Easter April 16, 2017
Isaiah 25:1-9, Psalm 93, Colossians 3:1-4, St. John 20:1-10
I had an Easter sermon. I think it wasn’t a bad one. But I have set it aside. Over the past few days resurrection images have been assaulting me. These are not the stock images, such as the one of the empty tomb that appears on the cover of our bulletin.
These are very different, but they are resurrection images nonetheless.
One is a photograph of a woman standing in the middle of a city street. Old buildings line both sides of the street, which is crowded with men wearing striped or plaid shirts; some wear jackets. They are walking or chatting. A police officer is standing off to the left, showing no apparent interest in what is going on around him.
Except for the woman, it is in many parts of the world an entirely ordinary street scene. The men don’t appear interested in the woman in the least. She is the only woman in the frame. She is a substantial woman, wearing a black dress and a black jacket and a black scarf around her head.
How old she is I cannot say, but she is far from young. The lines in her face tell of many cares, perhaps agonies. She is facing the camera and in each raised hand she holds a palm branch.
A caption tells me she is standing outside the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria, Egypt. And that the branches she holds were originally used in worship earlier that day, Palm Sunday, one week ago.
At a service in Tanta, north of Cairo, a bomb exploded, killing many worshipers. Three hours later, another bomb went off at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, killing more. In all, at least 45 people died and many more were injured. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said the suicide bombers who did the killing were theirs.
Now, later on that day, the woman stands in the Alexandria street, before the patriarchate in this ancient see of the Christian church, holding up her palm branches and wearing an expression that speaks of grief, to be sure, but of what else?
I’m not sure. Desperation? Defiance? Hope? Forgiveness?
What I’m sure of is that she is holding a palm branch in each hand. In the ancient world, including Egypt, the palm branch was a symbol of victory. As such, it became a symbol of the martyr, he who triumphed over the flesh in the spirit. In the seventh chapter of the book of Revelation St. John describes this scene:
“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
“All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.’ Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?’ And I said to him, “Sir, you know.” So he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and 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 dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:9-17).
The martyrs carry palm branches. The early church picked up this imagery, using the palm symbol to adorn the graves of martyrs. So on Palm Sunday in Egypt those branches meant to commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem now have become the badges of those martyred Christians.
The Coptic church issued a statement that day: “With great pride, the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, the Church of Martyrs, bade her sons farewell, who were martyred today Sunday April 9, 2017, during the liturgy of Palm Sunday. They were carrying the palm leaves, praying and celebrating the commemoration of the entry of Christ, the King of Peace, to the city of Jerusalem.
“The souls of the martyrs have been slain by the hands of the enemies of humanity, the enemies of peace and the carrier of tools of destruction. But now, with all the Church, they are offering their prayers to the Just Judge who sees, hears and writes a book of remembrance.”
Some of those who died were deacons. Bishop Makar of Sharquia said:
“We have seen the photos. It is very heartbreaking. The deacons are standing for prayer, starting the liturgy on earth to be ended in heaven. I was one of them long ago; I used to stand with them, chanting hymns together. They continue now in heaven. Life with Christ starts on earth but it is completed in heaven.”
For the Orthodox – more so than for most of us, I regret to say – the church is the portal to heaven. Worship on earth merges with that in heaven. So these deacons began the Palm Sunday liturgy of praise to God in a church in Alexandria and completed it before God’s throne on high.
At the funeral, I learned, as each coffin was brought into the church the congregation punctuated their sobs with thunderous applause. Their dead now represented for them the great mystery of this Holy Week: The message of the cross of Christ ends not in the tomb, but with the promised glory of the resurrection.
The woman with the palm branches was the first resurrection image to assault me. A picture of a boy was the second. I would put his age at about 8. He is wearing a white robe with large colored crosses embroidered on the front and the wide sleeves. On his head rests a white band in a zigzag pattern, representing a crown.
He is seated on a folding chair. There are more chairs in the row and in the one behind but he is the only person in the picture. His hands rest in his lap. His face is calm as he gazes upward and to his left. He seems to be trying to make sense of something. He could be wondering where everyone has gone.
The photograph accompanies an Associated Press story filed from Cairo reporting that churches in the southern province of Minya, which has the greatest concentration of Coptic Christians in the country, would continue in mourning through Easter.
They would meet for liturgical prayers “without any festive manifestations” on the highest holy day of the year in honor of their slain brothers and sisters.
The woman with the palm branches and the boy with the puzzled look are my first two resurrection images. The third is a priest.
He is wearing a black cassock and a black hat after the style of the Orthodox. He has wire-rimmed glasses and a full white beard. He appears to be a short, stout man. He holds a microphone as he preaches in a massive church in Cairo. This was last Monday evening. He is smiling.
His name if Fr. Boules George and he is preaching a resurrection sermon I could not because I do not and cannot know what he knows. His sermon title is “A Message to Those Who Kill Us.” Fr. George begins:
What will we say to them?
The first thing we will say is “Thank you very, very much,” and you won’t believe us when we say it.
You know why we thank you? I’ll tell you. You won’t get it, but please believe us.
You gave us to die the same death as Christ–and this is the biggest honor we could have. Christ was crucified–and this is our faith. He died and was slaughtered–and this is our faith. You gave us, and you gave them to die.
