Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter (Year B)
This sermon was preached by Fr. Daniel London at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA and at Sts. Martha & Mary parochial mission in Trinidad on April 15, 2018.
Three days after our upcoming Celebration of New Ministry is the birthday of perhaps the most famous Anglican in all of history. He’s not a saint but I have quoted him in sermons; and he’s not someone that we necessarily think of as an Anglican but the reason we know that April 23rd is his birthday is because we have records of his baptism at an Anglican church called Church of the Holy Trinity in the English town of Stratford-upon-Avon. I am referring, of course, to the greatest writer of all time, the Bard: William Shakespeare. Because his birthday is coming up, I feel invited to engage the mystery of the resurrection with what is often considered Shakespeare’s greatest play Hamlet, which offers an enlightening contrast to the Gospel reading this morning.
The plot of Hamlet is driven by the appearance of a ghost hell-bent on revenge, who appears to his son Hamlet and charges him to avenge his death. After learning of his father’s “most foul” murder, Hamlet becomes overwhelmed with doubts, questions and indecision. He unpacks his heart with words, he feigns madness and he eventually kills an innocent man whom he mistakes for his father’s murderer. In the end, as is the case for most Shakespearean tragedies, basically everyone ends up dead, showing that violence and revenge only lead to more violence and bloodshed.
The story of the vengeful ghost upon which Hamlet is based has its origins in ancient myths, which often depict gods and kings returning from the dead to avenge their murders or to commission others to do so. What makes the Gospel accounts of the resurrection so unique and so radically different from other resurrection stories and myths is the fact that Jesus has absolutely no interest in such vengeance and violence. The Risen Christ never once tells his disciples to “take up arms” against the Roman oppressors, who murdered him. Unlike the ghost in Hamlet, the Risen Christ never says, “Revenge my foul and most unnatural murder” (which he certainly would be justified in saying). Also, the Risen Christ has no interest in punishing his cowardly disciples who essentially all abandoned him at his darkest hour, including his close disciple Peter who publicly denied him three times.
According to Luke’s account this morning, the disciples were terrified and deeply afraid when they first saw the Risen Christ, not because he looked like some kind of zombie but because they thought he was a terrible ghost who would forever haunt them, reminding them of their cowardice and failure, asking them, “Why did you deny me? Why did you abandon me? Why did you betray me? Why did you leave me alone to suffer and die?”
Instead, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples in the midst of their fear, terror and profound insecurity and says, “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you! And then he says, “Let’s have something to eat! How about some fish and chips? And let’s have a Bible Study!” And Jesus then essentially sums up the entire thrust of the sacred Scriptures by proclaiming forgiveness. And by forgiving and empowering us to forgive he throws a wrench into the whole cycle of violence and vengeance.
Now vengeance is sweet; we feel justified and righteous and sometimes even godly in punishing others whom we feel deserve it, but as Hamlet and history have shown, vengeance and violence only lead to more violence. And in the Easter story, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that if we are moved and inspired by the Holy Spirit then we are not to seek vengeance, but rather offer forgiveness. Jesus knows we need the Holy Spirit’s help to do that. To avenge is human, to forgive is divine, and that is what we are called to do as followers of the Risen Christ.
Tragically, last year on Palm Sunday, 45 Coptic Christians were murdered in the middle of worship by a suicide bombing in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria. As I mentioned at the beginning of Lent, Coptic Christians trace their spiritual lineage to St. Mark, who was likely present when the Risen Christ appeared among the disciples and proclaimed forgiveness. Two years ago, several St. Thomas Christians were viciously murdered in Lahore, Pakistan, in another suicide bombing. I understand our participation in the liturgies of Holy Week as one important way for us to stand in solidarity with our vulnerable and victimized Christian brothers and sisters, to mourn and pray for them, and to stand in defiance against these violent acts of terror by gathering together in the name of Love. And this year, from the first day of Lent (Ash Wednesday) to the first week of Easter, we have been painfully aware of violence around the world, especially in Syria. I honestly want to wreak vengeance on such evil terrorists and such violent monsters. Certainly, we must work to protect the innocent and stomp out evil and terrorism. And at the same time, Jesus’s resurrection scandalizes me by reminding me that Jesus did not come back from a horrific death as a ghost hell-bent on vengeance (like Hamlet’s father), but as a glorified, risen body saying, “Peace, Forgive, Let’s break bread together.” This is Christ’s response to violence and it sounds like madness. “Though this be madness,” Shakespeare says, “yet there is method in’t.” It was also the response of the early Christians (including St. Thomas and St. Mark) who became martyrs and planted the seeds of the early Church with their blood. It has also been the response of those who have practiced creative non-violent resistance: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Archbishop Oscar Romero who all fought evil with what Romero called the “violence of love.”
This forgiving response that risks martyrdom is not akin to the suicide that Hamlet contemplates in his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy. And it is not the “conscience [that] doth make cowards of us all.” It is rather a radical and robust courage inspired by the resurrection of one who knew that even in the darkest, most hopeless, most God-forsaken tragedies, there is still a hope at work that is far more powerful than death. It is faith in what Shakespeare’s Hamlet calls “the divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” And it is a faith that is not bound by the power of death nor fear of death, but that dismantles all of death’s minions (vengeance, violence and hate) with a liberating and empowering love that says, “Peace, forgive, let’s eat!” It is a faith that sees the blessed Son made known in the breaking of bread, as we prayed in our Collect, and that beholds Christ in all his redeeming work. It is a faith that sees the divine and potentially world-changing “method” in the apparent madness of forgiveness. Amen.
 Shakespeare, Hamlet, I. v. 25.
 Luke 24:37
 As French philosopher Jacques Ellul says, “Violence begets violence—nothing else.” Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, trans. Cecilia Gaul Kings (London: SCM, 1970), 100.
 Shakespeare, Hamlet, II. ii. 207.
 See Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2004).
 Shakespeare, Hamlet, III. i. 56-89.
 Shakespeare, Hamlet, III. i. 83.
 Shakespeare, Hamlet, V. ii. 11-12.