SERMON FOR EASTER 3, 25.04.18
Ten days ago I was in Bosnia, standing on a hill above the city of Sarajevo at sunset. As the sky turned pink and gold, the call to prayer began to sound from the minarets below. One seemed to call to another. My daughter and I counted at least 17 that we could see. It was a fairy tale moment out of the Arabian Nights.
Sarajevo is sometimes called the Jerusalem of Europe. The centre of it does indeed remind me of the old city of Jerusalem, with its covered market and narrow streets full of stalls selling sweets, scarves, coffee pots and spices. Tourists come in large numbers to be taken round the sights, which include the eerily ruined luge track from the 1984 Winter Olympics, on one of the many hills that closely surround the city. When we stood on the brow of one of those hills, it suddenly became obvious how the siege in the 1990s was possible. From that height and distance, it was easy to imagine pointing a sniper’s gun at a particular building beside the river in the valley below and picking a target.
Between 1992 and 1995, the population of Sarajevo lived in daily fear of the Bosnian Serbs who rained down death from those hills. They zigzagged across empty streets with plastic containers, hoping to collect water from the one reliable supply at the town brewery without being shot. They tried to educate their terrified children in makeshift schools in the cellars below ruined buildings. They burned whatever they could lay their hands on to keep warm through the winters. Men took turns wading through an 800-metre tunnel that went below the airport runway to a point just outside the city where they could sometimes get fresh food supplies – but they were not allowed by their own army to take their families with them and escape to freedom.
Sarajevo has rebuilt the mosques that were all destroyed in that siege. But many of the Tito-era blocks of flats still wear the marks of mortar attacks, and some buildings are still in ruins. And the Bosnian Serbs have now decamped to a statelet called Republika Srpska while leaving the city to their Muslim neighbours, the Bosniaks.
No longer is Sarajevo the cosmopolitan city it was a hundred years ago, when Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Jews and Muslims lived side by side in peace, or so it seemed for awhile. It’s said that the 20th century began and ended in Sarajevo. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife ignited the great war that brought down mighty empires. The siege of Sarajevo 80 years later ushered in the age of ethnic cleansing.
Since coming back from Bosnia I’ve been thinking about forgiveness. What would it mean for a young man killed in the massacre of Srebenica to appear in the midst of a Serbian military unit, with his hands outstretched in a gesture of peace? And the violence was not all on one side. Suppose a Bosnian Serb who died in his flattened home with his family should greet with a handshake the Bosniaks who destroyed it?
I find it hard to imagine. Civil wars continue to blight the earth because it is humanly almost impossible to let go of resentment. How could we betray our loved ones by forgiving their murderers?
Some great souls are able to do this. To focus on a different country for a moment, I was moved to read this week a prayer written by the last Bishop of Iran, which was read out at the funeral of his son who had been killed by the revolutionary guards. “Oh God,” he wrote, “when Bahram’s murderers stand before you on the Day of Judgment, look at the fruits that the Spirit has produced in us and forgive them.”
I don’t know about you but that takes my breath away. The words of those who are able to forgive people who have done the very worst to them always knock me sideways. And there are so many of them. The Amish parents in America who forgave the school shooter who killed their young children. The Coptic Christians in Egypt who forgave the Islamists who murdered their relatives in church. Gordon Wilson, the father of a young woman victim of the IRA attack in Enniskillen, who held her hand as she died in the rubble and went on to speak around the world about reconciliation.
If you want to read dozens of such stories, look up the Forgiveness Project online. Their website says that “at the heart of The Forgiveness Project is an understanding that restorative narratives have the power to transform lives.”
What we have in the gospel this morning is a restorative narrative. It’s not a relative or a friend but the victim himself who appears in the midst of the people who betrayed and abandoned him to torture and a shameful death. Jesus had already forgiven his murderers from the cross – “They know not what they do.” The Roman soldiers were just doing their everyday job.
But here were the people he had chosen and formed to be his closest followers. The ones who had sworn to be faithful, who had given up everything to be his disciples. The friends he had already sent out two by two with the good news of salvation to the outcasts of Judean society. Now they were hiding for terror of the authorities, despairing of the future and bitterly ashamed of the past.
And his first words to them were, Peace be with you. This is the greeting you hear all over Sarajevo. Salaam aleikum. It seems the height of rudeness to receive this greeting and not immediately return it: Wa aleikum salaam. I wonder if the disciples were struck so dumb by remorse and fear that there were unable to say “and peace also with you” to their Lord?
Luke tells us that they thought he was a ghost. They had certainly seen him killed. Had he risen up, like Banquo at the feast in Macbeth, to display his wounds to his murderers and call them to account?
In one sense, yes. Jesus invites the disciples to see and touch his wounded hands and feet. But it is not to berate them but to convince them that he is really the same person they knew to be dead. He then asks for food and eats it in their presence, which is profound gesture. During his ministry Jesus was always being criticised for sharing table fellowship with sinners. And here he is, doing it again. He accepts the hospitality of those who denied him their presence at his time of need.
He then gives them a message to share. It’s not, “We follow a man who is more powerful than the Romans.” It’s not, “The Temple authorities have been shown up as hypocrites.” There isn’t a word of gloating in this gospel. What Jesus tells them to share is this: Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in the name of the Messiah who was killed and then raised again.
The whole point of the Christian faith is forgiveness. Jesus forgives us before we even ask for his forgiveness, before we even know we need it. As Peter, later on, reminds the crowds in the reading from Acts, you asked for a murderer to be released and you killed the Author of life. We sing Peter’s words in the Good Friday hymn “My song is Love unknown”: “A murderer they save, the Prince of Life they slay.” But the hymn says “they” and Peter more accurately says “you”. It’s not about someone else, long ago. It is we whose failure to forgive continues the cycle of hatred and violence. The one who has good cause for resentment shows none: Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
How might we show love to the loveless, that they might lovely be? It all starts with accepting the forgiveness we do not deserve, so that we are enabled to forgive those who have wronged us and thus break the vicious circle.
Here is a task that faces many parents in Camden and other parts of London right now. How can the violent deaths of their children in the streets not lead to revenge killings? How can it be possible to forgive and to show love to the loveless? What fruits of the Spirit may be seen in our lives, to set against ignorant hatred? Our youthworkers are using every effort to break this cycle, to encourage frightened young people to put down their weapons and look away from the incitements on social media and focus instead on a future in which they can flourish.
Cycles of fear and hatred can only be interrupted by the free gift of forgiveness. How that might play out in the complicated situation of Syria is far more than I know. God calls us to defend the poor and practise justice. But whether it is in Sarajevo, Camden or Damascus, I am sure that revenge-seeking will always lead us into deeper despair. Christ’s words of peace are needed everywhere. As it says on our rood cross, Not as the world gives give I unto you. It is a peace beyond our natural human responses that we need. That is the message of Easter.