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s160a98 Somerton Park 19/4/98 Second Sunday of Easter

"You are determined to bring this man's blood on us." But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority."" Acts 5:28,29.

One often remembers strange things when one is beginning to prepare a sermon. As I looked at this text, my mind went back to the baptism of our son Timothy, 15 years ago. It was an eventful service because the other baby being baptised at the same service stopped breathing as I did the baptism. Fortunately there were any number of triple certificated nursing sisters in the congregation. The baby was too young to have had her whooping cough vaccination, and she had developed that dreadful disease. She survived, but only after a long stay in the 'Children's (hospital).

But it was after the service that I was thinking of. We had a "bun-fight" afterwards, and as usual everyone was looking to me to say grace before beginning. I still remember saying: "I think we've prayed enough already, you may start eating." Someone was quite scandalised. "What an evangelical opportunity wasted!" I recall was the person's comment. And the reason this came back to me was it that betrayed a (all to frequently occurring) militant and confrontational form of Christianity.

Now after the intervening years, I would want to say that the evangelical opportunity was not lost, and the good news was proclaimed, without words or prayers. There were people there who were not regular Church - go-ers there. Couching everything in a "Christian" context was to exclude them.

The reality is that the gospel is proclaimed as often by the things we don't say, as by the things that we do.

Often, as we trot out easy and orthodox answers we betray the fact that we have not listened to the real question the other is putting, nor hearing the pain that they are experiencing. In doing this we do not engage in any real dialogue. We walk away thinking how wonderful we are at having answered (as we think) their question. We have successfully defended God, or successfully defended our version of Christianity. The other person turns away feeling put down, dissatisfied, and having to search elsewhere for an answer or for comfort. In all likelihood the weren't attacking either God or our version of Christianity anyway.

And let me say quite plainly I have done this often enough myself.

And so with the interchange between the high priest and Peter. Both I suspect considered the interchange a confrontation, and there is no way that things could have been any different at the time. Yet just because Peter trots out the phrase: "We must obey God rather than any human authority" gives us no authority to endless repeat a mistake, just because it is in the Bible.

For let us make it plain, the high priest is mistaken when he states: "You are determined to bring this man's blood on us". If Peter had had time to think about this, he could have denied it completely. Peter had just been through the exercise of denying Jesus three times. He knew only too well his own guilt. He knew that Jesus had never brought that back to him. He had never been asked to repent of these denials.

For how many centuries have those of the Jewish people been blamed for the death of Jesus? This is no idle question. They have been persecuted and killed, believing they were to blame and were to be punished.

It is likely that those who composed the gospels did indeed minimise the part that the Roman authorities played in the crucifixion and (as a consequence) maximised the part played by the Jewish authorities. But the reality is that the New Testament was composed for a gentile, not Jewish, audience. Hence they minimised the culpability of their immediate readers.

It is the gospel strategy to minimise the culpability and guilt of the person to whom one is speaking - not to maximise it - destroying an individual's personality and replacing it with a "righteous" one.

How often are we told that things happened in Jesus' ministry "in order that the scripture might be fulfilled". This is not the innocuous phrase it first might appear. It contains the powerful message that things happened which were not meant to be apportioned blame to people. Perhaps the most powerful of these is the murder of the innocents described in Matthew chapter 2 (16-18). The infants were not murdered because Herod was a unscrupulous megalomaniac, deranged by paranoia that someone was out to get him (all of which was perhaps true). Matthew tells us it happened so that: "what was spoken by through the prophet Jeremiah" might be fulfilled ... In the end, perhaps even Herod may have found pardon.

Of course if we look further into Peter's words we hear him say to the high priest: "God exalted him ... that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:31). The whole of the death and resurrection of Jesus is not to burden people with more guilt, but to relieve them of it.

If Peter had been theologically astute, he could have also replied to the high priest that the blood of Jesus is the blood of forgiveness, not the blood of guilt, but he had not the time for such theological niceties. Why did he not have the time? Because he was in a conflict situation. It was the conflict situation which muddied the waters and time was not given for God's grace to work.

If we are to give God's grace time to work, and so avoid these sorts of complete misunderstandings we need to move to a pacifist and non-confrontational form of Christianity. We have to move from one person being right and another wrong - to all people being loved. "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" is a word to everyone, to Jew and Christian, the high priest and prostitute.

It requires however a desire to move to a pacifist and non-confrontational form of Christianity. One of the reasons I am a priest; perhaps my particular vocation in life is to try to put a biblical and theological foundation for this. For I do not see this is in any way a "new" faith, or even a "new" form of the faith. I am enough of a megalomaniac to think that it is, in fact, the faith :-)

Peter was no less immune to the temptation to defend God than we are, or than I am. We can tread in the same footsteps as him, or learn from his mistakes. Peter's triple denial was not included in the gospel accounts for us to imitate it, surely! Therefore there is no need to imitate Peter's response when we find ourselves faced with someone suggesting we want to make them guilty - when we don't ...

It is indeed a facile form of Christianity which only blames others for Jesus' death. It is no less a self centred Christianity which is eternally beating one's own breast and saying to God: "It was for my sins that you were crucified".

Somewhere along the line we have to stop apportioning blame, either to others or to ourselves, as if this were a religious thing to do and therefore what God wants from us. We are invited to stop apportioning blame (either towards ourselves or towards others) and get on with life and let others do the same.

Down through the ages, the religious hierarchy of Jesus' day, the scribes and the Pharisees have been painted as the villains of the piece. I have had occasion before to say that the money changers and those who sold pigeons were just ordinary lay people. But again Jesus came to accept people as they were, provided only they weren't getting in the way of others coming to God.

In my own life there have been enough times when I've done stupid things, things for which I have endlessly berated myself. Most painful are the times I have hurt others through careless inadvertence (I pray) rather than maliciousness. One can only pray that God will use my mistakes and the mistakes of others for the greater good of people. It is perhaps appropriate to finish with an example - the words of the Jewish patriarch, Joseph, who was able to see beyond the pain his own brothers had caused him, to see the purposes of God and say to his distressed brothers:

"I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. ... Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.'" (Gen 45:4-9).


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