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All in an Easter Evening

 

Judges 6:19-24
John 20:19-23

Part One

John tells us that on Easter Sunday evening the disciples were huddled together in a room, having locked the door “for fear of the Jews”. Apparently the disciples feared THE JEWS. Feared all of them? Every last Jew in Palestine ? Every last Jew in the world? It’s preposterous to think that every last Jew had ganged up on Jesus a few days earlier. It was the leaders of Jewish institutions, leaders of the Jerusalem temple, who had conspired against him and killed him. It was religious officials who had felt themselves threatened and who had decided to end the threat. In the written gospels we are told that the common people – who were Jews themselves – had heard Jesus gladly throughout his earthly ministry. And of course the disciples in the room on Easter evening were all Jews too.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the religious leaders in Palestine “cozied up” to the political authorities and became little more than the religious legitimation of political power and social ascendancy and religious self-interest. It happened then. It happens now. It’s always happened.

When John Strachan was Anglican bishop of Toronto in the 1800s he insisted that only the sons and daughters of the Anglican elite had the right to the best education. Bishop John Strachan also provided the religious buttress for the “Family Compact”, that handful of well-to-do people of superior social standing and extraordinary wealth who controlled everything in the province of Ontario .

We shouldn’t be surprised that religious officials in Palestine struck a “deal” with political officials on the eve of our Lord’s death. On the eve of World War II the pope signed the infamous “Concordat” with Hitler: as long as Hitler left the Roman Catholic Church unmolested, the pope would remain silent concerning Hitler.

Religious officials have always lined up with the echelons of power and money and social ascendancy. Therefore it’s no surprise that Jewish officials acted as they did concerning Jesus.

But it’s grossly unfair — and worse than unfair, murderous, as history has shown — to think that every last Jew was (and is) a “Christ-killer”. And yet this is the slander that has been visited on the Jewish people. The most notorious antisemites have regularly quoted the New Testament, quoted especially the passage we are examining today, “for fear of THE JEWS”. The conclusion antisemites have drawn is chilling: Jews (all of them, without exception) hated Jesus. Having killed Jesus Christ, Jews must think as little of Christ’s followers as they thought of the master himself. Therefore THE JEWS are always to be suspected. Therefore any severity visited upon THE JEWS is deserved, even necessary if we Christians are going to protect ourselves against the subtle, sneaky evil of THE JEWS. For this reason the most murderous antisemitism in history has been churchly antisemitism.

Do I exaggerate? Let’s look more closely at the Middle Ages. Jewish people were tormented relentlessly throughout the Middle Ages. In the modern era Jewish people have regarded the USA as the next thing to the Promised Land for one reason: the USA has never known a mediaeval period, which period, for the Jewish people, was one, long night.

Jews could be set upon and beaten at any time of the year throughout the Middle Ages. They were always set upon with renewed ferocity during Lent, and especially during the week preceding Easter. Since Holy Week reached a climax on Easter Sunday, Easter — the church’s festival of Christ’s resurrection — became the occasion of climactic savagery inflicted upon the defenceless. THE JEWS had killed Christ, hadn’t they? And Christ in turn had overturned their victimization, hadn’t he? Then it was time for the victimizers to be victimized themselves, wasn’t it?

I am not exaggerating. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose hymns we love to sing (“Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts…”, for instance); Bernard of Clairvaux wrote vitriolic slander about the Jewish people. John Chrysostom of the Eastern Church (“Chrysostom” means “golden-mouthed”, and the man was given this name inasmuch as he was the finest preacher of his era — the fourth century — and one of its gentlest spirits); John Chrysostom said that Jews were no better than pigs and goats (the goat being the mediaeval symbol of rampant lust); Jewish people deserved whatever murderous treatment was meted out to them. Martin Luther said Jews should be hounded out of the country and their synagogues torched. On and on it went without letup.

When I purchase milk and bread at the corner variety store, I don’t shout at the Greek storekeeper, “You killed Socrates.” And when I speak to someone of Italian descent I don’t shout, “You tortured Galileo.” Yet large areas of the church think it permissible and reasonable to say of Jews in any era, “You killed Christ.”

I am particularly sensitive about this issue for two reasons. One, I am an expert in the centuries-long history of churchly antisemitism; two, I am aware that Jewish people maintain the New Testament itself to be inherently antisemitic.

I can’t do anything about the history. But I will maintain that I don’t believe the New Testament to be inherently antisemitic. I will admit, however, that there are many passages in it which have been distorted inasmuch as Christians haven’t been careful enough in reading the text.

“The disciples were huddled together for fear of THE JEWS.” Not for fear of the Jews who had heard Jesus gladly. But certainly for fear of a handful of religious officials. The same handful of religious officials has been party to power-brokering in every era. Let’s be sure we understand this and then expunge from our misreading of the gospel every last vestige of antisemitism, which nastiness isn’t in the gospel in any case but may yet lurk in our hearts.

