Trinity Sunday A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for June 4, 2023 (Trinity Sunday A)

First Reading: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

In recent weeks we have celebrated the resurrected Jesus ascending into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, and the Holy Spirit coming to the followers of Jesus in wind and fire.

Trinity Altarpiece

Trinity Altarpiece (c.1480), two panels from an oil painting on wood panels depicting Sir Edward Boncle (portrait on the right panel) in adoration of the Trinity (left panel) by Hugo van der Goes (c.1440-1482). Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. (Click image to enlarge)

Now as we begin the long season after Pentecost we contemplate Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their mysterious dance, three persons in one triune God, the Holy Trinity. Our first reading, the first creation story at the beginning of Genesis, shows a monotheistic God as a loving creative force at work in the world as Creator, Word, and Spirit wind moving over the waters to make a world.

Psalm: Psalm 8

In Psalm 8, beautiful hymn of praise, we exalt the name of our Creator God and sing grateful thanksgiving for all of creation. We remember that, as part of our God-given dominion over “the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,” we have a solemn duty to preserve and protect them all. This duty feels more significant than ever in this time of mass extinction, rising oceans, and chaotic climate change.

Alternate Psalm: Canticle 13

Canticles, “little songs,” are scripture passages provided by the Book of Common Prayer for use in daily prayer and as occasional substitutes for Lectionary Psalms. Canticle 13 is the Song of the Three Young Men from the Apocryphal Prayer to Azariah. The young men, condemned to death in a fiery furnace by an angry king, marched through the flames unharmed thanks to God’s protection, singing this joyous hymn of praise to God and all creation. These verses, added to this old song in modern Christian times, conclude the Canticle with resounding praise and exaltation to the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Paul closes his second letter to the people of Corinth in the formal style dictated for letters in 1st Century Greek culture. In brief but loving words, he urges this small, often squabbling congregation to sort out their conflicts, pay attention to each other, and love one another as God loves them. In what may be one of early Christianity’s first explicit references to a divine Trinity, Paul blesses the people with his hope for the grace of Jesus, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20

Each of the four Gospels ends in a different way, offering us four contrasting views of the resurrected Jesus and his conversations with the disciples who would remain behind as he returns to the Father. In this lectionary year we hear Matthew’s narrative. According to this account, when the women saw Jesus at the tomb, he directed them to tell the remaining eleven disciples to go on to Galilee, where he would meet them. Now they are together again, reunited on a Galilean mountain. Some of them worship him, but others remain doubtful. Then Jesus issues what later Christianity would call The Great Commission, commanding them to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Pentecost A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for May 28, 2023 (Pentecost A)

First Reading (or alternate Second Reading): Acts 2:1-21

Fifty days after the first Easter and a week or so after the apostles watched in amazement as the resurrected Jesus was taken up into the clouds, they have gathered to celebrate Shavuot, the Jewish spring harvest festival also known as Pentecost.


Pentecost (ca. 1305). Fresco by Giotto di Bondone (c.1267-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy.

Suddenly, as we hear in this first reading from Acts, the Holy Spirit arrives like a violent wind and rests on each of them as a tongue of fire! All at once, Jesus’s promise at the Ascension is fulfilled: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.” The apostles start shouting the Good News in many languages, prompting a startled crowd to wonder if they are drunk. Not so, says Peter. Quoting the Prophet Joel, he assures the crowd that the Spirit will be poured out for all.

First Reading (alternate): Numbers 11:24-30

Seven weeks after Easter we celebrate Pentecost, the third major church holiday of the year. On Christmas we remembered the birth of Jesus. On Easter we recalled Jesus’ death and resurrection. Pentecost completes the circle with God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, inspiring us to take the Gospel out to the world in Jesus’s name. Today’s first reading tells of God’s spirit empowering Moses and his followers. The spirit came to Eldad and Medad, two of Moses’s elders who weren’t there. That didn’t seem fair to Moses’ assistant, Joshua, but Moses reassured him: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

Psalm: Psalm 104:25-35

This psalm of praise exults in all the works of God’s creation, including the Psalmist’s recognition that God made some creations, like Leviathan, the giant whale, just for fun: “for the sport of it.” Perhaps the message for Pentecost in this passage from Psalm 104, though, comes in these prophetic words in Verse 31: “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.” Since the first words of Scripture when God’s spirit breath blew over the face of the waters like a mighty wind and all creation came to be, God’s mighty work of creative world-building continues all around us.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Through the Spirit we all are all as one in baptism, Paul tells the Christian community of Corinth in this much loved passage. Nationality, economic status, gender, enslaved or free: None of these things matter, Paul says. Just as the body is made up of different parts that serve different functions, we each bring our individual gifts as we work together, guided by the Spirit, for the common good. Through it all, Paul assures us, we are all moved by the Spirit as members of the body of Christ.

