In the Gospel traditionally appointed for this day, from the 12th Chapter of the Gospel of John, we read this words from Jesus as he anticipated his own death on the cross for us:
Jesus replied "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me." (John 12:23-26 NIV)
These words ring with powerful relevance as we remember the 45 Coptic Christian martyrs who died just two days ago on Palm Sunday, while they were praying and worshiping. They were killed by two Islamic State suicide bombers at two separate Churches in Egypt. This follows an attack on a Coptic Church in December that killed 25 people. In 2015, the Islamic State released a video purporting to show the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians who had been kidnapped in Libya. And on New Year's Day 2011, a bombing at a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt, killed 21 people.
What was meant to be a joyful beginning to Holy Week turned into a time of profound loss, sorrow and sadness. Christian leaders from the Pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury denounced the bombings as evil. Even the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the most prominent leader of Muslims in Egypt, denounced this senseless act of violence against innocent worshippers. It is a testimony to the transforming love of Jesus Christ that many Coptic Christians prayed for those who carried out the attacks. "The sadness that a lot of us feel is more for the terrorists and their perishing souls," said Deacon Mark Ghabour of St. Mark's, the first Coptic Church to open in the US. "We don't ask for vengeance. We pray that the blinds are taken off their eyes and they can see again. That is always the message."
What does Jesus have to say to the hatred that blinds the eyes of those who commit such evil and violent acts? "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." God's 'glory' (Gk. doxa) is the manifestation of God's Divine majesty. It is literally the overwhelming "weightiness" or substance of both his love and his justice, before which we would all otherwise perish. This glory was revealed in Jesus, especially in his acts of power in ministry. But the final, complete glory of God is revealed in Jesus' utter submission to the Father, in his obedience unto death to become the final, perfect "sacrifice lamb" for the sins of the whole world--for you, for me, for the terrorists, for the victims and their families, for all of humankind. Jesus uses an agricultural metaphor to explain the glory of his impending death on the cross: "unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." As John Stott observes in Through the Bible, Through the Year: "If a seed remains in the dry, warm security of the granary, it will never reproduce itself. It must be buried alive in the cold, dark grave of the soil. There it has to die. Then out of its wintry grave the springtime corn will sprout...of this fundamental principle the cross of Jesus is history's supreme example. If he had clung to life, the world would have died. But because he died in the godforsaken darkness, there is life for the world." (emphasis added)
How tragic therefore that some within the Anglican Communion itself have sought to limit the message and significance of Jesus to his moral teaching, eliminate his resurrection and reduce his kingdom to ethical principles. How tragic that some Anglican leaders would rob Christ of his glory by robbing the cross of its significance other than as an example of self-giving love. As always, such teachers and leaders underestimate the wretchedness of the human heart that was on display in the Palm Sunday bombings.
Only the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ has the power to lift the veil of evil, hatred and selfishness that blinds all of us. Only the glory of God and the reciprocal glory in the face of Jesus Christ - beaten, bruised, lacerated and marred by a crown of thorns - has the power to change our hearts. Only this kind of suffering glory can change the hearts of suffering Christians to pray for their persecutors. And not simply because Jesus is a compelling example, but rather because his face, his suffering, carries our wretchedness and blindness to the cross! In the words of missionary theologian Leslie Newbigin, Jesus' suffering and death on the cross for our sins reveals "the glory which is the flaming heart of the universe." (The Light has Come, p. 156).
But if we want to experience the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, we must go where Jesus goes: "Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am my servant also will be." Are we willing to follow Jesus to the cross as well? Tony Lambert in his book The Resurrection of the Chinese Church wrote, "The reason for the growth of the church in China...is inextricably linked to the theology of the cross. The stark message of the Chinese Church is that God uses suffering... to pour out revival and build his church."
Jesus said, "My Father will honor the one who serves me." The Coptic Christian martyrs remind us that serving and following Jesus may take us to places of persecution and suffering. But there we will also find Jesus and his glory.