Last week, we shared a beautiful Maundy Thursday service together, a Tenebrae service. For those of you who were unable to come, or who have perhaps not participated in such a service, it’s an evening in which we read gospel passages which tell the Scriptural story from the end of the Last Supper, when Jesus and his disciples head out to the Garden of Gethsemane, through the arrest and questionings and condemnation of Jesus, to his death and burial. After each passage is read, another light in the sanctuary is extinguished, until Jesus lies in the tomb and we are in darkness, a darkness that lasts until Easter Sunday.
I’ve been to, and participated in, all sorts of Maundy Thursday services. I would say that the Tenebrae is my favorite. But . . . I don’t think I’ve ever been charged with such a large portion of the readings before . . . or perhaps the readings in the past weren’t all from one gospel, the Gospel of John in particular. And I have to tell you that I was shocked and horrified at what I heard myself reading.
Over and over again, John blames “the Jews” for the death of Jesus. If I have counted correctly, in the passages we read last Thursday night, combined with some short portions we did not read, there are twelve references to the “Jews.” Some of those references are mingled with cries of “Crucify him!” and one of them refers to Joseph of Arimathea, one of those who helped to bury Jesus, as a “secret disciple because of his fear of the Jews.”
I cannot begin to tell you how disturbed I was as I read those words, over and over again, as if the Jewish people were in some way to be singled out as having caused the death of Jesus. I tried to change some of them as I read, to phrases like “the Judeans” or “the leaders” or “the people” – but that was no doubt a confusing distraction, as many of you were following along on the Powerpoint. And it didn’t solve the problem, the problem of an entire ethnic and religious group of people being charged with a crime as if it were a consequence of their very being, and something for which they were and remain culpable as a group.
Today gives us an opportunity to address that challenge, as that offensive language is echoed in this morning’ reading, in which we find the disciples huddled in a room in a house after the crucifixion with the doors “locked for fear of the Jews.”
What is this all about, “the Jews”?
Yes, some Jews were involved in the execution of Jesus. Yes, some of the leaders of Jesus’s own people were frustrated by and even fearful of his teachings and gift for healing, and wary of his claims and yes, Judas betrayed him and some of the Jewish leaders urged the Romans on. But those realities do not make an entire people culpable. Jesus was arrested was arrested by soldiers – Roman soldiers – and ultimately condemned and killed by Roman authorities. Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution, a method the Jews were not permitted to employ. It was a common enough occurrence – thousands of people were executed by crucifixion by the Romans, most of them for sedition – for rebellion against the government.
So why in the gospel of John is there so much hatred and fear of “the Jews” expressed? Why not the Romans, who executed Jesus and less than 40 years later crushed a Jewish rebellion and destroyed themir temple? Why this “fear of the Jews”?
To understand John’s attitude, we need a bit of Bible background.
Scholars tell us that the Gospel of John was probably written in the 90s, sometime between the years 90 and 100. (Remember, Jesus died around the year 30.) John may have been written even later. And the Gospel of John was probably not written by one person named John, but was the product of the writings of a particular community of faith, writings ultimately compiled and edited by a gifted literary artist in the community.
And what of this community? The early church, the earliest church in the years immediately following the resurrection of Jesus, was really a handful of small Jewish Christian house churches, of Jewish people still deeply connected to their Jewish faith and traditions and synagogues, but who had come to understand Jesus as the risen messiah. Over the decades, the relationship between those Jews who did not believe in Jesus as the messiah and those who did began to erode, and by the end of the first century, Jewish Christians were leaving the synagogues to form their own distinct communities of faith, and the synagogues were at the same time evicting those who professed Jesus as Lord.
And what happens when people begin to separate over a conviction of belief? What kinds of things do they say in their anger? Extreme things. People stop using words of conciliation, words like, “You might be right” or “I might be wrong.” They use words like “This is the way it is.” And they begin to accuse and condemn one another for their differences.
That was the sort of community in which the Gospel of John was written. On the one hand, it was a community of tremendous hope and joy in the promise of Christ. On the other, it was a community of fear and anger toward “the other” – even though “the others” were the Jews, their own people of origin. On the one hand, the Gospel of John contains some of the most beautiful writing and some of the most profound stories of expectation in the entire Bible. On the other hand, it contains some of the ugliest and most accusatory language in the Bible. The Gospel of John is the only place in which we find the stories of Nicodemus in the night, of the woman at the well, of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord. It is the gospel in which Jesus says “I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the way and the truth and the life.” It is also the gospel containing the references to “the Jews” as those to be feared.
