Sermon April 23, 2017

The Second Sunday of Easter - April 23, 2017

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 said) ‘This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, risen Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

This past Wednesday evening, several of us ventured to Lees McRae College where we heard a heart-breaking presentation by 90-year old holocaust survivor, Dr. Walter Ziffer. Over the next hour or so, Dr. Ziffer shared his own first-hand experience of the holocaust: A time he described as a living hell. From his “first frozen cattle-car ride alongside fellow boys who had been torn away from their families only moments before, to his final liberation on May 8, 1945, Dr. Ziffer survived starvation, infections” and witnessed countless “random executions” as he was transferred to and from seven different concentration camps. (Lees McCrae Press Release).  

Yet, of all the things he shared with us that evening, what has continued to haunt me is the reality that so much of the Nazi propaganda used to single out Jews for persecution and, ultimately, their extermination, finds its seeds in much of Christian theology and even Christian scripture. While Dr. Ziffer holds absolutely no ill-will towards the Christian Church, he reminded us to be careful when reading scripture because it is all too easy to miss its message of hope and redemption, and, instead, lapse into a blame game. Today’s scripture readings from John’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are a perfect example of Dr. Ziffer’s concern. 

You see, throughout Holy Week and now continuing in this fifty day season of Eastertide, our lessons from John’s gospel seem blatantly anti-Semitic. According to John, everything evil, everything that went wrong with Jesus’s Mission, was the result of scheming by Jews. In this morning’s lesson, John describes the disciples as hiding for “fear of the Jews.” And when that passage is partnered with our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, a dangerous scenario emerges. 

I say dangerous because Dr. Ziffer is right. Scripture can be so easily misunderstood as a "Blame Game" – Christians blaming Jews for Jesus’s death. Misunderstanding Peter’s sermon from Acts encouraged the great reformers of the Church to label Jews as “Christ Killers.” To the misinformed ear, Peter’s message suggests, “You Jews murdered the Messiah of God and, therefore, you have now become God’s enemies.” And until the mid-1960’s that was the message of the Church: A message that fostered abuse throughout Europe not to mention the atrocities of Nazi Germany, and continues to foster anti-Semitism today. The recent destruction of Jewish cemeteries and the defacing of Synagogue walls with Swastikas and other symbols of hate, suggests that people are still missing the redemptive message of the Gospel. A message about which, Peter says, we are called to be living witnesses.  

The reality is that if we are honest about all that transpired during Holy Week, we cannot help but recognize our own duplicity in Jesus’ arrest and execution. While I know that like Peter, I would be tempted to shout, “Lord, I will never abandon you … I will die for you” it is very likely that in the midst of crisis, like Peter, I, too, would have denied knowing him. Like the other disciples in the garden, I, too, would probably 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. 

Peter is very clear about who is responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth – all of us. Note that Peter begins by saying, “Fellow Israelites” or “Brothers” in other translations implying that we all had a role in this death. It is sin alone, not national origin, that brought about the cross. And it was on the cross that the whole world – Gentile and Jew - found redemption, found forgiveness. Remember that Jesus himself in uttering from the cross, “Father forgive them” did so on behalf of all present: Gentile and Jew; Roman, slave and free; male and female – “Forgive them.” 

Fortunately, even with its continuing bent towards anti-Semitism, today’s reading from John offers a clearer picture of the real gospel message – a message that says, rather than affix blame, let’s take responsibility and change how we live. And that change is found in the simple words the resurrected Jesus spoke not once, but twice when he appeared to his disciples.

The disciples 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 common practice to round up a criminal’s closest followers and execute them. So, these men were understandably fearful for their lives. 

Jesus passes through the doors and greets them with the customary, “Shalom” and yet, his greeting is so much more than a wish for peace. When we gather here on Sunday mornings and turn to one another to utter those same words, “Peace be with you” ours is more than wishful thinking. These words are an affirmation of the good news of the gospel. They are an affirmation that the risen Christ has made a difference in who we are and how we live. The risen Christ always brings peace, not blame. 

Jesus showed these men his hands and his side to both confirm who he is, as well as, to confront them with the evidence of their own cowardice and tacit betrayal and abandonment of him. The apostles were grief stricken, guilty and fearful, and yet, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” His wounds are clearly visible and yet, they do not threaten. There is no vengeance. No blame. No seeking retribution. Jesus shows them the evidence of their own sin and their absolution, that they are forgiven. And that is the great message of the Gospel: We – all of us – by our sinful nature - not our family origin – we are guilty and still Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” 

Forgiveness is Jesus’s Easter gift to the World – that’s the message of the Gospel. And forgiveness is at the heart of what it means to be a part of the Church, as well as to be the Church. It is the transforming and grace-filled redemptive power of forgiveness that Peter, in our reading from Acts, says we are witnesses.  

Forgiveness, friends, is our message and, therefore, reconciliation is our mission. For as our Catechism teaches: The Mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. And that unity – that reconciliation and wholeness - cannot happen without forgiveness; the forgiveness of God, the forgiveness of one another, even forgiving our own selves. 

Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” Whether you believe because you have seen the risen Christ like Thomas, or seen the resurrected Christ in someone you’ve met, or whether you simply cling by faith that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus says, “Peace be with you;” “Father, forgive them.” 

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

Peter raised his voice and addressed the multitude, “This Jesus – (this Jesus who confronts our sin and yet, says “peace with you” – This Jesus who says, “Father forgive them”) – This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” May God help us be a people who raise up one another, friend and stranger, Jew and Gentile, to the reconciling mercy and grace of God. For then we will truly be the Church community Christ envisioned. A community of witnesses not of blame, but rather, witnesses to forgiveness, peace, and, most of all, God’s endless love. Amen.