Part Two

I: — It is while the disciples huddle in fear, afraid of the abuse and torment and untimely death that they have seen Jesus himself suffer; it is while they are immobilized by their fear that the one who has conquered what they still fear steals upon them. They can’t explain how the risen Lord has penetrated their hideout. Our Lord always reveals himself when and where he wills, in a manner beyond our comprehending. To this day we can’t explain how the risen one looms before any of us; not being able to explain it, however, doesn’t prevent us from knowing it and glorying in it. We can’t comprehend it (in the sense of mastering the logic of it), but we can certainly apprehend it as the risen one apprehends us, seizes us, and we seize him in turn.

As our Lord apprehended the fearful disciples he said, “Peace be with you.” It was the everyday Hebrew greeting. It had the same force as our present-day “Good morning.”

Having greeted the disciples Jesus showed them his hands and side. He did this to establish his identity. The risen one was the crucified one, and the crucified one was the risen one. The risen one hadn’t replaced the crucified one. The risen one wasn’t a ghostly substitute for the crucified one. The one whom they were mourning was now among them alive. Whereupon, John tells us, “…the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”

Of course they rejoiced. To see him was to know that they weren’t bereft of him. To see him was to know that he hadn’t perished finally. To see him was to know that he hadn’t abandoned them. To see him was to know that since death hadn’t been able to deprive them of him, nothing would ever deprive them of him. As soon as Jesus identified himself to them they rejoiced, for the one in whose company they had ventured for three years they now knew they hadn’t lost.

Whereupon the risen one spoke a second time to them, “Peace be with you.” Why the second time? A minute ago I said that you and I regularly greet each other with “Good morning.” Do you know the origin of “Good morning?” “Good morning” originally meant “God’s morning.” When people greeted each other with “God’s morning to you” they were confirming one another in a new day, a new creation, fresh from God’s hand and surrounded by God’s providence and suffused with God’s promises. “God’s morning to you” originally wasn’t the equivalent of “Hi there.” Originally it was an affirmation of the truth and triumph of God in the face of everything in the day ahead that would appear to contradict God’s truth and triumph.

When the risen one said “Peace be with you” the second time he wasn’t saying, “Hi there, fellows.” He was saying “shalom”, with all that “shalom” meant for the godly Israelite.

What did it mean? “Shalom” means “peace”; but not peace in the minimalist sense of the absence of war; and not peace merely in the privatized sense of inner contentment. Shalom, peace, is salvation.

Centuries before Jesus, Gideon built an altar to remind his people of their deliverance at God’s hand. Gideon named the altar, “The Lord is peace”. Two hundred years later the psalmist wrote (Psalm 27), “The Lord is…my salvation.” What’s the difference between the two statements? There is no difference. “Peace” (shalom) and “salvation” are synonyms in Hebrew.

At its narrowest salvation was the individual’s deliverance from God’s judgement and her re-creation at God’s hand; at its widest salvation was the restoration of the entire cosmos to what it was before evil invaded it and sin defaced it. Plainly, then, salvation, peace, is the same as the kingdom of God . All three terms mean the same.

When the risen one loomed before his befuddled disciples with “Peace be with you” he was saying, “Fellows, my crucifixion isn’t the negation of the kingdom as you have thought for the last few days; my crucifixion is the foundation-stone of the kingdom. Because of it, because of what it altered in the commerce between earth and heaven, the kingdom can come fully. A new day has dawned. God’s morning is now operative. Raised from the dead, I am the pledge and guarantee and cornerstone of that new creation, the reality in which you stand now.”

All of this is gathered up in our Lord’s second utterance of “Peace be with you”. The disciples (who are the first Christian congregation) rejoice to know that shalom, salvation, is present in the master who himself is present.

II: — Next our Lord does three things, all three of which arise from the truth and reality of that kingdom which he, the king, guarantees.

(i) First the risen Jesus commissions the disciples: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Just because peace, God’s salvation, is now the operative reality, the disciples can no longer huddle self-protectively. They have to “body forth” this truth, just as their Lord did before them, and must “body forth” this truth for the same reason that their Lord did: they, like him, have been sent.

(ii) Secondly, our Lord equips them for the mission on which they have been sent. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is the presence and power of God equipping men and women for the work to which God has appointed them. Because the disciples are now Spirit-suffused they don’t have to generate the power or the effectiveness or the results of their mission. Because they are now Spirit-suffused they don’t have to worry about its outcome. All they have to concern themselves with is their own obedience. Having been sent, they must go; having been commissioned, they must do.

(iii) Thirdly, our Lord charges them most solemnly: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

“Just a minute”, someone objects, “only God can forgive sin, since sin is a violation of God by definition. Didn’t the psalmist write, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned”?

