping for meaning and faltering with despair, Easter calls us to be the disciples of the Resurrection.
Sometimes, as a Palestinian Christian I ask myself: “Does God have any purpose for us in all of these difficulties?” We are suffering. We feel weak and frail. Yet it does seem that God is using our weakness and powerlessness. It is as if Mary Magdelene reminds me that God wants us, in the midst of chaos, uncertainty and suffering, to root our identity in Christ and, whatever happens, to be the living witnesses of the mystery of salvation in the land of resurrection. We ask you, our sisters and brothers in Christ, to keep us in your prayers.
As we celebrate this Holy Week, the Jewish people also celebrate Pesach – Passover. This feast commemorates the liberation of the Exodus, when God brought the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt. I want to express my best wishes to the Jewish people, and I call upon you: Let this Pesach be a time of celebrating liberation for yourselves and your Palestinian neighbors. Let us, together, set both our peoples free from the bondage of occupation and fear. Let us, together, show the world that the three monotheistic religions have a common commitment to stand for life in the face of death, hope in the depth of despair, justice in the midst of oppression, and meaning when nothing seems to make sense.
Finally, sisters and brothers in Christ, when we, like Peter, struggle and lose our way, we listen for the Risen Lord calling our names and focusing our discipleship so that we continue to proclaim, again and again, from the Jerusalem of the Resurrection, “He is Risen, He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!”
Al Masih Qam! He Haqan Qam!
Bishop Dr. Munib Younan