In the midst of a very complex situation we ask many questions. Can all the reported looting, burning, rape and murder really be going on? Is NATO justified in their bombing campaign? What about the mistaken NATO bombing of a refugee convoy? How can all this violence be stopped? For how many generations will the desire for "revenge" and "justice" continue on both the Serbian and Albanian sides of the conflict? Where will it all end? Where did it all start?
A few years ago, in the earlier stages of the post-Communist Balkan conflicts, I had the funeral of a Yugoslav lady. Her daughter told me that the origins of the conflict went back for centuries. Communism had held the problem under, but it continued to simmer under the surface. In fact Communism had brought together into Yugoslavia people of different ethnic backgrounds and allowed them to move from one part of the country to another. With the collapse of Communism, these ethnic groups were seeking autonomy within their own states. But the old states now had a new ethnic mix. As a result, old hatreds and rivalries were coming to the fore.
Where did it all begin? This present conflict has links going back to ancient history, for the mostly-Moslem ethnic Albanians believe they are descendants of the Illyrians, the Balkan tribe which inhabited the region in ancient times. On the other side, the Serbs regard Kosovo as the cradle of their civilisation. In 1389 the Moslem Turks defeated the army of Prince Lazar, legendary Serb hero, in Kosovo. In 1830 the Serbian principality gained full autonomy from Ottoman Empire. In 1912 the Balkan states drove the Ottoman Empire out of Europe and Serbia regained Kosovo.
Yet we need also to recall that, in 1054, the Eastern or Orthodox Church parted company from the Western or Catholic Church, the boundary between the two running right through the Balkans. Tragically, the Christian Church - bearer of the divine offer of life - may have contributed historically to the underlying animosity which is currently bringing so much suffering and death to that part of the world.
While they are recounting their story, the Lord himself stands among them and says, "Peace be with you." Instead of being comforted, they are petrified - this must be a ghost. No, Jesus says, don't be alarmed! Don't give in to your doubts! Look at me! Touch me! It's really me!
"They still could not believe," we are told, "they were so full of joy and wonder." So Jesus asks for something to eat - and eats a piece of cooked fish in their presence.
Across the years a number of people have tried to discount the miraculous in the Easter story. Jesus swooned and revived in the cool of the tomb, it has been suggested; the disciples (or someone else) stole the body and claimed he was alive None of these reconstructions bear the stamp of likelihood. In 1941, a German New Testament scholar and theologian, Rudolph Bultmann, published a paper in which he asserted that "the resurrection itself is not an event of past history". The event of Easter Day is "nothing else except the rise of faith in the risen Lord" (Kerygma and Myth I, p. 42). But, to take the account seriously, the rise of faith was impossible without the real evidence that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead.
They were there. They saw and tested the factual truth of the evidence. For them the historical fact of the resurrection was vitally important for their understanding of the good consequences that flow from the historical fact of the crucifixion.
The Hebrew Scriptures are divided into three major sections - the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. The book of Psalms is the first of the "Writings". Jesus is affirming that the whole message of Scripture is pointing towards his life and ministry. It "had to come true" - literally, it was fulfilled or completed in him.
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "This is what is written: the Messiah must suffer and must rise from death three days later, and in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem" (vv. 45-47). O to be a fly on the wall! What teaching that must have been! There are, of course, a number of specific passages and texts - such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 which to us speak so clearly of the suffering Jesus endured, and Psalm 16.8-10 which Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost as pointing to the Messiah's resurrection.
But, more than a collection of proof-texts, the Lord was giving them an understanding of the essential message of the Scriptures - which has to do with the seriousness of human sin, the action of God in providing an appropriate sacrifice for sin and the gracious call of God for people to repent of their sins, to receive forgiveness and to live on the basis of a new relationship with God. Yes, there are individual texts, but these are core themes of the biblical message. In Jesus they are fulfilled.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had gone back to his home town, Nazareth. He read Isaiah 61.1-2 in the synagogue and told the people, "This passage of scripture has come true (lit. been fulfilled) today, as you heard it being read" (Lk. 4.16-21).
Now the risen Jesus is saying to his eleven closest followers (together at least with the two from Emmaus) that the whole of Scripture has been fulfilled in him - in his life, death and resurrection - and they are the ones who are the witnesses.
And they do not face this task alone and unsupported - "And I myself will send upon you what my Father has promised. But you must wait in the city until the power from above comes down upon you" (v. 49). The task cannot begin until the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They are to bear to the world God's offer of life.
The task isn't finished. The commission has been passed on to us, to the Church of today. We are the witnesses. The Scriptures have been fulfilled. The message about repentance and forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations. The task is still impossible with the "power from above".
We began with a reference to the conflict in Kosovo and the possibility that the Christian Church may have contributed historically to the deep-seated animosity that has flared into violence. This week I came across a public statement made by the brotherhood of a Serbian Orthodox monastery at Decani, in south-west Kosovo close to the Albanian border. The statement, made in June last year, says in part -
I found that statement an encouragement as we pray for that war-torn part of the world - someone out there is trying, in the name of Christ, to bring healing and peace. I also found it a challenge as we reflect on what it means for us in our own society, as witnesses to the mighty gracious acts of God - as bearers of his offer of life to a needy, broken and disillusioned world.
By faith, receive the good news. By faith, live it out authentically day by day. By faith, reach out to others about you. We are not alone - his Spirit empowers us.