Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Peter and the Crowd

I've missed writing on a regular basis. That wasn't easy before the pandemic, and it's gotten even harder. This morning, I'd like to offer a reflection on the first reading for this coming Sunday--Acts 2:14a, 22-32--and, more generally, on the theme of anti-Judaism that comes up a lot during this time of the year.

Last week, a Jewish synagogue in Huntsville, Alabama, near where I lived a few years ago, was vandalized with ethnic slurs and other neo-Nazi hate speech. The terrible, ungodly action took place on the first night of Passover and in the middle of the Christian Holy Week. That timing, of course, was not coincidental. This is the time of the year when Christians recite the biblical account of Jesus' arrest, mock-trial, condemnation, torture, and death. The biblical account, written in its present form after Christians and Jews had become distinct and, in some cases, rival traditions, frequently identifies the opponents of Jesus as "the Jews." Of course, Jesus was Jewish, and his disciples were Jewish, so it doesn't make any sense to think of all Jews as being opposed to Jesus, but the choice of words in the biblical account fuels such sentiments.

In fact, the historical account--biblical and otherwise--makes it clear that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities using a distinctly Roman form of punishment reserved for runaway slaves and insurrectionists who dared threaten the rule of the Empire. To the extent that anyone who was Jewish was responsible for Jesus' death, it can only fall upon the religious and political leaders who, in an attempt to preserve their power, handed Jesus over to them in order to appease the wrath of the Empire. That may be a decision worthy of criticism and condemnation, but the gospel makes it clear that Jesus was widely supported by the Jews of his day even if he frequently ran afoul of some particular Jewish groups like the Pharisees, scribes, teachers, and Council.

Now to Sunday's reading from Acts, in which Peter addresses the Jewish crowd and lambasts them for ignoring Jesus' "deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him." How do we hear those words in our churches today AND stand up against those who would spray paint swastikas on the sides of Jewish synagogues? We must recognize that Peter's criticism of the crowd is not a criticism of their religion but a criticism of those individuals' failure to recognize the surprising, tradition-stretching work that God was doing through Jesus. In other words, we must recognize Peter's criticism of us in that same speech.

How different do Peter's words sound if you identify yourself not with Peter and the disciples who stood with him but with those who were the recipients of his polemic? To what extent have you, despite identifying as a follower of Jesus, ignored the deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God has done through God's chosen servants? When have you and your religious tradition failed to reflect the fullness of God's tradition-stretching work? When have you and your cultural ancestors stood on the wrong side of history and found it easier to hand over for crucifixion the prophets of suffrage, integration, inclusion, and economic reform? If, in the first century, Peter was speaking to his fellow Israelites, then, in the twenty-first century, those words are intended for us--privileged, established, wealthy churchgoers like you and me.

I tend to shy away from those passages of the New Testament that are anti-Judaic. They so easily fuel hatred and bigotry and antisemitism. But that's not what the Holy Spirit is saying through them. Even if the human authors reflect a period in which those sentiments had infected the church, we know that the Holy Spirit does not breathe through them. In order to be faithful to the text and to the risen Christ, I must not ignore those texts, leaving them to the hate-mongering of anti-Semites, but write and teach and preach on them in ways that support the Spirit's work of correcting our collective misunderstanding of them. We need to hear Peter's speech again and afresh and the criticism it offers of us, not them.

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