WCC general secretary's Easter sermon on the theme “Do not be afraid!” (Matthew 28:1-10)
Delivered in Taipei, Taiwan
Dear sisters and brothers, Christ is risen!
We are celebrating the life and presence of your church here, 150 years of sharing and living the Gospel. This is a precious moment for you, as well as for the fellowship of the World Council of Churches to which you belong. As we gather to celebrate this history of witness and ministry of your church at the day of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we recognize in your church the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the years that have gone, as well as today.
The first message of the risen Christ is “Do not be afraid!” Dear sisters and brothers: Today the risen Christ is here to say to each one of us the same: “Do not be afraid!”
The Gospel stories are in a remarkable way honest and realistic, speaking about true life and real human beings and reactions. They really were afraid, as many are afraid in our world today. The more I see the insecurity, the suffering, the brutality, and the fear of human beings in different contexts of the world, the more I understand and feel how real the Good Friday stories about Christ’s suffering and crucifixion are. They are stories about human beings and their behaviour and their reactions – also of today. The cross is a sign of the cruel reality. In the light of the resurrection it also is a sign of a new reality, a reality of peace.
The Gospel of Matthews speaks into the reality of his contemporary believers, the first and second generation of listeners to this remarkable story of Jesus Christ. They had many reasons to be afraid. They were affected by the many power struggles of those days, experiencing the effect of the empirical rule, the arbitrary use of violence of rulers like Herod, the acts of corruption to cover the truth, the fear of famines, of being driven from their homes. This is reflected in the Gospel of Mathews in many ways. They knew what it was to be thirsty, hungry, to suffer injustice, to be imprisoned, to be ill and alone (as it is described in chapter 25) because of their faith in Jesus Christ. They knew what it meant to be thirsting for righteousness, or persecuted for the sake of righteousness, as the words of the beatitudes say (chapter 5).
No wonder that the Gospel emphasizes that the word of the risen Christ is: “Do not be afraid!” The very last words of the Gospel are words of comfort: “I am with you, to the end of the ages.” We shall not speak in a superficial way of fear. Neither shall we speak in a superficial way of hope. The Gospel does not.
The faith we share is grounded in the reality of the cross and the resurrection. Therefore, we give thanks to the risen Christ for the presence of the Church, here in Taiwan as everywhere where the Church is sharing the word of faith and hope of Easter with all of us. These days we honour the gifts you have received from the foremothers and forefathers of your church. Coincidentally it happens with how the people of Taiwan this weekend honour their forefathers.
Some of us have had the privilege since our very childhood to be part of the Church. Today my father, who was the first to share the Gospel with me, would have been 90 years old. Two months ago he left us without fear, but with his faith in God’s never ending care. These days you remember many of those who have gone before you, with thanksgiving.
As a World Council of Churches we listen daily to the stories from the fellowship around the world, stories of suffering, violence and injustice. Many of these stories create fear, we have to admit that. More people are driven from their homes and displaced than ever since the end of World War II, particularly from the countries in the region from where our Gospel narratives come (Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Egypt).
Some witnesses of the Church become martyrs. Their blood unites the Church; the question is whether they are Christians, not from which church they come. We are hearing these days how Christians, as well as people of other faiths and traditions, are facing targeted violence and are attacked because of their religious identity. Three days ago almost 150 young students in Kenya were killed and many wounded – many of them because they were Christians. But also others, many of them Muslims, were students there and heavily affected by this violence. This was a criminal, extremist attack of a terror organization claiming to do this in the name of their people and their religion. But no religion or no purpose can defend acts like that.
Sometimes we are frightened in a way that helps us to be alert and awake, addressing the risk and threats to our lives properly. Joseph rightly got afraid from the alert he received in a dream, and brought his small family of Maria and Jesus safely to asylum in Egypt. These days we see how Muslims and Christians in Egypt unite against extremism and terrorism, caring for one another in the communities. We hear not only what creates fear, we also see signs of hope. When it happens, it is echoes of the Gospel of resurrection.
