26 April 2010 - Yom HaShoah – John 20:19-23
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek
It is important that we are here this morning. For me, this is one of the most important observances of the year. The Holocaust remains one of the most devastating events in human history. It also remains a source of tremendous self-reflection for Christians as well as Jews. For we live in a time when there are those who deny the Holocaust ever happened, and those who promulgate a new and vicious anti-Semitism in the name of the Church in Palestine and elsewhere throughout the world.
For much of our nearly two thousand year history, the Church accused the Jewish people in general of Deicide (God/Christ Killers), thus unleashing an ugly anti-Semitism resulting in pograms, expulsions, ghettos, the Inquistition, the Crusades, and relentless violence against the dispersed Jewish population in diaspora. It would not be until 1963, The Second Vatican Council, that the charge of Deicide was finally dropped, and Christians were urged to forge new bonds of affection and dialogue with our spiritual sisters and brothers of the Jewish faith.
The Episcopal Church in General Convention 1987 ratified a set of Recommendations for Christian-Jewish Dialogue, specifically instructing congregations to develop a Yom HaShoah observance each year. I am gratified that Saint Peter's is in its fifteenth year of doing so.
When I went away to college I decided I wanted to know more about Jesus Christ. I chose what was to be an important path for seeking that knowledge. I figured that Jesus was Jewish, so it made the most sense to register for the Introduction to Judaism course being taught at our college by a local Rabbi, Stanley Kessler.
To say that it changed my life is not enough. To say that it changed my faith is only the beginning. It caused me to reexamine from the ground up how Christianity had allowed itself to stray so far from the humble origins of its founder, a young Israeli Jew, and to have fostered in the name of Christ an anti-Semitism that transformed a Christian and highly cultured country like Germany into a seething caldron of hate, violence and destruction against the very people to whom, as St. Paul says, we gentiles have been grafted.
The first and most important thing one might observe about this account of Jesus appearing to the disciples (an account often read twice a year in many congregations) is that these disciples of Jesus appear to be living on the wrong side of the Resurrection. Although Mary Magdalene, Peter and the disciple Jesus loved have all been to the tomb, and Mary has seen the risen Lord, they are all still living out of fear. Upon reflection, that is not so odd, since they no doubt fear that what happened to Jesus on Good Friday could easily happen to anyone who professes to be a follower of his. Yet, this fear is ironic as Jesus is there to give them his “Peace,” or his Shalom – a word that in Hebrew and Aramaic connotes far more than peacefulness, but includes a sense of social justice for all people, care for the entire creation, and making the world a place that reflects God’s love, mercy and compassion.
The anonymous author(s) of John, however, write from a much later date when both Jews and Christians are under persecution by Rome: the Temple has been destroyed and it is estimated that the Roman legions killed one and one-half million Jews while quelling an attempted rebellion against the Empire. It was an atmosphere of fear in which this gospel was written. As such, Jews and Christians in first century Israel were in hiding for their lives. We had a shared history at the point in time. Our memory of that, however, is lacking. This has caused problems.
A second thing we might notice is that the text is usually translated “for fear of the Jews.” Right away this should cause us to wonder. For all the followers in that room were Jews. Why would they be fearful of other Jews. What the Greek text of the New Testament says, however, is “for fear of the Judeans.”
It is up to the reader to remember that all the Jews in the room behind locked doors were Galileans, not Judeans. Galileans were considered somewhat like country bumpkins – not sophisticated, socially inferior, from the wrong side of the tracks, and they talked “funny”. Their accent was such that anyone in Jerusalem for Passover would recognize them as being from Gallilee. Way back in chapter 1 of John, Nathaniel asks Philip who is telling him about Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” which is in Galilee? It was just as true back in the first century as it is today, not all Jews are alike, come from the same background, or think the same things.
The third thing, and the most tragic thing, is that it is all too easy to see how a text like this could be used to support anti-Semitism. “Well, if the disciples feared the Jews, how much more should we fear the Jews?” the argument might go. Whereas if you are talking about Judeans, a pluralistic culture even way back in the time of Jesus, one would be strained to make a similar argument.
Perhaps most perplexing to me, however, is the simple fact that many of the guards and others who staffed the death camps went home at night, said grace at the dinner table, listened to Bach and Beethoven, read Goethe, said prayers at bedtime with their children, went to church on Sunday, and then on Monday morning punched in at the camp for another eight hour day.
We must also never forget that for years in the 1930’s and 40’s thousands of European Jews attempting to escape the coming Holocaust were refused entry into the United States, giving Hitler the propaganda boost of being able to say in all truth, “See, even the United States does not want the Jews.” This was in part due to immigration quotas, but also in part due to State Department policies that were in fact anti-Semitic, reflecting the anti-Semitic attitudes of State Department officals. On the plus side, throughout Europe there were Christians, Righteous Gentiles, who risked everything to hide and assist Jews to escape the Holocaust, and students in Munich, like The White Rose, who risked their lives attempting to inform their fellow citizens as to what was really happening with Hitler's Final Solution.
Lest we think this all happened far away from here, in the mid-1980’s my then parish, Good Shepherd, was in dialogue with Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore, where I met a man who had grown up near Philadelphia. Every year during Holy Week and Easter, local “Christian” boys would chase him down, beat him up, calling him “Christ Killer” all the while.
Years of treacherous teachings by the church contributed to making all of this possible. Years of teachings by the church obscured the fact that the cornerstone of my faith was a young Israeli Jew. Reading Night, studying alongside my Jewish classmates for three years in college, reminded me of this, and eventually brought me closer to Jesus than I had been before studying Judaism. I eventually wrote my Religion Department thesis on the work and witness of Elie Wiesel. At the time (1967-68) no one in the department really knew Wiesel and his work, so a woman who was doing graduate work, Bernice Saltzman was appointed to supervise my thesis work. Her invaluable support and direction further deepened my appreciation for Judaism as a foundation for my faith in Jesus. I concluded my paper, “Wiesel’s tale is also important for people today. Wake up, people, see what you have done, see what you can do. The civilization that created Mozart, Votaire, Beethoven – this is the same civilization that also created Auschwitz and Hiroshima. It is our turn to choose between beauty and ugliness, life and death. Wiesel’s tale is important for religion – be it Christian or Jew. Wiesel has said on several occasions, ‘For either God is God, and I do not do enough to serve God, or God is not God, and it is my fault. We must not think it is our fault. It is our privilege.’” [Elie Wiesel, from a Lecture in Worcester, MA – 1972]
It is a difficult task, Yom HaShoah. We must face into the shame of our Church’s past, and at the same time lift up the lives of those who shined with the Paschal Light of Christ in humanity’s darkest hour: those who survived and those Righteous Gentiles who worked to help people escape the Holocaust. We must remember who we are and whose we are, and let the Light of Christ shine on the truth of our shared heritage with the Jewish people, and give us the courage to bear witness to this most important truth. Amen.