It’s all true. Since God is uniquely victimized in our sin only God can forgive us our sin. Then what does Jesus mean when he charges the disciples, “Those whose sin you forgive is forgiven, and those whose sin you retain is retained”? He means that where and when the disciples obediently declare in word and deed the gospel of the crucified and risen saviour, the Spirit empowers their proclamation; and wherever the Spirit empowers gospel-proclamation, hearers are confronted with the risen one himself; and whenever they are confronted with Jesus Christ they can cast themselves on him and know peace, salvation, life in the kingdom of God. On the other hand, if the disciples fail to announce the gospel, then Jesus Christ isn’t known, isn’t clung to, isn’t cherished as saviour — all of which means that men and women are left in their sinnership. And since the disciples are the first Christian congregation, whatever is said of them is said of all congregations. If through the gospel-witness of the congregation of Schomberg Presbyterian Church people find themselves alive unto God because forgiven, they are forgiven and alive indeed; and if through the congregation’s non-witness people are spiritually inert, they remain inert.

“Surely not”, someone objects again. “Surely there isn’t this much depending on the disciples’ honouring their commission and Spirit-empowerment and charge. Surely the most that the text can mean is that through the ministry of the congregation people are brought to an awareness of God’s forgiveness; and if the congregation falls down in its proclamation then people aren’t brought to any such awareness.” But this isn’t what the text says, and this isn’t what our Lord means. He means exactly what he says: where and when the congregation fulfils the mandate it received on Easter morning from the hand of the crucified one himself; where and when the congregation fulfils its mandate people are admitted to the salvation God has wrought for them; and where the congregation fumbles its mandate, people are not. In other words, the congregation has an indispensable role in God’s economy. And because we have an indispensable role in the economy of salvation, we have an unavoidable responsibility.

Our foreparents in faith knew this. Our contemporaries frequently do not. For this reason we continue to hear that the church “has had its day”. Tell me, how can the church’s “day” have passed as long as people sin and God is the just judge and the day of repentance hasn’t been foreclosed?

I was ordained in 1970. On the morning of the evening’s ordination service a group of ministers sitting in a coffee shop invited me to join them, since I was only hours from being admitted to their club. These clergymen joked blasphemously with each other as to who believed the least concerning the substance of the historic Christian faith. My own pastor, assuming an all-knowing air, opined that the church’s day was indeed over. The reason the church was obsolete? The rise of the social sciences and the welfare state. The sociologist, the psychotherapist, the social worker, the parole officer, even the welfare clerk had together rendered the church obsolete. A few months ago a dental specialist who had my mouth wedged open for an hour and half (thus rendering me incapable of replying) told me repeatedly that he used to “support” the church (whatever that means) but did no longer because society had matured beyond the church. Any society has matured beyond the gospel? It’s preposterous to say that spiritually destitute people have matured beyond their need of the mercy of Jesus Christ; it’s sheer ignorance (and a mark of spiritual obtuseness) to think therefore that the congregation is without indispensable role and unavoidable responsibility.

Let me say it again. Where and when the church falters in its declaration of the gospel, in word and deed, then Jesus Christ isn’t known. Where he isn’t known he can’t be apprehended. Where he isn’t apprehended the salvation which he is is slighted, he himself isn’t obeyed, and false gods continue to be pursued.

III: — What does all of this add up to for us today?

(i) We must be sure we understand that while the peace, shalom, salvation, which our risen Lord is is ultimately cosmic in scope, it becomes operative in individuals individually. Therefore we must each surrender ourselves to our Lord or consecrate ourselves to him anew. Anything else is but to trifle with him.

(ii) We must ever own the congregation’s vocation concerning the gospel: the congregation has an indispensable role in God’s economy, and because it has an indispensable role it also has an unavoidable responsibility. The congregation’s mission is charged with eternal significance for those who are the beneficiaries of the congregation’s work and witness.

(iii) We must put behind us forever all foolish, frivolous and faithless talk as to whether or not the church is now obsolete or currently irrelevant or senescently insignificant. We must put all such faithless talk behind us, since men and women are sinners, since God is both undeflectable judge and merciful saviour, since God’s patience isn’t exhausted and the day of repentance isn’t foreclosed. Nothing has greater relevance, significance and efficacy than the church on account of the gospel entrusted to it.

(iv) We must search our own hearts. What are we about, ultimately? What thrills us profoundly? What saddens us? disgusts us? What forms and informs our commitments, our moods, our aspirations? What calls forth our sacrifice? What are we about finally?

(v) Lastly, we must assess all that we do in church life, from Board of Managers to Sunday School to Session. Does it all honour God by magnifying that Son whom he gave up to death and raised for us? Does it all honour God by magnifying that Son who has commissioned and equipped and charged this congregation as surely as he did the disciples, the first congregation?

When the fearful disciples discerned the risen Lord in their midst, their fear evaporated and their hearts rejoiced. For myself, and for you as well, I want always to discern the selfsame Lord, know the same release, and manifest the same joy.

Victor Shepherd
March 2008