April 19 2015 Reflection

3rd Sunday of Easter
‘Nothing to Fear, All is Forgiven’

Acts 3:12-26

Luke 24:1-49


As we hear the reading from the book of Acts, we hear an echo of Joseph’s story in the book of Genesis (chapter 37). In the story, Joseph, the youngest of 11 siblings, was treated badly by his older brothers. He was ridiculed, thrown into an empty well, and sold as a slave by his own brothers. But many years later, through God’ guidance and twist of fate, Joseph the slave became a powerful man in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.

When his brothers went to Egypt, trying to survive the famine in their homeland, Joseph met them again. But he was no longer the weak young man whom they sold to the slave traders; he now had the power to repay their evil with greater evil. Yet, he forgave his own brothers. Close to the end of story, he invited his brothers and father to Egypt to live with him.

Likewise, Peter proclaimed to the crowd that Jesus, whom they had handed over to be crucified, was the Holy and Righteous One; the Author of Life whom God had raised from the dead. Yet Peter did not tell them, “We told you so. And now you must suffer the consequences of your action.” No. Peter invited them to repent from their sins. He proclaimed the message of forgiveness and a call to repentance. Indeed, our reading today in Luke somehow echoes John 3:17.

... God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (NRSV)

One of the most tragic events that happened earlier this year was the shooting death of Charlie Ebdo’s journalists and cartoonists in January. Charlie Ebdo is a French tabloid that displays satirical cartoon on its front page, ruffling many people’s few feathers in the name of free speech. In 2011, it published a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad, followed by the publication of a series of cartoons of the Prophet in 2012.

But any depiction of the Prophet Mohammad was strictly forbidden in Islam. No wonder that Islamic militants targeted the tabloid, culminating in the deadly shooting in January, during which time the attackers were heard shouting, “The Prophet has been avenged!”

But the militants were mistaken to think that they would stop the tabloid doing what they have been doing by act of violence. The front page of the 1st edition of Charlie Ebdo after the shooting had the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad holding the slogan, Je suis Charlie - I am Charlie. The prophet was in tears, apparently mourning the violent death of the victims and rejecting the militants’ claim of revenge. The cartoon was put under a heading saying, Tout est Pardonné - All is Forgiven. It was as if the people who worked in the tabloid were saying to those who did the attack,

“If you think that, by shooting us, you can make us abandon our idealism and determination to exercise our right to freedom of speech, you are wrong; and if you think that, by shooting us, you can make us hate you and seek for your blood as you seek ours, you are wrong also.” Tout est Pardonné. All is forgiven.

Indeed, I think Charlie Ebdo was the clear victor. The shooting did not make them cower; on the contrary, it galvanised people worldwide into supporting the tabloid in particular and free speech in general. Normally, the tabloid would have 60.000 copies of its weekly edition; after the shooting, they printed close to eight million copies in six languages.[1] Yet, they didn’t use their sudden worldwide popularity to ask for the blood of their attackers, but to offer them forgiveness. We need to remember that those people who drew, wrote, and printed that first edition of Charlie Ebdo were no strangers to the victims; they were their colleagues and friends. Yet, in their grief and through their own defiant way, they offered not message of hatred, but forgiveness.

Likewise, for Luke, the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the proclamation of forgiveness and the call to repentance went hand in hand with the proclamation of Jesus’ victory over death. For him, the fruit of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection was the forgiveness of sin of all nations and the call to repentance. It was as if Luke was saying to his audience, “The battle is won! But, don’t be afraid. All is forgiven.”

For the people who lived in the first century under the Roman occupation, this must have been a powerful message. In 67 AD, during the Jewish Great Revolt against the Romans, the Roman army attacked the Jewish city of Jotapata. The siege lasted for 47 days. One of the commanders of the Jewish force, Flavius Josephus, who was later captured by the Romans and became a historian, told the story of the siege in his book. He wrote:

“And for the Romans, they so well remembered what they had suffered during      the siege, that they spared none, nor pitied any ...”

Indeed, the siege ended with the sacking of the city. The Romans killed most of its inhabitants and took the survivors as slaves. The destruction of the city was considered as the bloodiest in the revolt, surpassed only by the destruction of the main city, Jerusalem, three years later by the Romans.[2]

The people who heard Peter’s preaching and those who read Luke’s writings for the first time would be familiar with this event. Many must have thought that they too deserved to be punished by the victorious Jesus because they had handed over him to be crucified, just like the victorious Romans punished the rebels. Yet, the message of Easter was that even though Jesus had come back as the victor, unlike the Romans, he did not seek revenge. He proclaimed the message of repentance from sin and forgiveness in his name. (Luke 24:46-47)

Sadly, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion had been used to justify the murders of Jewish people, for example in Europe before and during the WWII. When Pontius Pilate told the crowd that he would not take responsibility of Jesus’ crucifixion, the bloodthirsty crowd answered him, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:24-26 - NRSV) These words had been used, in the past, to justify the killing and murders of the Jews by Christian militants.

But this was a tragic misreading of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Jesus himself, when he returned as victor after his resurrection, did not ask for the blood of those who had taken him to the cross. Never. He proclaimed not revenge, but forgiveness and repentance.

So, on this third Sunday of Easter, we are reminded again that we are the bearers of the message of repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name. The many images of Jesus as Victorious King, risen from the dead, shall not be used, like in the past, as a tool to foment hatred towards those who reject him. Instead, they must be used to spread the message that Jesus himself trusted on his disciples and on us; the message of repentance and forgiveness of sin for all nations in his name (Luke 24:46-47). We are all witnesses of this message. And we are all called to spread this message to all people regardless. Amen

[1] Charlie Hebdo Shooting, an article on http://en.wikipedia.org (retrieved on April 17 2015)

[2] The Siege of Jotapata, on https://www.youtube.com (uploaded on May 31 2010)