We’re invited to live courageously

Peter Seal, 16 April 2017

Acts 10: 34–43; Matthew 28: 1–10

A couple of weeks ago the children from a Church of England junior school not far from here were asked to show emotion and empathy with the disciples at the time of Jesus’ death or capture. A ten-year-old girl, Rose, wrote:

‘Dear diary,

‘Today was tragic!

‘Not only did I lose my saviour, I lost something irreplaceable: a great friend. Always will he be with me, in my mind, heart and soul.

‘Jesus was a great man; a good man. As good as they come. But I killed him. I killed him for a bag of silver. Through my guilt I believe the 30 pieces of silver are cursed. Never will I spend them. I shall keep them as a bloody souvenir to remember what it is worth to kill the Son of God.

‘It happened in the Garden of Gethsemane, by the Mount of Olives. Jesus was praying. I dragged my feet with guards following, past John and James, who were lying in a deep slumber.

‘I led them to where this holy man knelt in prayer. I brushed my face against his cheek to let them know it was him.

‘It was I. I, Judas, looked away as they seized his peaceful body.

‘It was me.’

On Friday, two days ago, millions of people the world over gathered at the foot of the cross to re-live the last hours of Jesus’ earthly life. To be there took courage; it was demanding and uncomfortable. Good Friday leaves you feeling exhausted and wrung out. This speaks for us today of a great truth: if the Christian faith isn’t personally costly then we’re missing something.

You see, Good Friday and today belong together. They cannot be separated, you cannot have one without the other. This is a paradigm of what it means to be human. Pain and pleasure are integrally linked in our lived experience.

The Christian faith doesn’t have much to do with simply remembering; rather it’s about re-living. If it is experienced simply as remembering, it will find itself confined to the annals of history. The Christian faith, in its lived fullness, is gritty and distinctive and different. And supremely resonant with our deepest questions and needs.

The Christian faith, in its lived fullness, is gritty and distinctive and different. And supremely resonant with our deepest questions and needs.

Because of the powerfully present work of the Holy Spirit, we, the people of this place and age, are invited to re-live the life of Jesus, in as full a way as we possibly can. We’re challenged to do this not just on Easter Day, but every day.

I wrote in the parish Easter card, ‘We continue to live through such strange days, with many things that seemed unchangeable no longer as they used to be. Part of what we can do together – whatever our political or religious conviction – is to go on talking to one another and valuing the place of deep thought and reflection.

‘In my experience there are no easy answers to the challenges of modern-day living. What I find my Christian faith does is give me a philosophical structure in which to place my often bewildered thoughts about the world and God. In short, my belief gives everything a wider perspective. A faith framework can draw us beyond ourselves. Through faith we can believe that none of us walks alone. Because we are loved by God we are also held by God.’

As I was preparing for today the phone rang. It was my aunt, who is also my godmother. She and my uncle are in their eighties and, like so many folk at that stage of life, they both live with testing health challenges. My aunt had been re-reading the book God is love alone, written by Brother Roger of the Taizé community in southeast France.

She went on to describe how she had found herself thinking about her life. Her focus had especially been on her relationship with her husband, who has been seriously ill in recent months. My aunt had been reflecting on what she’d like to be thinking and feeling in relation to her husband. These are the words that came to her: tender, loving, gentle, kind, understanding, thoughtful and helpful.

She concluded, ‘I need to develop all the different parts of my own character because of the needs of that other person’. She added, ‘We’re only human beings, experiencing testing times in our own lives’. This surely is an example of resurrection, of new life.

When I think of my uncle and aunt, the word I often use to describe them is ‘courageous’; hugely courageous in the face of great challenges. I want to give you another example of human courage. The contemporary theologian Patrick Woodhouse has written a fascinating book about someone called Etty Hillesum. From the back cover I quote:

‘On 9 March 1941, a 27-year-old Dutch Jewish student living in enemy-occupied Amsterdam made the first entry in a diary that was to become one of the most remarkable documents to emerge from the Nazi Holocaust. Over the course of the next two and a half years, an insecure, chaotic and troubled young woman was transformed into someone who inspired those with whom she shared the suffering of the transit camp at Westerbork and with whom she eventually perished at Auschwitz.’

Etty Hillesum’s story ‘shows that a truly human life is lived on the courageous and paradoxical path of self-discovery and self-emptying’. To quote, ‘In the midst of darkness she found joy, and was alive in that place in spite of the power of death’. [p. 147]

Woodhouse then adds by way of reflection for the days we live in: ‘In the circumstances of our time, particularly amid our fear and pessimism about the future, [Etty] invites us … to live courageously’. [p. 147]

Here we have an Easter message for this year. We’re invited and encouraged to ‘live courageously’. As the first verse of the well-known hymn puts it:

Father, hear the prayer we offer:
not for ease that prayer shall be,
but for strength that we may ever
live our lives courageously.

Today’s gospel story from Matthew leaves us with a vivid picture. Mary Magdalene, that lost figure whom Jesus had restored to a fuller life, along with another Mary, comes to the tomb. The story becomes full of the drama of an earthquake, an angel; of dazzling light and guards shaking with fear. It’s a turbulent scene into which comes the angel’s message for them then, for people ever since, and for each of us today: ‘Do not be afraid’.

We know just how much there can be to be afraid of.

On this Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection, we hear the risen Lord’s voice addressing us each by name: ‘Do not be afraid’; and perhaps we then hear him adding for us here today: ‘Live your lives courageously’.