Easter Sunday (April 20 2014)

A New Life




Jeremiah 31:1-6

Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24

John 20:118



Last year, the children in our Sunday School class joined a project, run by the Bible Society, to raise some money to help children in Rwanda buy Bibles. The children, with their adult helpers, organised a movie night. One of the movies played during the night was Hotel Rwanda: a chilling movie tells the story of Paul Rusesabagina who rescued more than one thousand Tutsi and Hutu refugees during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Friends, this year marks 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda that claimed around 800.000 victims in around 100 days. During one of the commemorative events, President Paul Kagame said that his country had a reason to celebrate the normal moments of life, that are easy for others to take for granted." Indeed, even after 20 years, Rwandans still face an uphill battle to rebuild their country and restore their national identity, scarred so badly by the genocide.

But how could anyone rebuild a deeply wounded nation like Rwanda? No words can sufficiently describe what happened in 1994. It was as if something worse than hell descended on earth, leaving nothing behind. How could anyone rebuild life after such tragedy?

The situation that the people in Rwanda face after the genocide is similar to the situation that the people of Israel had to face. Hundreds of years before Jesus birth, the mighty Babylonians, the superpower at the time, erased their kingdom from the map. The Babylonian army ransacked their beloved city, Jerusalem: the centre not only of their monarchy, but also of their spiritual, economic, and social life. All of their intellectuals, officials, and leaders were taken as captives to Babylon, leaving only the weak and the destitute behind.

Even their temple in Jerusalem - the place where they worshipped God; the place where they believed as Gods dwelling place - was ransacked and looted by the Babylonians. It was as if God was rendered impotence by the might of the Babylonians. The destruction was so complete that if there had been a glimmer of hope that the people of Israel would rebuild their nation back, that hope would have been burnt to the ground.

Jesus disciples also faced a similar tragedy. In their time, the Jews were under the brutal occupation of another ancient super power: the Roman Empire. Jesus disciples had hoped that Jesus would be the Messiah, the heir of their greatest King, David who would end the foreigners occupation of their fatherland. Just a few days before Jesus was crucified, his disciples entered into Jerusalem with much fanfare to proclaim him as King. Yet, their hope was completely dashed when Jesus, their future King, hung powerlessly on a Roman cross, dying an agonising death. Again, it was as if God, in the face of the powerful Romans, was powerless to deliver His promise to raise a leader for His people, Israel.

It was at this time, when all hope was lost, that Mary Magdalene encountered the impossible. At first, Mary didnt recognise the risen Jesus. Her mind was still transfixed with grief. She didnt see the possibility of the resurrection even when it appeared before her eyes. She even wanted to find Jesus body back so that she could bring it back to where it belonged: the tomb.

But her encounter with the risen Jesus brought a drastic change. She wept bitterly outside of the tomb when the risen Jesus met her. A cocktail of emotions: sadness, confusion, shock, even perhaps anger, must have engulfed her. Yet, after the risen Jesus revealed himself, air filled her lungs back and she told the disciples with a restored vigour in her voice, I have seen the Lord! Soon, her testimony would become the testimony of the whole church. Soon, her testimony would transform a dejected and grieving community of Jesus disciples into powerful witnesses of his resurrection to the whole known world.

The hope for a new life was also proclaimed aloud by the prophet Jeremiah in our reading from Jeremiah. Even before the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of its population to Babylon began, Jeremiah had proclaimed that God would not stop loving them and they would rebuild their soon-to-be-destroyed homeland. Indeed, his proclamation became a reality when the Jewish exiles in Babylon were allowed to return to their homeland by the Persian King, Cyrus the Great, who defeated the Babylonians in 538 BCE. Joy and gladness would return to the land that was abandoned.

When the killing began in Rwanda in 1994, one man, Steven Gahigi managed to flee to neighbouring Burundi. He returned to Rwanda one year later, only to find out that 52 members of his family, including his sister, had been murdered. He had nothing left: no family, no home.

He went to a Christian seminary and met with John Ruchayana, an Anglican Bishop who was also the President of Rwandas National Unity and Reconciliation Commission: a commission that was established in 1999 with the goal of reconstructing the Rwandan identity. The Bishop once wrote in his book that to really minister to Rwanda's needs meant working toward reconciliation in the prisons, in the churches, and in the cities and villages throughout the country.... It meant feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the young, but it also meant healing the wounded and forgiving the unforgivable. This last phrase, forgiving the unforgivable, was too much for Gahigi. My people died innocently, Gahigi used to say to himself, Why should I have to go and help the people who killed them?

But, one day, Gahigi had a dream. In his dream, he saw a mob beating Jesus as he hung on the cross. He then heard a voice that said, Those people beating Jesus are the ones Jesus helped. They killed your countrymen and your family, but you can help them. When he woke up from his dream, he cried.  He said, I cried all night, but when the crying stopped, I felt light and love. In the wake of his dream, he started preaching about reconciliation and even looked for those who murdered his family.

He started visiting Rilima prison where thousands of genocide perpetrators were imprisoned. There he met the band of 15 who murdered his sister. At first, the prisoners didnt trust him, but his teaching about forgiveness and reconciliation finally resonated with them. More prisoners came to listen to him, including the band of 15, and he became the pastor to all of them.{C}{C}[1]

Friends, Rwandans are rebuilding their nation. Hope of a new and healed nation is possible because of people like Steven Gahigi who chooses not the path of vengeance, but the path of Jesus who forgave the people who crucified him.

In this years Holy Week, we are reminded again that new life in Easter is indeed possible, but it can only be achieved through the pain of bitter death on the cross with Jesus. The path to the cross with Jesus is the path of love that gives birth to forgiveness and reconciliation; the path that people like Gahigi has chosen. Gahigi must let parts of his life - his anger and bitterness - die before he could come out of his tomb a new man; a man who is capable not only of forgiving, but also of serving those who had done terrible things to his loved ones.

Someone once asked, Where was God when the Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered en masse in Rwanda? God was there. He died with those who were murdered. But then He rose again with those, like Steven Gahigi, who did not only survive the tragedy, but also choose not to let the past dictate the present; with those who choose to let forgiveness heal the wound of the past; those who choose to rebuild their country not with vengeance, but with the message of reconciliation.

Easter message is simple: the power of evil and death cannot defeat the power of love. We have witnessed it in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We have witnessed it in the return of the Jewish exile to their homeland from Babylon. We have witnessed it in the life of Steven Gahigi and many other Rwandans like him. My pray is that, when you open your self to the kind of love that Jesus showed by dying on the cross, you too will be risen with him and see that a new life is indeed possible.

Let us pray.

Great God of light, you come to us while it is deepest night; God of life, you overcome the power of death. We come from the shadows to stand in your presence, unafraid. Fill our hearts with joy on this day of resurrection. Alleluia!  Amen! [2]


[1] Paraphrased from an article by Tim Townsend, Forgiving the Unforgivable in Rwanda, on http://religion.blogs.cnn.com (April 13th 2014, 07:25 AM ET)

[2] Burt, Susan and Friends (Eds.), Seasons Fusion for Congregational Life -Lent Easter 2014, New Zealand: Wood Lake Publishing Inc. (2013), p. 110.