Good Friday thoughts
I have just come back from our Good Friday Walk of Witness followed by a service at St Mary's. I always find the walk a very moving experience and this year the service was very helful with a most thoughtful sermon preached by our Roman Catholic priest, Father Terry O'Donovan.
Yet every year as I hear the Gospel account of the Passion, I get a nagging feeling that this telling of the story from the angle of the family quarrel between Judaism and Christianity can leave us with a negative picture of Judaism. I am told that Easter was traditionally a time in which anti semitic attacks were at their worst. Therefore I offer a sermon I preached at St Mary's two years ago in which Holocaust Remembrance and thi semitism are interplayed with the Passion of our Lord.
I used to find Elaine difficult. She was the first Messianic Jew that I ever met. Time after time she would complain about sermons she heard containing anti Semitism. In my mind I psychoanalysed her and wished the problem away.
Many year later training for the ministry at Wesley House I realised there was a problem that could not just be ignored. We shared our site with the Centre for Jewish Christian Relations, a community of Jews and Christians dedicated to exploring the issues in relations between Jews and Christians. Two and a half years ago their Director Ed Kessler whose family had fled Austria in the 1930s took us to the Beth Shalom Holocaust Museum near Nottingham. We set off as an animated group of students but returned in total silence. We’d known that the Holocaust would be disturbing but what we encountered at this centre set up by a Methodist minister left us shattered. An effort in the midst of Christendom to destroy the Jewish communities of Europe and all memory of them.
For many of us this experience was something we could not let go of. For me it led me to study a course on Jewish and Christian Responses to the Holocaust in my final year. And I began to discover how right Elaine had been. The polemics within scripture which come from what is in essence a 1st Century family quarrel had in the centuries that followed been used to demonise Judaism with outbreaks of violence particularly prevalent at Easter as passion plays led to heightened emotions and prejudices. To me the most disturbing moment was reading the Dabru Emet Statement of Jewish scholars, a gracious statement, which whilst recognising the anti Christian nature of Nazism, also affirmed that were it not for years of Christian anti Judaism the terrible events of the 1940s could never have happened.
In the years that have followed most of the Christian churches have begun a journey of reconciliation with the older brother of Judaism. Hopefully this journey will not be at the cost of another scapegoat emerging in the form of Islam. However, we do well on this Good Friday to appreciate that the cross which is the supreme sign of God in Christ’s sacrificial love has at times been so misused that for others especially Jewish brothers and sisters, there is a shadow side. Such is shown by the story of well meaning efforts to erect a convent at Auschwitz to pray for the horrors that had happened at that place with a cross as a sign of hope only for many Jews to be mortally offended with the result that the Pope intervened to halt the scheme.
I wonder if we haven’t at times got our focus wrong as we look at the Passion of Christ. Increasingly I think that the story reminds of the dangers of the misuse of power by the powerful. We see it in the religiously powerful but also in the political power yielded by Pontius Pilate. Pilate was a man known for brutality, brutality which would later bring his career to an ignominious conclusion. This was hardly a man who needed a crowd to incite him to torture or execution. In a way he was a fore runnner of a long tradition of the powerful using political expediency as a cover for torture, violence and war.
Yet more uncomfortably by setting our attention on others, we often excuse ourselves. Rowan Williams in his book ‘Resurrection’ reminds us that unlike Jesus we are hardly pure victim for we also have within us the characteristics of the persecutor. Painfully we know how mobs of people just like us can like the Easter crowd vent fury, hatred and prejudice on others simply for being in some way other than what we are. We are caught up in what the American academic Walter Wink calls the ’ myth of redemptive violence.’ And if we excuse ourselves there we all know too well the sin of silence when we fail to speak for those who are victims.
I think of Martin Niemoeller the Lutheran pastor who at first was taken by Hitler before realising that Nazism was anti Christian, made his stand, spending years in gaol as a result. Listen to his words;
"First they came for the communists but I did not speak out because I was not a communist
Then they cam for the Socialists but I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.
Then the came for the trade unionists butI did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews but I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Finally they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me."
And yet there is one who is for us. Elie Wiesel’s book ‘Night’ which tells of his time at Auschwitz and Buchenwald makes for painful reading. Indeed he could only write it many years after the events. In one tortuous episode he describes the hanging of two men and a boy whom he describes as looking like a ‘sad eyed angel.’ The boys takes a long time to die and Wiesel refers to hearing man behind him asking ‘Where is God now?’ before going on to write;
And I heard a voice within me answer him;
'‘Where is he? Here he is….. He is hanging on the gallows.'’
I am not quite sure what Wiesel means by that. It may relate to his struggle as to whether he could continue to believe in a God in the light of the terrible things he saw and experienced. I don’t know. But I put it to you this morning that in a real sense the suffering God is present with all those who suffer injustice and pain. For in the cross we find the courageous self giving love of God in Christ, given for all.
The cross a form of torture, sadly used so often by Christians as a weapon, stands revealed as the means by which God in love embraces a world hooked on the drugs of self interest and violence. Through the cross, is revealed the supremacy of Divine love for as that great hymn of the Welsh Revival puts it,
"Here is love vast as the Ocean".