My father’s family was Russian Jewish, and while most left for Britain in the 1890s, some remained behind and a great uncle fought in the Red Army through most of the Second World War. I only met him once, when I was a child. He wore his uniform for the reunion, drank vodka all day and pinched my cheek. It hurt.
Because he spoke Yiddish, he was used as an interpreter when German soldiers were interrogated, and sometimes their lives were in his hands. He was reluctant to say much about his experiences, but did tell us about a teenager they captured in 1945. He admitted to being in the SS, cried and begged. My uncle’s commander asked what he was saying. “He’s a kid who has been digging tunnels for them,” uncle replied. “He’s nothing.” They let him live.
I asked why he had done that, especially when the Nazis had murdered some of his relatives. In broken English and with his perennial smile briefly gone, he replied: “I’d seen enough. Sometimes we have to forgive, sometimes we have to forgive.” I’m not sure I could have been as strong as that, but as a Christian, forgiveness is at the very heart of what I am called to embrace. I have to forgive because I have been forgiven, by the passion of Jesus, which we commemorate this and every Easter.
Being strong is crucial in an authentic Christian life, and never more so than this particular Easter, as we face a medical and emotional threat unprecedented in living memory. Yet many people see Christianity as a weakness, a spiritual crutch upon which to lean, and even as a support for ultraconservative views about issues of life and sexuality. It is an entirely understandable reaction, and one for which Christians have only themselves to blame. So many of them appear to care about people just before they are born and just before they die. In between, not so much.
Yet Jesus, a first-century Jew living in an occupied Middle East, said nothing of these allegedly “Christian issues” and actually seemed indifferent to most of them. His anger was directed at those who judge and condemn, who obsess about scriptural pedantry, who place law above love, and who refuse to embrace the gospel command that we live in community, and with the values of peace, equality, inclusion, justice and hope.
That transforming position also means that we must turn the other cheek, carry the bags of an enemy, put others first, reject materialism and forgive not once but forever. That is what Jesus teaches, and it is where strength comes in. It is extraordinarily difficult to do any of that properly, and so much easier to follow the crowd, or to scream about abortion and gay marriage. But the authentic Christian should break rather than observe the established rules, and is called not to preserve the status quo but to turn it upside down.
That is the song of Easter, those are the lyrics of the cross, and that is the melody of the resurrection. God does not guarantee a good or an easy life, but does promise a perfect eternity.
The doubters will challenge (which is excellent) or mock and insult (which is pointless). I was not raised a Christian, I have spent decades studying my religion and I have heard every contrary argument there is. Faith is as much a question as an answer, and noble souls, whatever their beliefs, will disagree with courtesy. Atheistic and Christian fundamentalism, on the other hand, share absolutism, intolerance and rudeness. Odd how polarized extremes, whether they be religious or political, so often become impossible to tell apart.
This is my first Easter as an ordained deacon in the Anglican Church, and that it should be at such a surreal time, in the fog of plague-like conditions, gives it a breathtaking and slightly terrifying new reality. This inadequate and needy man is given a collar and a responsibility and, perhaps ironically, it now makes so much glorious sense. Some of my closest friends, often deniers of God, simply do not understand it at all, but I like to think that my great-uncle would. He charged Nazi troops, saw horrors and mourned family who perished in the Holocaust. My life seems thin in comparison, but I do know the meaning and the importance of the cross.
This week I will pray, worship and love. The last matters more and matters most. Without it there is no Jesus, without it there is no Easter.
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