Thursday, 29 March 2018

"Peace be with you" - for April 3rd

I'm leading an Easter assembly today, at my most local primary school, just over the road from where I live, and where my two kids go to school. I heard from my 9-year-old son yesterday that some of his Muslim classmates have heard about the hate campaign that's focusing on April 3rd as 'Punish a Muslim Day'. Without any prompting from me, he told me that he could imagine, if it had been 'Punish a Christian Day' how terrified he would feel, and that he was feeling that for his Muslim friends. We're going to be away on holiday on 3rd April, and he wanted to work out what he could possibly do. We decided together that the most important thing he could do would be to tell his Muslim friends that he loved them dearly, and that we were hoping and praying that they would all be safe over the next few days.

Our conversation also prompted me to write these words to share in the assembly today - in the midst of our preparations as Christians to celebrate Easter.

I want to tell you a very special, but also quite ordinary, Easter story…

This time last year, I got a phone call from a Muslim friend who lives in Alum Rock. She was very upset, because a few days before, some people had come into some shops in Alum Rock and shouted some nasty, racist things at the people in the shops, and they’d left a lot of people feeling scared, upset and even angry.

She was phoning because she wondered if me and some people from my church might like to go with her to visit the shops where this had happened, and see if they were all OK.

Now this time of year, coming up to Easter, is really, really busy for me, but this sounded like it was really important.

So on Easter Day last year, a group of us Christians from Hodge Hill Church walked up Alum Rock Road with our Muslim friends, and visited many of the shops, and listened to lots of people there – and we gave out flowers, and I used one of the few bits of Arabic that I know: “Asalaam-aleikum”…

Now why am I telling you that story today, and why is it an Easter story?

Well, at this time of year, Christians remember the last week of Jesus’s life. We remember him coming to the big city, Jerusalem, and making the religious leaders there, and the Romans who were in charge, very angry. We remember him telling his friends to love one another, after he’d gone, and to not be afraid. We remember him being betrayed by one of his friends, and arrested, and put on trial, and put to death. And we remember his friends watching him die, and then going away, sad, and scared – frightened about what might happen to them, if people found out they were friends of Jesus.

But one of the stories we tell at Easter, is of some of those friends gathered together, a few days later, in a room in Jerusalem. They were still sad and scared. They’d tried to make themselves as safe as possible by staying inside and locking all the doors.

And then suddenly, in the middle of the room, Jesus was there. They could see him, and hear him, and touch him. They could even feel his breath. He was there with them. He was alive!

And can anyone guess the first thing he said to his sad, scared, frightened friends?

He said, “Peace be with you”. Which in Hebrew, the language Jesus probably spoke, is “Shalom aleikhem”. And Arabic, it’s “Asalaam-aleikum”. “Peace be with you”.

That day, it kind of meant “calm down, it’s OK, it’s me”. It meant “hello again!”. But it also meant something deeper: it meant “I’m bringing you peace – God’s peace – to hold onto. This peace will never leave you. It will be with you all the time – you just have to reach out and receive it.”

So that Easter Day last year in Alum Rock, that was what we Christians were saying to our Muslim friends. And they were saying the same back to us. That’s what Easter is about. So whether your sad, or scared, or celebrating over the next few days, I want to say to you, “Asalaam-aleikum” – “Peace be with you” – and wish you a very happy, peaceful Easter.