Archbishop of York: Easter offers a reminder that God’s justice and mercy are intertwined

Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, preaching at last year's Easter Day service at York Minster.
Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, preaching at last year's Easter Day service at York Minster.
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I’M finding it hard to erase the mental image of waxen-faced little children in the cellars of Ghouta, sheltering from the slaughter being enacted above their heads.

Some reports say that clouds of chlorine gas, seeping underground, drove some of them and their parents up to the surface, where shells and bombs were killing and injuring hundreds day by day.

You will have seen the TV clips of terrified escapees darting in and out of whatever seems to offer temporary shelter, among acres of rubble. Nearly 400,000 people have been under siege since 2013 in this vast suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital where rebels against President Assad are also holed up. Supported by President Putin, he operates a ruthless no-mercy policy. To call him a butcher would be to sully a decent profession.

Equally haunting is another picture, this time located in Southern Florida where people migrate to enjoy its warmth in the winter months. It was here a few weeks ago where a hate-filled young man randomly gunned down 17 schoolchildren and staff. Since 2013, there have been 291 school shootings in the USA. Each of the murdered youngsters was made in the image of God, precious and unique. Now their lives are cut short, callously, meaninglessly.

Can there ever be justice for the families in South Florida and Syria?

I can understand why Shakespeare had Macbeth conclude that life itself is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, vehemently rejecting all religion, concluded much the same:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

In other words, nothing has purpose or meaning, so grin and bear it. Believe that if you wish.

In contrast with nihilistic interpretations of life, the Bible conveys its philosophy through stories. There’s the overriding tale of human runaways who believe they can make a better life for themselves than that devised by their Creator.

A variation on this theme is found in several of Jesus’s parables, where God is an out-of-sight landlord, who trusts tenants to pay the rent on time, care for the property and surrender it at the end of the tenancy. The setting would have been as familiar to his hearers as it is to us. Except that the tenants were intent upon seizing the property for themselves, even to the extent of murdering the landlord’s heir.

The question which won’t go away is ‘do miscreants get away with it?’ If our lives have a purpose, how long will God allow us to stray from it? Our very being cries out for justice.

The answer may not give us the kind of reassurance we would like. There’s a 
magisterial passage in one of the Old Testament Psalms which addresses God as the One who holds the world’s beginning and end in his hands:

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the Earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

Like clothing you will change them

and they will be discarded.

But you remain the same,

and your years will never end.

The New Testament describes the period we are living in as ‘the final age’. There is to be a universal judgment. In the end justice will prevail. God’s justice.

Yet at the core of my faith, as the means to accomplishing God’s justice, is a scene of monstrous discrimination in a trial gone 
wrong. Christ before Pilate, facing trumped-up charges brought by politicians and 
religious leaders, approved and supported by the mob, is being condemned. Could there ever have been a more terrible miscarriage of justice?

And yet it is the unique claim of the first followers of Jesus Christ and those who believed their testimony up to now that this was God’s ultimate demonstration of solidarity with his creation. God in the dock. “Like a father intervening for his wayward children’s lives, the Almighty stoops to take upon Himself the consequences of our rebellion.”

On Easter Day when church bells ring out to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from death, we do not forget the immense cost of God’s perseverance with us, for Christ’s body continues to bear the scars of Crucifixion. Nor is this the end of the matter. As the Nicene Creed puts it: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

This echoes numerous passages in the Bible. Here’s one: “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” We get one go at this.

In the British legal system, there is an unusual provision for the court itself to appoint a counsel to represent a defendant who doesn’t have one and is facing serious charges. Something like that is implied in some of the biblical descriptions of Christ’s intervention on behalf of humanity: Jesus himself is described as our advocate: “But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”

The late Lord Hailsham, a distinguished lawyer who became Lord Chancellor, was asked how he would face God when he died. “I will throw myself on the mercy of the court,” he 

On Good Friday, the most sacred day of the year, when God’s justice and mercy are intertwined, I take heart for myself and the whole human race by meditating on this text: “There is one God and one mediator between God and humankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Timothy Chapter 2).

Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.