April 16, 2023

The Second Sunday of Easter - April 16. 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; I Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

     From the Acts of the Apostles, “Peter … raised his voice and addressed the multitude, ‘Fellow Israelites … Jesus of Nazareth … who you crucified and killed … This Jesus God raised up…’”  I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and sustaining Sanctifier. Amen.

Easter greetings to you all! Once again, I want to thank everyone who contributed to, and participated in, one of the most beautiful and memorable observances of Holy Week and Easter in recent memory. Thank you and may the blessings of Easter continue.

     Now, as much as I love Easter and all that led up to it over the past few months, one thing that has troubled me throughout Lent, Holy Week, and now as we move into these 50 days of Eastertide, is that many of our lessons from the Gospel according to John seem anti-Semitic and overwhelmingly so. According to John, everything evil, everything that went wrong with Jesus’ Mission, was the fault of, or because of scheming by, Jews. 

And there seems to be no end to John’s criticism. We hear it in this morning’s gospel lesson. John describes the disciples as hiding for “fear of “(who?)”the Jews.” And when I read that passage and then read our lesson from Acts, I started to squirm because affixing blame is not the message of the gospel. The gospel is not about blame, but rather, about life, redemption, wholeness, forgiveness and reconciliation.

And my concern with this antisemitic tone throughout the Gospel according to John is exacerbated by readings from the Acts of the Apostles. See, throughout Eastertide, rather than a reading from the Old Testament, we will hear stories from Acts. This is an effort to trace the movement and growth of early Christian communities from their beginnings in Jerusalem to the “ends of the earth,” which some scholars speculate actually meant the City of Rome. It is no accident that Acts begins with Peter openly preaching in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and closes with Paul openly preaching in Rome, the capital of the Empire.

Regardless of those intentions, Peter’s sermon in Acts is probably the most dangerous sermon in the entire New Testament. I say dangerous because when heard within the context of the Gospel according to John, Peter’s sermon has been misunderstood as implicitly authorizing and encouraging Christians to blame Jews for Jesus’ death, label them as “Christ Killers”, and to do so for almost two thousand years. Peter’s sermon suggests, “You Jews murdered the Messiah of God and, therefore, you are God’s enemies.” And until the late -1960’s (the late -1960s!) blaming Jews for Christ’s death was the consistent message of the Christian Church: A message that fostered a millennium of horrific abuse throughout the world. And sadly, such is being spewed from the mouths of some preachers and Christians in America today! No wonder physical assaults against Jews in the United States have increased 36% over the past year alone. Somehow, Peter’s sermon and the Gospel according to John has been so badly misunderstood that it has propagated the belief that Jews are sub-human and unworthy of God’s mercy and grace let alone any mercy or grace at all from the Church – a belief and message still heard today. If this situation wasn’t so tragic it would be ironic.

    See, Peter is very clear that this whole discussion about who is responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth – the entire conflict between those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and those who didn’t – was not a conflict between Jew and Gentile, nor between Christian and Jew, but rather, between Jews. Nearly all those who heard Peter’s sermon that day were Jewish. In fact, Peter begins by saying, “Fellow Israelites” or “Brothers” in other translations. Peter saw himself as just as culpable for the crucifixion as anyone else regardless of family origin or ancestry. The truth is, we – all of us – are responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Our sins led to the cross and it was on the cross that the whole world – Gentile and Jew – was offered redemption, offered forgiveness. When Jesus uttered from the cross, “Father, forgive them”, he did so on behalf of all present: Gentile and Jew; Roman and Greek and Hebrew; slave and free; male and female – “Forgive them.” See, the struggle confronting the people in this passage from Acts was an inner struggle, a family argument: Was Jesus a prophet or the promised Messiah? And this argument went on for years within the Jewish community just as it still continues to be debated today.

