Sermon for Evensong on Whit Sunday 2015 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
[Ezekiel 36:22-28], Acts 2:22-38 – This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified ..

I find the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is really St Luke’s Gospel Part 2, really interesting. Really interesting, because it gives us an insight into what the early church, the first Christians, did, when the story of Jesus was still pretty fresh in their minds. Today we see that they were confronted by things which have produced consequences, not necessarily good consequences, ever since.

This morning we had the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the believers gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of the First Fruits, Harvest Festival (see Exodus 23:16). There were about 120 of them gathered together (Acts 1:15), and they were among a crowd of Jews, Jews from that splendid catalogue of places we can’t now really place: where were the Medes and the Parthians from, in today’s world? Anyway, the important thing is, that they were all Jewish.

St Peter preached the first Christian sermon to this multinational group – this group which was multinational, but not multi-ethnic. He told them the story of Jesus, saying how the great Jewish king David had foretold the Messiah’s greatness (in Psalm 16): ‘thou shalt not leave my soul in hell: neither shalt thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption.’ (Psalm 16:11, BCP)

Peter pointed out that David was mortal; what David said about not suffering his Holy One to see corruption was not about himself, about David, but was a prophecy about the Messiah to come in future, that the Messiah would not be ‘abandoned to Hades’ (Acts 2:31, NRSV).

Jesus had died and been resurrected, had come back to life. It was he, Jesus, that fitted the description of the Messiah, the chosen one of God. Peter quoted Psalm 110, Dixit dominus domino meo, The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.’ You might remember ‘Dixit Dominus’ set to music by Handel.

Peter concluded, ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.’

‘That Jesus, whom ye have crucified.’ Possibly those words have been some of the most troublesome ever uttered. It said that the Jews were God-killers. That was certainly the way that the early Church fathers, such as Origen and Irenaeus, went on to see things. The original promise to Abraham and the renewal of Israel promised to Ezekiel in our first lesson, ‘[Then] you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God’, the early Church fathers thought that promise had been replaced, replaced by the anointing of the Messiah, Jesus.

That interpretation caused untold misery for the Jews. Christianity was set against Judaism. For centuries, it wasn’t the Muslims who persecuted Jews, but Christians. I have read that even some of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials relied on the theory that Jews were God-killers, in order to justify the Holocaust. The idea had come down in German theology, it’s surprising to learn, through Martin Luther.

But it does seem very unfair. Indeed, it illustrates how careful we must be when we read the Bible, not to take things out of context. As you will remember from the lesson just now, what Peter said in full was, ‘When he [Jesus] had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God, you used heathen men to crucify and kill him’ (Acts 2:23, NEB).

I will come back, to dissect the various strands in it; but first we should recognise that, at the end of the passage in Acts, (verses 37-41), the Jews listening to Peter were ‘cut to the heart’, and asked what they should do. Peter said, ‘Repent, … repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ And then note this; he went on, ‘For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God may call.’

There’s actually no suggestion that the Jews have been replaced as the chosen people of God. And we read that three thousand were baptised that day – a huge number.

Of course, St Paul became the apostle to the non-Jews, to the Gentiles – which is us. ‘The Lord our God’, that St Peter spoke about, is the same God, whether we are Jewish or Gentile – or indeed Moslems.

If we go back to what St Peter said, ‘when he had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God’, you killed him. Could one say that the Jews were not responsible, except insofar as they carried out God’s plan? Ironically, if so, it would be the same defence that was used by the guards in Auschwitz, ‘We were only following orders.’

No. I don’t think that the Greek text works that way. Literally, it says, ‘this one, handed over [or betrayed] in accordance with God’s definite will and foreknowledge, by the hand of lawless men you killed, crucifying him.’ That he was handed over – a word which can mean ‘betrayed’ (εκδοτον) – was foreseen and willed by God. But you, using ‘the hand of lawless men (meaning outside the Jewish law, as the Romans were), killed him.’ There is no doubt that Peter did hold his fellow-Jews to blame.

But equally, the great thing about the Christian gospel is that they were not condemned eternally. Even for such a terrible crime, for having killed the Son of God, if they repented and were baptised – baptised as a symbol of washing away their sin – they would be forgiven, and the Holy Spirit would come to them.

And yet: and yet, I must confess that I thought about the ‘blood libel’, so-called, against the Jews, when I visited the Holy Land a couple of years ago, and saw the awful wall which the Israelis have put up, sometimes separating Palestinians from the fields which they farm, and when I saw the substantial Western-style suburbs which they have built illegally on Palestinian land – not so much pioneer ‘settlements’ but rather, proper towns like Milton Keynes – and when I read about and saw on the TV what the Israelis did in Gaza – for every Israeli soldier killed, they killed at least 10 Palestinian civilians, including women and children. Are the people who did these things, these dreadful people, really God’s chosen people?

It leads me to think two things. First, that we should hate the sin, and try to love the sinner. What the Israelis have done, and continue to do, is wrong, and hateful. They put forward excuses or explanations, but they are not justified. They are, I believe, guilty of brutality, racist oppression and invasion. But face to face, I have never met a nasty Jewish person. They really do conform with God’s promise to Ezekiel, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will take the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36:26). So we must follow St Peter, and recognise that even the worst sins can be forgiven. We must not oppose the Jews because they are Jews, but only oppose the harm they do in Palestine.

The second thing which occurs to me, is that we don’t really understand what it is to be ‘chosen’ by God. I have a feeling that the God of the Old Testament was rather more akin to the old Greek idea of God – essentially, a superman living above the clouds, so the ‘superman God’ could have human favourites, which is all rather different from the more spiritual, transcendent God that we think of today. What does it mean, today, to ‘sit at the right hand of God in heaven’?

That’s a question for another sermon, another day. But just think: this huge question came up for the first time in the first few weeks of the church. What a momentous time it was. And we still need to try to understand it, even 2,000 years later. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us and help us as it did those earliest Christians. ‘Repent, …. so that your sins may be forgiven.’ Think what it meant then, and what it could mean today.

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