Scripture Readings: John 20:1-18

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

On 14 February this year, classes were disrupted at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, by the sound of shooting. By the time the culprit was taken into custody, 17 children and staff lay dead, with 17 more injured. It was just the latest in a long line of mass shootings that have taken place in American schools in recent decades.

You’ll recall that after the murder of schoolchildren at Dunblane Primary School in 1996, the British politicians moved quickly, not just to tighten up school security, but to tighten the availability of guns, especially to those who might be a danger to themselves and others. There have been no more mass shootings at schools in Britain since (it’s been a similar story in Canada, Australia and Switzerland).

But America’s politicians were up against an interpretation of their Constitution which exalts the right for individuals to own firearms over public safety, a message reinforced by a powerful, well-financed pro-gun lobby. For years, the political establishment has done next to nothing about the scandal of school shootings. But perhaps, now, something is changing in America. The young survivors of the Parkland massacre began to speak out: why should they feel unsafe in their schools? Why do the lives of their dead classmates seem to count for so little? They said they wanted, not just empty talk of ‘thoughts and prayers’ from politicians, but action to make schools safer- action which ought to include gun control. They held a rally at the school just a few days after the shooting, and demonstrated outside the White House and the Florida State Capitol. Inspired by the children of Parkland, schoolchildren around America briefly walked out of class on 14 March. And on 24 March, just before Palm Sunday, millions of Americans, led by students, held mass demonstrations for gun control in Washington DC and across the United States under the banner ‘March for Our Lives’.

Why on earth, the children of America are saying, should we, alone in the developed world, need to have ‘shooter drills’ to practice what do to if someone starts shooting up our classroom. They are up against a President whose brightest idea was that the teachers should be armed, yet another example of what an idiot he is. It is as if the children had found their voice. They have got it down to a simple message- why can’t we feel safe in schools? Forget the theoretical arguments about a two hundred year old Constitutional Amendment- we want to be safe in our schools.

Sometimes it take a child to cut through all the adult claptrap to get to the truth of a matter. And, yes, perhaps they do it naively, perhaps they can never overturn the vast powers that are up against them. But I couldn’t help but think of them when we reached Palm Sunday last week.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem in which seems to have been a well-organised demonstration. His riding a donkey was a reminder of prophesy- for those who greeted him, waving palm branches- it was a sign that the successor to King David was arriving. Matthew has Jesus going straight to the Temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers, healing the blind and the crippled. In the chaos, we are told,

The chief priests and the teachers of the Law became angry when they saw the wonderful things [Jesus] was doing and the children shouting in the Temple, “Praise to David’s Son!” So they asked Jesus, “Do you hear what they are saying?”[1]

Those Temple officials got angry at children running around the sacred Temple precincts shouting ‘Praise to David’s Son!’ because Palm Sunday was a political demonstration. If Jesus really was a new king, he threatened the political and military power of Rome, and the religious power of the Jewish clergy who were their collaborators. How can a mere carpenter from Nazareth claim to be the King of the Jews?- it’s political dynamite, and blasphemy.

Many of the children no doubt joined in because the adults were so doing so- they are shouting slogans which many of them perhaps are too young to understand, running around the sacred Temple precincts causing an unholy commotion. But Jesus takes sides with the children: asked by the Temple officials if he hears what the children are saying, he replies:

“Indeed I do… Haven’t you ever read this scripture? ‘You have trained children and babies to offer perfect praise.’”

The chaotic shouting and running around the Temple by these children is ‘perfect praise’- because it is the truth. The children are shouting the truth- this is David’s descendant who has arrived in Jerusalem. They are shouting the truth as they run around the sacred halls of the Temple- though it is a truth many adults don’t like. By the way, there have been some pretty disgusting cases of adults who have tried to silence the students at Parkland- one contributor to the Fox News channel poked fun at a student survivor because he didn’t get the grades he needed to get into college (just when you thought journalism couldn’t get any lower!).

But when the children find their voice, and it is the voice of truth, they will not be silenced by the adults. This, of course, why it is a tragedy when we don’t have children at the centre of the life of the Church- we are missing what they have to say to us, and often what they have to say is what God needs us to hear.

Those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, adults and children, shouting, ‘Praise to David’s Son! God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord!’ were speaking a truth which powerful people did not want to be heard. But their Hosannas turned out to be dangerous for Jesus. Soon the anger of the religious elite turned to conspiracy, and the arrest and execution of Jesus

Another news story from earlier this Lent: on 23 March, the town of Trebes, southwestern France, endured three separate terrorist attacks which killed four people in all, ending with a siege in which the terrorist took a number of people hostage. Gendarme Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame swapped himself for one of the hostages, leaving his mobile phone switched on so that the police outside could hear what was going on. When gunshots were heard, the police stormed the supermarket, finding Lt Col Beltrame dying from having been stabbed and shot.

The Guardian reported:

Beltrame’s family have been paying tribute to the courage of the officer. His brother Cédric said the gendarme would have walked into the supermarket knowing he would probably die. “He certainly would have known that he had practically no chance. He was very conscious of that … he didn’t hesitate a second,” Cédric Beltrame told RTL radio, adding that it was “perfectly appropriate” to describe his brother as a hero. “He gave his life for someone else, a stranger, not even for someone in his family,” he said.[3]

And Jesus said,

‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’[4].

