Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday of Easter at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48
Last week in her sermon and her presentation after the late Service, Canon Denise Yarborough spoke about her experience traveling in Israel and Palestine. She was, as many I believe rightfully are, critical of the Israeli government in their policies toward and treatment of the Palestinians. She carefully said that she was aware that such criticism can only be leveled when we Christians are honest about our own history of dealing with the Jews.
This morning we are confronted with that history head on by the first reading. The Apostle Peter says,
But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life…
Peter uttered these words in a hot-headed sermon recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and they have caused nothing but mischief down through the ages. People have heard them and been incited to prejudice against, even hatred of, the Jews as “Christ killers.”
Pogroms have followed these words in which hundreds of thousands have had their lives destroyed, and this eventuated in the greatest pogrom of all, the genocide of what we call “the Holocaust,” where millions lost their lives.
There’s no way around it, the church is deeply implicated in this prejudice and violence. If we did not directly instigate it, we passively let it happen. This is to our eternal shame.
We must say now loudly and clearly that anti-Judaism has no place among Christians. It is a pernicious sin that we must root out from our lives.
Jews are our brothers and sisters in faith. We may disagree about whether Jesus is the Messiah or not, but there is a vast heritage we hold in common. Our attitude toward Jewish people ought to be nothing other than respect.
Peter’s hot-headed sermon is unfortunately the first in many a proclamation by the Church that forgot and still forgets the attitude of Jesus himself and the mission to which he has called us.
When Jesus meets the disciples after his death and resurrection he does not come to them with blame and chastisement, even though he had every reason and right to do so. He comes bringing peace and the desire to renew relationship. More than that, he comes with trust, asking these very ones who have betrayed and abandoned him to carry on his mission.
And what is this mission other than to carry his peace, forgiveness and trust to the world? In our Gospel reading this morning it says that this message of “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”
But wasn’t Peter just emphasizing his hearers need for repentance? Didn’t those who worked for Jesus’ death need to repent? Yes, they did, but his attempt to bring them to repentance was not Jesus’ style. Jesus’ style was to love and forgive first, believing that the response to love and forgiveness is a change of heart. In fact I would characterize Jesus’ definition of repentance to be a change of heart and mind. Peter’s is more about establishing guilt. There is a vast difference.
Even John, who had some very tough things to say about sin, knew that people had to have hope before they could repent. “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” And what is that hope? “Beloved, we are God’s children now…we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
It is that hope that John knows is the motivator for living the life without sin that he desperately wants the members of his community to live. God loves first, always, always, God loves first.
It may seem that I have gone out on quite a limb to say basically that St. Peter was wrong in his approach. Isn’t this Scripture I’m talking about? Isn’t it arrogant to say something in Scripture is wrong?
It can be, yes. But we do have a way to judge even Scripture against itself. Luke gives it to us both in this Easter story we just heard and the one immediately prior to it.
You’ll remember the story that comes right before this. Two disciples are walking down the road, leaving Jerusalem in dismay after Jesus’ death. They meet Jesus on the road but they do not know it is him. While they walk along we are told that Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the prophets…interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” In today’s reading we are told that “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”
Luke is telling us that Jesus is the interpreter of Scripture for us. We understand it all through him. He is the test for the truth of all Scripture. On that basis I can say that I believe Peter was wrong in his approach with his fellow Jews. I do not believe he was using Jesus’ approach, and the proof is in the pudding, as they say: centuries of horrific persecution that no one can possibly say is in line with Jesus’ teaching or way of life.
We must be “Jesus smart” when we read the Bible. We must let Jesus open our minds to understand the Scriptures.
We do so as God’s beloved children. This too is the message to be proclaimed to all people.
See what love the Father has for us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.
The good news is that we are God’s children just because that is what God calls us, not because of anything we have or have not done.
And that is the “Jesus attitude” we need to bring to our relationship with all people, including, and perhaps especially, our Jewish brothers and sisters.