Yesterday morning we awoke to news of two Coptic Churches in Egypt that had been attacked by members of Islamic State, leaving more than 40 people including children dead, and many dozens injured.
There are groups prepared to take the lives of innocent people, self-acclaimed martyrs. They are of course nothing more than nefarious murderers following their view distorted of God. Martyrdom however is not an abhorrent idea in every circumstance. Martyrdom is the giving of one’s life to the idea that most captivates our hearts, usually with a religious connotation. There are, for examples martyrs who die for their faith in God, not through committing violence but for living in response to the love of God. In this case, the Coptic Churches in Tanta and Alexandria are now stained with the blood of 47 dead who had gathered to worship and praise the Son of God. It was Palm Sunday, the day Christians remember the Lord Jesus entering Jerusalem, his own city, where he would in a few short days be put on trial and crucified. It was the 26th attack of Coptic Christians this year.
These stories are no longer unusual occurrences, and only very few of these attacks make the news in Australia. From Turkey to Pakistan, from Egypt to North Korea, and Nigeria to Burma, literally millions of Christians face the prospect of social exclusion, imprisonment, and sometimes death.
Killing Christians is an act of evil futility because God’s love for his people cannot be broken. Death is not to be scoffed at, for it separates us from family and friends. Death is the great divider, and yet God has overcome it by the events of that first Easter.
In an extraordinary moment recorded in the Scriptures, John the disciple is given a glimpse of the reality of heaven, and there he is shown those who have suffered and died in their love for Christ:
“These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’” (Revelation 7)
My prayer this week for my Coptic brothers and sisters is that they, in the midst of unspeakable grief, might know this promise of the certainty of God’s love in Christ.
“Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:34-39)
The Apostle Paul who wrote these words was not immune to religious zealots chasing after him and wanting his death. Tradition has it that Paul, following an imprisonment in Rome, was one of the multitude of Christians who were put to death during Nero’s reign of terror.
While Egypt, Syria, and a hundred other places are scrubbing the blood from their floors, Aussie homes are vacuuming little scraps of metallic paper used to wrap easter eggs. To the majority of Australians Easter is now little more than a festival of chocolate and a 4 day long-weekend. It is an excuse for a camping trip, perhaps with a little religion sprinkled into the mix. Of course, both the chocolate and the weekend are pretty irrelevant (enjoyable but inconsequential), but the historic events that formed Good Friday to Easter Sunday are not.
Many Western societies are turning our backs on Christianity, to our spiritual, moral, and intellectual detriment. After centuries of economic, political, technological and military progress we have gained the world, but lost our souls.
It is true that Christians like we in Australia, are sometimes known for beating up the persecution drum. We mustn’t overstate the case of our own experiences: it’s not a broken leg, it’s a mild sprain. It’s not a heart attack, it’s indigestion. It’s not nothing, but neither is it what many Christians around the world are experiencing. The absence of physical violence doesn’t mean however that we are not witnessing significant cultural and theological shifts; it may be not Islamic terrorism, it is post-Christian authoritarian secularism, and these changes are not inconsequential for those who are and will be affected. For example,
- we no longer have free speech, but costly speech. If you speak up in the public square it will come at a cost
- Many Christian families are feeling pressured to take their children out of public schools.
- In the work place employees may be forced to subscribe to particular views on marriage and sexuality.
- workers may be forced to choose between employment or association with the Christian organisation of which they are members.
- Businesses that support a biblical view of marriage will suffer financial loss, and be targeted for abuse.
It is not only the mass killing of Christians that has captured international attention this the past week, a few days earlier almost 100 Syrians were killed in a chemical attack, by their own Government. The New York Times reported the story of a Father who buried his wife and two young children, whose had their lives suffocated. There are no words to describe the distressing photographs which show this man embracing his dead children.
The world needs Divine retribution and Divine forgiveness. But how can we have both? Justice and mercy, judgement and grace? In all the history of the world, and among all the ideas and actions of this world, it is the event of Easter that promises the impossible.
To understand the world in which we live, we need a hermeneutic grid that is trustworthy and good; the cross of Jesus Christ is that interpretation. The cross reveals human depravation and hope more than any event in history, and the cross also reveals the character and purpose of God like no other.
Easter has become many things to many different people, but one thing it is not, and that is, trivial. While we in the West play games with fluffy bunnies, egg hunts, and another long weekend, the world is bleeding. The real Easter does not offer banal or token offerings to confirm of individualistic pursuits, but instead reveals God who ‘so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).
God showed love not by changing a few coloured light bulbs on a national monument or by trending a hashtag on twitter; the depth of this love of God was the substitutionary death of his only Son. God came into his own, the incarnation. He paid the penalty for human insurrection, the cross. He triumphed over the grave, thus vindicating his claim of Divinity and the efficacy of his salvific power, the resurrection.
The extent of this love of God is for the world. John 3:16 does not suggest a universal salvation, for the text makes clear that faith in Jesus is necessary and rejecting Jesus Christ results in judgement. Nonetheless, in Christ, God has expressed extraordinary love for the world. He is not of or for the West, he is not English speaking or the God of the middle class, his concern is global. The Bible describes this God in ways unparalleled in any religion and in ways more tangible, and with a good news message that is changing hearts and lives in every nation on earth.