In the season of Easter one of the set readings on each Sunday is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. Each of these readings recalls the Apostles’ preaching of the resurrection. The reading set for the Third Sunday of Easter is the end of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. This sermon reflects on that reading. Last Monday/Tuesday was also Yom HaShoah the Jewish day of commemoration of the holocaust, this sermon could also be seen as a response to that occasion.
This Jesus Whom We Crucified
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
On the day of Pentecost Peter reaches the climax of his sermon:
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him [Jesus] both Lord and Messiah
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him [Jesus] both Lord and Messiah
Empowered by the Holy Spirit he preaches what appears to be the first recorded Christian sermon. The conclusion of his sermon is the conclusion that Christian faith is built upon. His “point” is that the resurrection vindicates Jesus. That Jesus has been raised from the dead validates the claim that Christians make about him. That he is, as Peter puts it, “both Lord and Messiah.” That is, he is the one who is to be obeyed. What Jesus has said and done is authoritative. Those committed to a relationship with God must look to Jesus to understand what shape that commitment must take. And Jesus is the one anointed by God to establish God’s rule in the world. Jesus is the one who leads people out of bondage to the powers of this world, and into the freedom of God’s kingdom. Peter declares that in spite of his death Jesus is shown to be the one that God has chosen to accomplish all that God has promised. In another sermon he preaches just a little later Peter puts this idea into the words of a Psalm:
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone (Psalm 118:22)
This is essentially the substance of Christian proclamation ever since. Peter’s sermon is the foundation on which every Christian sermon since builds.
But Peter carries on. He doesn’t stop there. He finishes his sermon with a lethal accusation:
This Jesus whom you crucified
These are perhaps the most dangerous words in the whole of scripture. And they have led to a bitter inheritance. And Peter did this not just this once. Peter coloured his quotation from Psalms with the same idea:
The stone that was rejected by you the builders, it has become the cornerstone [Acts 4:11]
Peter lays the blame for Jesus’ death at the feet of those he was preaching to. On this first occasion to “Jews from every nation under heaven.” On the later occasion it was made against the “rulers of the people and the elders.” This is the starting point of a bitter, catastrophic history. This is the beginning of almost 2000 years of Christian antisemitism. To be sure this is not what Peter intended. On the Day of Pentecost and later before the council he had a very specific intention in mind. He wanted to convince his hearers of their complicity in Jesus’ death. And to use the weight of that guilt to change their minds. And as a technique it proved highly successful on the first occasion, and only slightly less so on the second with a much more difficult congregation. It is a technique which preachers have been using ever since. But without intending it Peter put an idea in people’s minds: The Jews are to blame for the crucifixion. It is an idea that has proved very difficult to shake. Tragically almost as soon as Christians ceased to be a persecuted minority, and instead had the power themselves to persecute, they began to punish the Jews on the basis of this accusation.
From Monday evening to Tuesday evening of last week (20-21 April) was Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of what non-Jews call the Holocaust, in Israel and for many Jews around the world. The end point of Peter’s accusation is the industrialised slaughter of 6 million Jews by the Nazis. To be sure the Christian persecution of Jews never reached such genocidal intensity. Christians were for the most part willing to wait for God to bring about a final resolution to the question of Jewish guilt. The Nazis brought a particularly ferocious intensity and a dreadful racial animus to their hatred of the Jews. Christianity is not directly responsible for the Holocaust. But it can’t avoid blame either. It was Christian preaching that marked Jews out in the first place. It was Christian preaching that made Jews guilty of a terrible crime. And indeed almost all the perpetrators of the Holocaust were baptised “Christians” who remained in good standing with their churches to the end.
This historical and theological inheritance is a terrible burden. One theologian, Rosemary Reuther has written: “Is it possible to say Jesus is Lord without saying the Jews be damned?” For her the painful answer to that question is “no.” And as a result she has stopped calling herself a Christian. We don’t need to agree entirely with her answer, nor with her response to it, but there is something in what she says. Whilst most contemporary Christians would reject antisemitism, that poisonous seed was planted along with our most precious article of faith. That seed is still there and it can still grow, and like a cancer it becomes more dangerous the longer you ignore it.
