Some might wonder whether an eight-day visit to Lebanon provides sufficient basis for reflection. However, this was actually my third visit to Lebanon – on the two previous visits each time I had spent two weeks teaching at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut (see abtslebanon.org), and seeing something of church life too. Furthermore, some time ago Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford (the church of which I was the senior minister) entered into a partnership agreement with Hadath Baptist Church in Beirut (see hadathbaptistchurch.org) which helped broaden my horizon of what God is doing in Lebanon.
THE GOSPEL IS IN QUESTION IF CHURCHES FAIL TO CELEBRATE EASTER TOGETHER. Thank God, this year the Western Christian churches and the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrated Easter on the same date. But sadly, this is a rarity. For although the formula for Easter – the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox – is identical for churches in both the West and the East, the churches base the dates on different calendars (Western churches use the Gregorian calendar, while the Orthodox used the older Julian calendar) – what’s more they even have different definitions of what is a full moon! As a result in most years the witness of the church to the Risen Christ is divided: in 2013 Easter was celebrated on March 31 by Western churches, and on May 5 by Orthodox churches. But this is a nonsense. In the words of a World Council of Churches statements, it, “compromises the churches’ credibility and effectiveness in bringing the Gospel to the world” . How can the world believe in the historical reality of the resurrection if the churches cannot even agree on a date? Would to God that the churches could get their act together. I am told that at a World Council of Churches meeting in Aleppo, Syria, in 1997 a solution favourable to both East and West was proposed – but nothing has yet been agreed.
THE LEBANESE CHURCHES RESPONSE TO THE SYRIAN CRISIS MAKES BELIEVING MORE POSSIBLE. Although suffering can understandably make believing in God at times difficult, there is a silver lining to be seen in the response of the churches to the present suffering of the Syrian people. For the fact that Christian churches are caring for Muslims has become a powerful sign of the Kingdom. The reality is that over the years there has been no love lost between the Lebanese and the Syrians – and yet in spite of differences of country and of creed, many churches in Lebanon are giving all kinds of practical aid to the refugees from Syria. I have seen with my own eyes families being given food vouchers, milk powder and nappies. Basic medical care and medicines are also on offer. for those in need. Hadath Baptist Church has set up a learning support project, where experienced social workers and tutors come together to provide tuition and life-skill training both to Syrian refugees as also to Lebanese children from local government schools (see LSPLebanon.org). Here is God’s love in action – and as a result believing in the love of God becomes more possible.
GOOD FRIDAY IS FOR CHILDREN TOO! Alas, all too often Good Friday is a day marked by solemn services of one kind or another. However, this Good Friday morning I was taken to All Saints Anglican church in Beirut, where Nabil, the English educated vicar, led what in effect was a one-hour service focussed on the Cross. But it did not feel like a service. We began by looking at Nabil’s amazingly wide-ranging collection of crosses – and in a very simple way he emphasised that ‘God loves me’. The children, together with some adults present, were then given an opportunity to make or draw their own crosses. We came back to sing a couple of songs and then prayed together a beautiful prayer of forgiveness. That was it! For me it was a moving experience – and also a challenging experience too, for I realised that over all my years of ministry I have never sought to help children focus on the Cross in Holy Week. It is as if the message of Good Friday is for adults only.
EVEN ADULTS CAN BENEFIT ON EASTER SUNDAY WITH A VISUAL AID. I have heard of preachers eating daffodils on Easter Sunday to make a point, but never have I seen a preacher on Easter Sunday, suddenly in the middle of his sermon produce a large round plate and then smash his fist through it! Jesus, the preacher declared, has broken through death’s defences, he has smashed the powers of sin and death. Wow! What was an interesting sermon suddenly became an unforgettable sermon!