Christ is risen!

The days leading up to Easter this year have seen tragic and horrific events around the world. Terrorist attacks in Westminster and Stockholm; a chemical weapons attack in Syria; a bomb on the St Petersburg Metro; the bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday; a suicide bomb attack on evacuees near Aleppo. People of many nations and of all ages have been bereaved or have experienced life-changing injuries. Where can we find strength and solace in such sad and uncertain times?

The message of Easter is one of glorious and transforming hope because, “Christ is risen!” It seemed to the disciples, and all those who loved Jesus, that his death on the Cross was the end. On the third day after Jesus died, one of his grieving disciples said, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” The death of Jesus had crushed them and their hopes had died. Early in the morning of that same day, however, the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body discovered the stone had been rolled back from the mouth of the tomb. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes and asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!”

The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples and filled them with courage as they took the good news of Jesus to the ancient world. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection; they had seen him alive after he died and knew for certain that he had conquered death. They were ready to face fierce persecution, imprisonment and even death because they knew that Jesus was with them and believed his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.” Today the risen Jesus is sustaining Christians who are experiencing violent and hateful persecution in some parts of the world.

I recently met John, who has regularly attended a church for 50 years but has never known Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. He was scientifically trained and this raised many questions in his mind. His brother, who is a Christian, wrote to him and encouraged him to put aside his questions and to simply believe the Bible’s message about Jesus. He did this and his life has been transformed; he is a changed man. He is at peace with God and has a sure hope for the future, because Jesus really is alive.

Two courageous doctors

Dr David Nott is a remarkable doctor. He is a consultant surgeon at Royal Marsden, St Mary’s and Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals. For more than 20 years he has spent several months each year working as a volunteer war surgeon with Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross. He has worked in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Darfur, Gaza, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Syria and Yemen. This year he was presented with the Robert Burns’ Humanitarian Award that recognizes those who help to change people’s lives for the better.

As well as treating victims of conflict and catastrophe, Dr Nott teaches advanced surgical skills to local medics and surgeons. One of the doctors he helps and encourages is Dr Hamza al-Khatib, who lives and works in war-torn Aleppo in Syria. Dr Khatib moved back to his home in rebel-held eastern Aleppo four years ago. He made the journey on foot with his wife and 6-month-old daughter. The journey was very dangerous and he was afraid for their safety.

Aleppo used to have 9 hospitals. All have been bombed by government and Russian forces. The situation in Aleppo is a daily nightmare for medics and the people because of barrel bombs and Russian fighter jets’ missiles. Recently a 9-year-old boy brought his 7-year-old brother to the hospital. The younger boy died and they had to give his body to his brother to take away. Every day Dr Khatib survives is a victory, yet he never regrets returning to Aleppo. He said, “The presence of every single one of us is important. We help each other. If I went back in time I would do the same again.”

One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus spoke of a Samaritan man who helped a Jewish man who had been robbed and beaten by thieves who left him half dead. Two priests saw the wounded man, but passed by on the other side. The Samaritan, at risk to his own life, stopped, treated the man’s wounds and took him to a place of safety. After telling the parable Jesus said to the people, “Go and do likewise.” We can pray for people like David Nott and Hamza al-Khatib as they seek to save the lives of people terribly injured in today’s conflicts. We can also ask ourselves what we can do to truly love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

The Lord is gracious and compassionate

Compassion fatigue is a feature of our modern world. It involves “fatigue, emotional distress, or apathy resulting from the constant demands of caring for others or from constant appeals from charities.” Through the media we are given vivid insights into the suffering of our fellow human beings. The news reports are immediate and show us suffering and death from around the world, sometimes as it is actually happening. Some news items are prefaced with a warning “some viewers may find this report distressing.”

In recent weeks we have heard of 400 migrants who died in an attempt to reach Italy from Libya when their boat, which was carrying 550 people, capsized. Men, women and children perished in Mediterranean Sea. In Ecuador a devastating earthquake destroyed schools and hospitals leaving 413 people dead and at least 3000 injured. Amazingly, a 72 year-old man was rescued 13 days after the earthquake. Air strikes destroyed a Doctors Without Borders’ hospital in Aleppo in Syria and killed at least 60 people, including sick children and doctors. Dr Muhammad Waseem Maaz, the only paediatrician in the hospital, died in the attack.

It is right for us to be moved with compassion for those who suffer. They are human beings, created in the image of God, who have all the same hopes and aspirations we have. They are helpless as their communities and their loved ones are destroyed. This world is a place of suffering and much of it is caused by man’s inhumanity to man. We feel overwhelmed by the scale of the need and the inability of either world leaders, or ordinary people, to bring an end to the suffering.

How precious it is that in times of overwhelming suffering we can turn to the living God for comfort and strength. He is not “the unmoved Mover” who remains impassive and untouched by the suffering of those he has created. Psalm 103 says, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Jesus, who uniquely revealed the heart of God, had compassion on the crowds because “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We can pray to God for all those who suffer, and for ourselves, that they, and we, will find in Jesus the One who gives “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

On the road to Damascus

After more than 3 years the civil war in Syria between government forces and the rebels continues. More than 100,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million men, women and children, have become refugees in neighbouring countries. Within Syria itself 4 million people have had to move from their homes and are now displaced. Heavy bombing has devastated the cities of Aleppo and Homs, killing and injuring thousands of people. Large parts of these, and other, cities have been virtually destroyed. There seems no prospect of an end to the conflict and the terrible suffering of the Syrian people.

Is it possible for people whose hearts are filled with hatred to be changed? Yes it is. The conversion of the apostle Paul is a great example. He was on the road to Damascus, in Syria, when he had a life changing encounter with Jesus. Paul was extremely zealous for his Jewish faith and lived according to very strict religious laws. He hated Jesus and violently persecuted Christians. He wanted to destroy the church.

He was travelling to Damascus to find followers of Jesus, both men and women, and take them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. On the Damascus Road he met the living Lord. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. Saul lost his sight and had to be led by the hand into Damascus. After 3 days the Lord sent a Christian named Ananias to visit Saul. He placed his hands on Saul and he recovered his sight, was baptised, and began proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy. Saul was a changed man and, despite great suffering, preached the good news about Jesus throughout the Roman Empire for the rest of his life.

The good news about Jesus is a life transforming message. Those who receive Jesus as their Saviour are forgiven and begin a new life. An inner, heart change takes place. Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” When this happens in places of conflict today, those who become Christians often find their lives are in danger from their old friends, who consider them traitors. Yet they continue faithfully to follow Jesus, whatever the cost, because he “loved them and gave himself for them” and taught them to “love their enemies.”