But the question is who are the “you” in Peter’s accusation? And perhaps more critically, how do those words apply now? On the day of Pentecost, in some immediate sense, part of the crowd in front of Peter were to blame for the crucifixion. At least some of those standing in front of him then would also have been in the crowd that stood in front of Pilate seven weeks earlier which had called for Jesus’ crucifixion. And in a slightly broader sense the crowd in front of Peter were representative of the whole community resident in Jerusalem and of Jews throughout the world at that moment. It was that community to which Jesus had been sent, and that community which had in the end rejected Jesus. Something about what they had become as people, something in their history, and in their accommodation to the world led them to reject the very one who was sent to liberate them. But it would be unjust to generalise that guilt to every Jew who ever lived. For one thing others were more culpable at the time. The council, to whom Peter preached and made the same accusation later, were clearly more guilty since it was they who conspired to kill Jesus, the death of Jesus was their intention from the start. It would seem even more unjust to blame a whole people for the self-interested actions of the elite amongst that people. There was also the Roman procurator, Pilate. In the end the decision was his. It was his choices, his refusal to act justly and his abdication of responsibility that placed an innocent man on the cross. And even as he spoke Peter must have been painfully aware of his own role in Jesus’ death. Peter speaks as one implicated, both as a member of the community that his accusation is directed towards, but also more explicitly as someone whose own actions, his failure to stand with Jesus, played a part in Jesus’ death. Peter could just have easily said: this Jesus whom we crucified. The risk of Peter’s words as he actually spoke them, is that they become another opportunity to shift guilt away from ourselves and onto those that we can scapegoat. This has been the pattern of human behaviour from its very first moments.
The critically important part of preaching is: how do the events described in scripture, particularly the life, ministry,death and resurrection apply to us now? Put another way, it is the question: where do we find ourselves in the story? On this occasion where are we standing? Are we standing behind Peter, making his dangerous accusation with him? Or are we standing in front of him having the weight of that accusation convict us of our part in Jesus’ death? Our tendency is to stand behind Peter. After all, almost every one of us has already responded to Peter’s message in the way he suggests. Preaching in church is almost exclusively preaching to the already baptised.
It is difficult for us to imagine that Peter’s accusation could apply to us, or indeed that it could apply to everyone. But the truth is that it is unfair to generalise Peter’s accusation to all Jews, without recognising that the same accusation applies to everyone. All humans stand in front of Peter, even those of who through baptism have taken a position behind him as well. The whole human race shares the guilt of Jesus’ death. We are all part of the conditions that lead to the cross. We are all tangled up in a world where people try to live as if there is no God. Or they try to live as if the only god they know is their own desires. We are part of a race who organise themselves in a way that means some have more than they know what to do with whereas others have not nearly enough to survive. We live as people who are committed to coercion and violence as a solution to problems. We are too ready to accept that the ends justify the means. It is these things which put Jesus on the cross. They are all things that we all have some share in the guilt of.
Peter can turns his words toward us and say:
This Jesus whom you crucified.
Those words are wounding words, they are difficult to listen to.
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart
But to hear only the accusation is to miss the real message which Peter is announcing. The real meaning of the cross and resurrection does not lie with who is to blame, whether that is one small part of the human race, or everyone who ever lived. Peter does point out to his listeners that they bear responsibility in the death of Jesus. That sounds like bad news. Peter does say: “Yes, you are the ones who killed Jesus, you are the ones who betrayed, rejected and crucified the one sent to you as Lord and Messiah.” But for Peter the resurrection puts Jesus’ death into a different context:
“This Jesus God raised up”
“You killed Jesus, but look what God does with that! He raised Jesus from the dead.” God’s answer to human guilt – all of human guilt – is not punishment. God as it turns out punishes no one. All the punishment that was ever called for is exhausted on the cross. That punishment was always a human response to evil, not the divine response. The worst that humans can do – trying to force God out of the world – is not answered with God forcing humans out of the world. This is the astonishing good news of the resurrection. Through Jesus’ death, and his resurrection God opens up a way for all people to be restored to him.
Without this Good News the guilt for Christ’s death and for all the evil in the world is crushing. Guilt without Good News is likely to lead to scapegoating, persecution, and more of the evil which God seeks to release us from. With the Good News, recognising that we are complicit in the evil that afflicts the world becomes an opportunity for transformation. Peter’s wounding and gracious words lead the crowd who heard him to ask:
“Brothers what should we do?”
It is the question perhaps which every sermon should leave the listeners asking. How do we deal with the guilt we are burdened with? How do we respond to God’s gracious answer to our guilt?
Seeking the answers to those questions, after every sermon, is the whole of discipleship. Peter’s puts it:
Repent and be baptised
Turn around and live your lives in the light of this understanding, of your guilt and God’s grace. Become part of that community of faith that is building towards the realisation of God’s kingdom in the world. And above all, allow yourselves to be saved from this twisted generation
This Jesus Whom We Crucified by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.