Few of us, perhaps, will ever be called to lay down our lives in such a dramatic fashion. But in this saying, Jesus speaking primarily about himself. Somehow, in a way that we can hardly grasp, the cross is the place where we see a man who lays down his life- for what? Because he spoke truths his enemies didn’t want to hear? Because he was a threat to the peace in the capital city of an occupied country? Because what the children said about him- that he was the Son of David- sounded like blasphemy to the religious leaders? For all those reasons, and for more. He was laying down his life for those who would call him ‘friend’. Listen to a longer version of that quotation from John chapter 15:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.[5]

Jesus call us those who try to follow him his friends. And if Jesus is our friend, then somehow what he did was for you and for me.

Lt Col Beltrame was brought up in a non-religious household, but when he was 33 he converted to Catholicism. Father Dominique Arz, national chaplain of the gendarmerie, said:

“It turns out that the lieutenant-colonel was a practising Catholic. The fact is that he did not hide his faith, and that he radiated it, he bore witness to it. We can say that his act of self-offering is consistent with what he believed. He served his country to the very end, and bore witness to his faith to the very end.”[6]

On Maundy Thursday, we heard a story about what a friend will do for someone else. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus did something which must have seemed shocking- certainly Simon Peter complained about it:

[D]uring supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.[7]

It was common for servants to wash the feet of visitors when they arrived at a house in Palestine, for the roads were dusty or muddy, depending on the weather. Jesus, our Lord and Master, did something for his friends which they would expect someone far more lowly to do.

We may never be called to literally give up our lives for someone else. But in washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus shows us how we who are his friends are to live. We are to understand that our lives find fulfilment in service- and that any status we have is subordinate to that. So however we are called to serve others- as police officer, as a teacher, as a doctor, as a parent, as a carer, if we work in business or industry- we are to serve others, put our lives in the service of others.

Imagine a world in which service, not status, in which doing something for other people, not just wanting pleasure for yourself- imagine what kind of world that would be! That is the sort of world Jesus preached- where the last are first and the first are last, where love, not power, is the motivation. But those who enjoy their status too much fear such a Kingdom- which is why the carpenter on the donkey hailed as king by children, had to be put to death.

The stories of Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter are immensely powerful. They are the stories of a particular group of people at a particular point in time- I think that the Gospels tell us more or less accurately what happened during that week in Jerusalem. Yet these are also eternal stories- like all good drama, they speak to us still. We see in them echoes of today’s events- when children speak out for what is right, when a policeman puts his life on the line for others.

But perhaps you are asking by now, ‘Is this just a preacher’s trick? Is our Minister trying to be “relevant” by tying these Bible stories to the latest news?’ Well, if I was only doing that, I would have a problem at this point. Because today is Easter Sunday, and although Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Good Friday are the essential prelude to it, today we celebrate above all the miracle of resurrection. Do I have a story of resurrection for you from this week’s news? No, I don’t. Because the event of the first Easter is a unique miracle. God did this once, for all time.

Jesus was betrayed by his friend, accused of blasphemy by religious leaders, shouted down by the crowd who had originally welcomed him, put to death by a faithless church and a calculating Roman governor. Jesus was dead- killed because his good news was inconvenient for some. But on the day after the Sabbath Mary Magdelene goes to mourn at his tomb and find it empty. There is chaos, misunderstanding, fear and even grief as the friends of Jesus try to work out what has happened. Until finally the penny drops, and it turns out the absolutely impossible has happened. ‘Mary’, he says. ‘Rabboni, Teacher’- she replies, as she recognises the voice of the Master who was her servant, the Teacher who called her his friend.

For Easter is a story of hope- hope beyond hope, hope for the impossible, boundless hope. I don’t know about you, but I often find it hard to hope. I see children speaking the truth, and lose hope as adults don’t get it. I watch someone sacrifice their life, and wonder if it really does in any good. But I don’t know about you, but I can’t live without hope. Yet so many of our hopes are false hopes, hope which ultimately end up shattered.

But supposing God- creator of the universe- was the ground of our hope. After all, only the one who had written the laws of nature could reverse them, for a moment, and bring a dead man back to life (and, perhaps more importantly, give new hope to his disappointed friends). For the Easter miracle is our reminder to put our hope in God. ‘All my hope in God is founded’, as the hymn says- and I find I can’t really live any other way. I would hate to think that innocent children and brave policeman die in vain. But my atheist friends tell me that, even if they become heroes and examples to us all, that is what happens. But if the Christian message is true, then violence, death, suffering, betrayal, hypocrisy- oh, they all still happen. And they are mind-numbingly painful when they happen. But that Christ is risen somehow makes all the difference.

For if there’s a God, and that God is the one who raised to death the carpenter of Nazareth, then there is hope. For if Christ is risen, we can all shout ‘Alleluia!’ to praise the God who makes the best things in life worthwhile: the hoping and praying for changes that will bring about a better world, the sacrificing and serving others for the sake of love. For the Lord is risen- he is risen indeed- and that makes all the difference.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.

All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

 

Notes

[1] Matthew 21.14f

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/24/gendarme-arnaud-beltrame-hostages-hailed-hero-france-trebes

[4] John 15.13

[5] John 15.12-14

[6] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2018/03/25/police-officer-who-swapped-places-with-hostage-was-a-practising-catholic/

[7] John 13.2-5