It is good; it is very good to be liberated from fear, like for some when a war is over. This year the world should celebrate that 70 years have gone since the last world war. My mother often spoke about the new reality of May 1945 “when the peace came”, as a friend coming into the house, showing the door to the not invited guests of occupation and fear.
We need new joint commitments and willingness to have a world order that continue to bring peaceful solutions without violence to conflicts of interest. Visiting Palestine and Israel and Ukraine the last weeks, and meeting with church leaders from South Sudan in the week after this, I see the urgency for a reliable just peace so many places. Many – I do as well - fear today for the increased violence in the world. Many fear that injustice will remain. I fear – with many, also with many Jews – that the unsolved conflict and injustice against ordinary Palestinians is devastating for the moral integrity of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples. As churches we need to continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and all who are living there. And we need to continue to pray and work for peace in many places of the world, urgently in need of a just peace.
Nobody should need to live with the fear of not having enough to feed your children or having their basic needs met. That fear has been reduced for many, and it can be lifted more if the wealthy in the world is willing to share, and the corporations and the states in the world are willing to remove unfair financial architectures and systems.
Fear can be taken away when an illness is cured. We know well how that can happen when we have experienced healing. The health systems and treatments that have been brought here to Taiwan by many missionaries, have given signs of hope to many.
The resurrection of Christ makes a difference for humankind. I am honoured to say that we know that your church and the many churches around the world have continued to bring the hope of Easter into new places through preaching and actions of diakonia.
The resurrection of Christ brings something new into the world, something that can address the fear of us human beings. We can as human beings ignore it, or we can acknowledge it and be liberated to new dimensions of life. The first encounters with the resurrected pointed to a new reality and to new relations. The resurrection can change the believers, the churches, and ultimately the world. If we only follow the way of Christ and carry his cross, humbly, without fear.
Easter morning can change our fear of the past.
Easter morning can change our fear of the future.
Easter morning can change ourselves.
Our fear of the past can be based on bad experiences. Some of them are results of sins of others, of their mistakes, their hurting words, their abuse or violence, sometimes against both persons and cultures, like the indigenous peoples have experienced.
Some of the experiences of the past that the first disciples had to struggle with were also their own sins, their own failure of courage and stamina in their loyalty and support to Jesus. A Biblical church is realistic about how also the people of the church can sin, and constantly needs the forgiveness of our sins. We even as them should be honest about our fears.
The church has not made up the reality of sin to have something to offer in terms of grace. Sin is a reality in all human beings life. And sin is not only a matter of what others have done. It is also about me. What have we done? That is a real question for all human beings who are honest to themselves and to God.
When such questions are asked, there is hope. Because they lead to answers we as Christians are called to share with the world, answers that are good news that carries the name of Gospel, the Gospel of grace, unconditional grace.
As church we are called to show that even when others are responsible for injustice and conflict, even if injustice is done in the name of other faiths and ideologies, we are not triumphalist. We are honestly confessing our sins, thereby opening up another way for anybody to go, the real way towards justice and peace. Jubilees of churches are times of celebration, but always also times for confessions, to receive again for ourselves the liberating forgiveness of the risen Christ.
Then we can show that the cross became a very real and credible sign of hope. Injustice and sin do not have the last word. Christ did overcome the reality of sin, to bring a new righteousness to the human beings that we could not establish ourselves.
The risen Christ did not come with revenge against failing and scared human beings, but with words of hope. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ can change our past. Therefore it can change our future as human beings and as churches. We can become signs of justice and peace, the gifts of Gods salvation.
It really matters WHO says: “Do not be afraid!” We are called to participate in the eternal life of God that goes beyond death and graves, also our own graves. We can be courageous, with our strengths and weaknesses, being ourselves, and have great expectations to how the risen Christ can make use of our lives and our churches.
The members of the World Council of Churches therefore call one another to join in a pilgrimage of justice and peace. We do so in the name of the risen Christ, who could say and do say it again:
“Do not be afraid!”
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC general secretary