This week, known as Holy Week, has been rather terrifying as we get report after report of bad news. We’ve heard of the chemical attacks in Syria, and the military response of the United States. Coptic Christians in Egypt were attacked as they worshiped on Palm Sunday. Here at home, there has been another school shooting, and a passenger on a commercial airline was forcibly dragged off the plane when he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. This has all been terrifying enough, but probably the event that had the most disturbing implications for us as Christians was the White House press secretary saying that Syrian President Assad was worse than Hitler because Hitler never used chemical warfare “on his own people.” The reason that this caused such an uproar was because Hitler did in fact gas scores of Jewish people to death in concentration camps, and those Jewish people were Germans. The fact that he made these comments in the midst of the celebration of Passover made it even more offensive, and made it seem like he was, at best, ignorant of the history of the Holocaust, and, at worst, a denier of the Holocaust. And even though he did apologize for these remarks, I doubt that many people will excuse him or forgive him.
Why am I speaking about this? Because anti-Semitism has once again reared its ugly head in the United States in different places and in different ways, and because the anti-Semitism that developed over many centuries in the church has stemmed from a misunderstanding of who Jesus was and who was responsible for his death on the day that we call Good Friday. Over the centuries, misinterpretations of Scripture and a lack of understanding by Christians of why the Jewish people would not accept Jesus as the Messiah has resulted in Christians saying, “The Jews killed Jesus,” and have been used as an excuse for hatred of the Jewish people and violence against them. Many Christians have forgotten that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, and that Jesus’ crucifixion was a result of several complicated factors. One of those factors was the relationship of the Jewish authorities to the Roman occupying force. Another factor was the complicated relationship that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had with both Rome and the Jewish people—he was often caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to balance keeping the peace in Judea with making his superiors in Rome happy. There was really no one person or one group of people to blame for Jesus’ crucifixion, and when Christians over the years and even in the present time try to do that, they are simply in the wrong.
So, then, how do we speak of the death of Jesus? On an earthly level, we speak of it as the result of weak and sinful human beings—those in authority worried about retaining their power and also about keeping the peace, so the Roman soldiers wouldn’t come in and take things over completely by force. We speak of it as a travesty of justice, for Jesus had done nothing wrong. But theologically, we speak of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, so that we might live forever. We speak of God being present even as we shudder at how human beings devise such cruel methods of execution, and we contemplate our own sinfulness at how we might be complicit in systems that make other human beings suffer. And we know that, even when we believe that God has forsaken us, just as Jesus cried out when he suffered on the cross, God is still present with us in our suffering. And more than that, because of what Jesus, the Son of God, went through on the cross for us, God understands our suffering in an intimate and mysterious way. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).
We speak of the death of Jesus with sorrow, with awe, and with wonder, as we meditate on its mystery. We do not, however, cast blame on anyone for his death. For we do not know if, had we been present on that day, we would have been one of the women who stayed with Jesus to the end, or if we would have been one of the disciples who fled for fear and left Jesus to suffer alone. Even more than that: we may have been one of the mob shouting “Crucify him!” or we could have been one of the high priests who wanted Jesus to die. Or, we could have been Pontius Pilate, who valued peace in Jerusalem more than he valued justice, and handed Jesus over to be crucified. We simply don’t know, and so we cannot speak of blame for Jesus’ death unless we want to condemn ourselves.
For in the end, it was our sinfulness that put Jesus on the cross. And when I say “our,” I mean all of us: all human beings who ever lived, past, present, and future. There is no need to single out any one people group, and no reason especially for anti-Semitism. We are all guilty. But the good news is this: in Jesus’ death on the cross, we have forgiveness for our sins. So, let us come and worship Jesus as we see him suffering on the cross for us. Let us come with sorrow and let us also come with profoundly thankful hearts for what he has done for us. Amen.