Preached April 27, 2014 at Head of Christiana PC
Preaching two weeks in a row is a new-ish challenge for me, and it seems to highlight the things that I feel like I’m starting to do over and over. It feels to me like there are a lot of weeks when I get up here and tell you, in a nutshell, that someone did something terrible this week, but the gospel is still true. Which is a decent message, I think! And yet, every week, no matter how tired of it we get, awful things keep happening, this week like all weeks, even though it was the first week of Easter.
The names change, the murder weapons change, the particular sort of hateful words change, but it seems like we as humans have gotten pretty good at doing hateful stuff to each other. This week, it was Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, recorded saying disgusting racist things to his Black Latina girlfriend; or Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who came from obscurity to be some kind of anti-government folk hero, who has now embarrassed his supporters by going on a particularly conservative racist tirade on air; or 234 female students abducted almost two weeks ago now from their school in Nigeria (while taking a physics test) by an extremist group opposed to girls’ education – still missing because no one with power has mounted a formal search for them. Or 16-year-old Maren Sanchez, stabbed to death at school Friday morning by a boy she turned down for a date to their junior prom.
Over and over, the news just keeps coming. And this is nothing new, although perhaps our modern technologies mean we hear about more of it. Hateful ideas, and the violent acts that are their inevitable consequence, have been around since well before this “first Christian sermon” delivered by Peter, but this one has just gotten louder and louder over the years. When Peter accused his fellow Jews of killing the Messiah, I doubt he was expecting the millennia of persecution and genocide that would follow. Or that his words would be quoted to justify Holy Week sprees of random violence against Jewish people, so-called “Christ killers.”
Peter was on a mission, certainly, as he with the other disciples began to spread the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection; and did their best using whatever rhetorical strategies they could to convince their hearers that this Jesus was the one they had been waiting for! And so Peter quotes the Psalms, which would have been well known to his hearers, and shapes those words for his own ends around Jesus’ story. He attributes those words to David, of course, as most people did until recently, when modern biblical scholars began to discuss the incredible number of voices and authors that went into creating the whole Hebrew scriptures, and found it increasingly unlikely that any one person could have written all 150 of our present book of Psalms, with their wide variety of themes and perspectives.
And yet even though Peter clearly had a goal with this sermon (it was a sermon, after all), it is puzzling that he would begin and end it with such an accusation against his own people! He speaks to them, of course, as a Jew himself, using their own scriptures in the ways he would have been taught. But he says “you crucified him,” leading us to wonder, well, Peter, where were you??
As our scriptures tell it, Peter was busy denying that he even knew Jesus, blending in with the slaves and others who had gathered, insisting that he was one of them and definitely not with this Jesus guy. And he was wracked with guilt when the cock crowed and he remembered Jesus’ prediction. In Luke’s version we don’t see Peter again until Easter morning when he hears from the women that the tomb was empty – and even that verse doesn’t appear in every early manuscript of Luke. It almost makes me wonder if someone didn’t feel bad for Peter and add him back into the story of what happened that morning.
When I hear Peter placing blame for the death of Jesus, I can’t help but think that he must have been tormented by guilt for his role in it. He was as paralyzed with fear as any one of his listeners, just as hidden away and just as complicit by his silence. If he had any self-awareness at all, he should have recognized his share of the guilt as well as his share of the forgiveness in resurrection.
This nuance of Peter’s words to that crowd gathered for the Pentecost celebration gets lost amid the desire to have someone to blame for the crucifixion. It’s much easier to tell a story of a savior who rises victorious out of the ashes, killed by one group of people in order to save a different group of people. Stories are supposed to have heroes and villains, aren’t they? We wouldn’t really know what to do with a story in which we were all somehow villains. We need someone to blame!
But as tempting as that simple version of the story may be, of heroes and villains, when we create villains out of nowhere and ignore our own part of the guilt, we tell a story that does untold harm to millions of people for generations and generations. When we keep telling a story that blames the Jewish people for the death of Jesus and ignores the Roman oppressors’ role and our own complicity, we are telling the story that allowed the Holocaust to happen, that feeds the suspicion and disrespect of Jewish people by Christians everywhere; we are telling a story that continues to allow Jewish people to be used as political pawns in the Ukraine, as Russian nationalists and mainstream Ukrainians wage a PR war in the language of Nazi Germany, on the backs of their Jewish brothers and sisters.
* * *
The story of Easter is not a story of heroes and villains, of good guys and bad guys. It is a story of good people who failed to speak up, of average politicians just doing their job, it is a story of people living in fear of an occupying empire, used to doing what they had to in order to survive, it is a story of good people who slip up and do awful things without entirely understanding them. And it’s a story of a God who loves them anyway – who loves us anyway.
Jesus was not raised from the dead for people who never needed forgiveness to begin with. No, the grace poured out in the resurrection is for all of us, average folk and sinners, guilty ones and those who can’t admit their guilt. We are all of us complicit somehow in that death, as we are complicit by our silence or by the stories we keep telling about those other people who are somehow more guilty, more responsible, less innocent or less human than we “blameless” well-meaning white Christians.
And even as we are all implicated somehow in the death of Jesus, we are all equally forgiven in the resurrection of Jesus! The message of Easter is that all sin, even theirs, even ours, is wiped away and our lives made new. That incredible and unexpected life audaciously includes not just “good” or even average people, but every single human is covered by that love and grace in a way that seems too good to be true.
It can’t include them, really? It can’t include those people? It can’t include me, can it?
* * *
Since the very beginning we have tried to tone down the message of Easter, even while we say we’re spreading the gospel. We’ve tried from day one to place blame (anywhere but on ourselves), to draw lines of who’s in and who’s out, and while we bicker and fight over where exactly those lines should fall, we rarely question that there should be lines. Because obviously if the gospel is worth something, there have to be people who fall outside it, right? If everyone were really welcome, then why would I want to be here? What makes me special if God’s grace is for everyone?
And that, right there, is what is amazing and unbelievable about Easter. Even though we, all of us, have sinned in big ways or small ways, have failed to do the right thing or allowed wrong things to happen, have kept silent when a friend needed us to speak, have told stories that make awful things acceptable; even we are part of God’s saving love.
Even those people we try to keep out, even those people we can’t imagine could possibly be loved by God, even and especially for them, Jesus suffered and was raised up vindicated. Even for us, even for them, Christ is risen.
Christ is risen and erases all lines of who is in and who is out, and even as we scramble to re-draw those lines, Christ comes back along behind us and erases those new lines with a sigh and a shake of his head.
Christ is risen and God’s love has no end! Even for us … all of us.