We thank you because you shortened for us the journey. When someone is headed home to a particular city, he keeps looking at the time. “When will I get home? Are we there yet?” Can you imagine if in an instant he finds himself on a rocket ship straight to his destination? You shortened the journey! Thank you for shortening the journey.
We thank you because you gave to us to fulfill what Christ said to us: “Behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). We were lambs; our only weapons: our faith and the church we pray in. I carry no weapon in my hand. We are so grateful that you helped us fulfill this saying of Christ.
Thank you for helping us achieve our goal. You’re helping us, and you don’t even know it. I know you don’t understand, but I’m trying to explain it to you. There are people we visited at home to encourage them to come to church–three, four, five times. Still they won’t come. What you’re doing here–you’re bringing to church the people who never come. Believe me–it’s bringing to church the people who never come!
People who were living in sin and away from God, after the bombing of St. Peter’s Chapel in the Cathedral, they were saying, “You never know when your number’s up. Better take more care [in our spiritual lives].” All these visitations we do–you’re so much more effective. You’re filling up our churches! You’re filling our churches!
Let’s speak plainly here. Usually attendance at the Eve of Monday Pascha is very little. People are usually so tired after a long Palm Sunday Liturgy . . . and they don’t come to the Eve of Monday services. When I came in tonight, there were people on chairs outside the sanctuary, there were people in the balcony seating. The church is completely full. There isn’t even one empty nook. Thank you. We are so grateful that you’re helping fill up our churches.
When you do this, you irritate the soul of the person who was lazy before. You wake his conscience and the love of God within him prods him to come to church.
Can you see why we thank you? We’re not being deceptive. A priest holding a microphone can’t lie to you! I say to you: THANK YOU. Thank you for all you have done for us without even noticing.
WE LOVE YOU
The second part of the message we want to send to you is that we love you. And this, unfortunately, you won’t understand at all. Maybe you won’t believe us when we say we’re grateful. But this you won’t even understand. Why won’t you understand it? Because this too is a teaching of our Christ. I want to explain to you about our Christ. I want to tell you about how wonderful He is.
See what Christ said: If you love those who love you, you have no profit or reward with me. Even thugs and thieves love those who love them. Any gang loves its members. Even the drug dealers all like each other and take care of each other. Right? But I want to tell you that “if you love those who love you, what reward have you… But I say to you, love your enemies” (Matthew 5:46, 44).
We Christians don’t have enemies. We don’t have enemies; others make enmity with us. The Christian doesn’t make enemies because we are commanded to love everyone. And so, we love you because this is the teaching of our God–that I’m to love you–no matter what you do to me.
I love you very much. And I want to say one last thing to you: we’re praying for you. Because the One who told us to love you told us to “bless those who curse you… and PRAY for those who spitefully use you” (Matthew 5:44). So my instructions from my loving God make it my duty to pray for you.
In one of the dioceses, there is a bishop. In that diocese, there is a man who gets on the microphone every week to say terrible things about Christians–unheard of things. So the servants [of the diocese] are hearing this man and are so upset. We didn’t do anything to this man. He’s just taken a vow to curse us. Every Friday he comes out and curses the Christians.
So the bishop is sitting with his servants, and he asks them, “Are you upset by what this man says?” And they say, “Of course! We are so upset! What’s he doing to us!” The bishop gets quiet and his face darkens with sorrow. The servants say to him, “You have a right to be upset (by) what he says, Your Grace. You have a right.”
“I’m not upset with him,” the bishop says, “I’m upset with you! You are servants–you. How many of you pray for him every day? Because if he tasted of the love of God, if he knew who our Lord is, he could never hate again because God is love.
“How many of you are praying for him? Aren’t you servants! Aren’t you Christians! So you are a servant teaching in the Sunday School here, and you’ve broken the commandment of Christ to pray for this person?!”
So what do you think? How about we make a commitment to pray for them? Pray that they know the God of love? Pray that they experience the love of God? Because if they knew that God is love and experienced His love, they could not do these things–never, never, never.
They are a wretched lot. And because they are wretched, we must pray for them. But when someone loves God, he won’t know (anything) except love.
We need to pray for them so they can sleep at night. A person who has all this inside them, how can he sleep comfortably?
Can you imagine? We are being slaughtered and the King of Peace gives us peace to sleep. And the one who slaughters, all night he can’t sleep.
You know where this happens in the Bible? With Daniel and the king. Daniel is put in the lion’s den and he stays up all night praising God and praying for the king. And the king is up all night, tossing and turning, unable to sleep.
Pray for them. Take it as a command. Take it as a duty. Take it as the application of Christ’s instructions.
We must ALL pray for them today that God opens their eyes and open their hearts to His love.
Because if they knew Him, they could NEVER do this.
I don’t want to take too long. God comfort us. God give us understanding. God give us JOY because Christ’s promise is truth. He said, “I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy NO ONE will take from you” (John 16:22).
I’m embarrassed to say at the beginning of Holy Week that the Church, though she is in pain, rejoices because today–I don’t know what the final count is. They said 40-something, and, of course, many people in the hospitals will catch up to them. All of these are crowns. They are rejoicing with God. And they will attend the Resurrection up there. And they are praying for us. The rest is on us.
O, you lucky, lucky, lucky ones! And until it is our turn . . .
To our God be the glory now and forever. Amen.