To what have those words, “the Jews” led? To what does any identification of people as “the other” lead? What happens when we insist upon singling out a person, or a group, as “other”?
Negativity, distrust, suspicion – that’s what happens. Exclusion, persecution, violence – that’s what happens. An insistence that we are right and that “the others” are wrong – an insistence that fosters division and disharmony, that breaks the human family apart, and that leads to our destruction of one another. Think about it: who are “the others” today? People of color or ethnicity different from our own? People of religion different from our own? People whose sexual orientation differs from our own? Perhaps in your own life, perhaps in this church, perhaps in general – are there those we think of as “the other”?
In the case of the Jewish people, their castigation as “other” led to centuries of exclusion and persecution, and violence. In Europe and Russia, Jews were forced into their own communities and then often expelled completely - perhaps most famously from Spain and England, but in reality from over 100 locations. In the Middle Ages, the Jews were often blamed for outbreaks of plague – their isolation from the major centers of other community life and their religious rituals of cleanliness kept them relatively free of disease at a time when no one understood how disease was transmitted. By the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews were subject to the extreme violence of the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, to vicious attacks upon their homes and businesses and persons. And then – the Holocaust, a period of slaughter so calculated and so vast that it stuns us with the magnitude of evil human beings can perpetrate on one another.
Today, sadly, the persecution of “the other” remains prevalent, all around us. During the week before Passover and Easter this year, just three weeks ago, our Jewish brothers and sisters were the targets of hatred in Ukraine, in which an unknown group passed out pamphlets stating that Jews were required to register with the government – a hoax, but an unsettling and evil one, given that such registration was a precursor to murder during the Holocaust – and here in our own country a man went out looking for Jews to shoot at a Kansas Jewish Community Center and assisted living facility. Ironically, none of the three people he killed were Jewish – because we have made real progress in our understanding of one another and in our participation in one another’s lives, and we tend to congregate together rather than separately – but the outcome does not change the man’s intent.
So: What is the good news in all this? You can understand now, I think, why I was reluctant to continue reading last Thursday night. And why I have been mulling over the contradictions inherent in the Gospel of John ever since. Where is the good news when we proclaim hope in Christ while at the same time we steal hope from brothers and sisters whom we call “the other”? Where is the good news when we come to church and proclaim a risen Christ in the beauty and seclusion of our sanctuary when outside our doors people, perhaps even we ourselves at times, enact the opposite of Christian hope through words and deeds which are racist, or homophobic, or anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim?
Where is the good news? The good news is that we live in an era of new creation. The good news is that God is not yet finished with us. The good news is that God is continually re-creating, re-shaping, and re-molding us into people called to reflect the love of God.
Thomas, the disciple at the center of today’s gospel reading, was not there yet. He needed to see and to touch the wounds of the Risen Christ for himself before he could confess Jesus as his Lord and his God – but Jesus did not give up on him or abandon him.
The people of the early church were not there yet. They thought they needed to distinguish themselves from “the other,” from “the Jews,” in order to establish the distinctiveness of their community. But God did not abandon them to their fears and instinctive isolationism.
We are not there yet. We have our own fears, our own areas of ignorance and insensitivity, our own unwillingness to break down the barriers which separate us from the other. But God continues to labor with us, to lavish love on us, to invite us into new life, new understandings, and new hopes for our shared humanity with all peoples.
Tomorrow is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which, as is the Jewish custom, actually begins tonight. It’s a day on which we commemorate the lives lost and the heroism shown by the Jewish people during the Holocaust years of 1933-1945. That means that tonight and tomorrow, we can do our small part in carrying light into the world by becoming aware of the cost of accusing “the other,” of fearing “the other,” of hating “the other.”
I urge you, tonight and tomorrow, to pay attention to Yom HaShoah. Read the paper, watch the news, google “Holocaust Remembrance” on the internet. Learn the stories. Become aware of your neighbor, who is not “the other.”
Most of you know that for several years I taught in an Orthodox Jewish middle school and high school. One day some of my beautiful young students, having just seen the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, which relies heavily on the Gospel of John, asked me, “Why do Christians hate us?”
Let’s not be people who hate “the other.” Let’s not be followers of Christ who hide out in a locked room, or in a church sanctuary, “for fear of the Jews” or for fear of anyone else. Let’s be people who watch and listen and learn, people who throw the doors of our lives wide open, people who proclaim light by being light. Let’s be the people of a God of abundant love, a God who breaks down barriers, and a God for whom human beings are not “the other” -- but are, every one of us, God’s precious people.