    Now, a proper understanding of today’s scripture lessons, especially our particular passage from the Gospel according to John clarifies the real message of the gospel – a message that says, rather than affix blame, how about we recognize our own culpability in Jesus’ trial and death, take responsibility for it, and commit to change how we live. John says that following his resurrection from the dead, Jesus appeared not once but twice to his disciples. They had locked themselves away out of fear that they would be arrested and handed over to the authorities – and that would be the Roman authorities - who would put them to death. It was the Roman practice to round up a criminal’s closest followers and execute them. These men were understandably fearful for their lives.

Jesus passes through their locked doors and what does he do? He greets them with the customary, “Shalom” and yet, his simple greeting is so much more than a wish for peace. He shows them his hands and his side to both confirm who he is, as well as, to confront them with the evidence of their own cowardice, betrayal, and abandonment of him. These men are grief stricken, guilty and fearful, and yet, rather than try to make them feel worse, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” His wounds are evident, clearly visible and yet, they do not threaten. There is no vengeance in Jesus’ words. No blame. No seeking retribution. On the one hand he shows them the evidence of their own sin and on the other, he affirms that they are absolved, they are forgiven. And that is the incredible grace-filled message of the Gospel: We – all of us – by our sinful nature as human beings alone - we are guilty and yet, Jesus says to us, “Peace be with you.”

     You know, I believe that if we are truly honest about everything that transpired during Holy Week we would recognize our duplicity in Jesus’ arrest and execution. I know I would be tempted to claim with great passion like Peter, “Lord, I will never abandon you … I will die for you.” And yet, in the midst of that crisis I know that like Peter, I would have denied knowing Jesus. Like the other disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, I would have run away. When Pilate asked, “Whom shall I release to you Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth?” I honestly wonder whose name I would have called out.

     And still, Jesus says, “Peace be with you” because forgiveness, friends, is Jesus’ Easter gift to the World – and forgiveness, not blame, is the message of the Gospel. And embracing and fostering and offering forgiveness is a requirement of being in the church, and being the church. Our Lord’s own prayer recited weekly in worship services asks God to “forgive us our sins as we (What?) “forgive those who sin against us.” Forgiveness is the Christian message and, therefore, reconciliation is the Christian mission, our mission. Our Catechism teaches: The Mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. And yet, beloved, that unity – that reconciliation and wholeness - cannot happen without forgiveness; God’s forgiveness, the forgiveness of one another, and even forgiving our own selves.

Ah, but forgiving ourselves can be very difficult to do, can’t it? It’s kind of like when we’re happy to wash someone else’s feet on Maundy Thursday but bristle at the thought of them washing ours. It’s the same when it comes to forgiving ourselves. Most of us have heard the expression, “I’ll never forgive myself if such and such happens.” Some say it as if it’s a badge of honor, something to be proud of, something to boast about. “Oh, I can’t possibly be forgiven, I can’t even forgive myself for a past wrong. I’ll just sit here and bask in my guilt.” Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” And as Thomas learned, whether you believe because you have seen the risen Christ, or seen the resurrected Christ in someone you’ve met, or whether you simply cling by faith that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus still says, “Peace be with you;” “Father, forgive them.”

     I offer this morning that just as there can be no Easter without Good Friday, no resurrection without death, so there can be no reconciliation, no wholeness, no embracing God’s forgiveness if we cannot forgive one another and our own selves. For only in daring to forgive can we grasp the depths of resurrection that in our second reading this morning, Peter describes as a new way of life: a life marked by indescribable and glorious joy.  

     Peter raised his voice and addressed the multitude saying, “Jesus of Nazareth – (this Jesus who confronts our sin and yet, says “peace be with you” – This Jesus who says, “Father forgive them”) – This (same)Jesus God raised up.” By the grace and help of God, let us commit to be a people who raise up one another, raise up our neighbor, raise up Gentile and Jew to the reconciling mercy, peace, forgiveness, and endless and welcoming grace and love of God. Beloved, think on these things, give thanks, do them, and be them. Amen.