Gospel: John 20:19-23

If this Gospel passage seems familiar, there’s a good reason: We hear it twice in Eastertide, on the first Sunday after Easter and again on Pentecost Sunday. We return to the locked room where the disciples are hiding in fear on the first Easter. The grieving group was startled when Mary Magdalene ran back to tell them that she met a man in white at the empty tomb. She told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Nevertheless, they don’t know what to believe. And then Jesus suddenly appears among them, mysteriously entering the locked room. In John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit comes to the apostles not at Pentecost but on the first Easter: Jesus shows them his wounds, wishes them peace, and then breathes on them, empowering them with the Holy Spirit and sending them out into the world.

Gospel (alternate): John 7:37-39

Pentecost is one of the feast days designated as especially appropriate for baptism. Indeed, its alternative name, “Whitsunday,” or “White Sunday,” alludes to the white garments worn by those being baptized. As we gather in Christian community and welcome new members into Christ’s Body in the church, we remember that through baptism we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Through the living water of baptism our hearts join in pouring out the good news of the Gospel to all the world’s nations.

Easter 7A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for May 21, 2023 (Easter 7A)

First Reading: Acts 1:6-14

The fifty days of Eastertide are nearing their end: Pentecost Sunday is next week. In the Sunday readings since Easter we have seen the empty tomb and heard of mysterious appearances of the risen Christ, then listened as Jesus tells the apostles of God’s love and our salvation.

The Ascension

The Ascension (1303), a portion of the Cycle of the Life of the Christ fresco by Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. (Click image to enlarge)

Now we arrive at the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as told in the Acts of the Apostles. In this first reading we hear Jesus tell the apostles that the Holy Spirit is coming to send them out to the world with the Gospel. We will hear this promise fulfilled in wind and fire next Sunday.

Psalm: Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

Hearing the first few verses of Psalm 68, many modern Christians would be troubled by the angry images of enemies fleeing in fear and perishing in fire and smoke at the hands of an angry God. But then the Psalm abruptly changes in tone, becoming a gentler hymn of praise and thanksgiving. Those who live righteously and praise our God will receive favor and blessing, the Psalmist sings, just as did God’s people traveling through the desert to the Promised Land.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

The Christian community in Asia Minor (now Turkey) was suffering under a “fiery ordeal” of persecution for their faith when they received this letter in Peter’s name. The writer cannot make their suffering cease, but reminds them that in this suffering they share not only the suffering of their Christian brothers and sisters but even of Christ himself. Stay the course and resist evil, the letter goes on, and know that God is with us and will provide support and strength.

Gospel: John 17:1-11

John’s account of Jesus’ farewell conversation at the Last Supper now reaches its conclusion. In the preceding verses Jesus had promised the disciples, “Ask and you will receive.” Then he told them that he must soon leave this world and return to the father. Now in these final verses Jesus turns from his friends at the table and addresses God directly in prayer: He declares that the hour of his death has come. He prays for the disciples, praising them for their faith and trust, and asking God to protect them, to keep them united with each other and with God, and to give them the eternal life that comes through relationship with God in Jesus’ name.

Easter 6A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for May 14, 2023 (Easter 6A)

First Reading: Acts 17:22-31

Here is the reassuring message of Sunday’s readings: The God who made us all is with us always, watches over us and hears our prayers.

Paul preaching at the Areopagus in Athens

Paul preaching at the Areopagus in Athens (1877), wall painting by Anton Dietrich (1833-1904), in the auditorium of the Christian-Weise-Gymnasium in Zittau, Saxony, Germany. (Click image to enlarge)

Even after the resurrected Jesus has gone back to the Creator, God remains in the world through the Holy Spirit. As today’s Collect sums up, God’s promises exceed all that we can desire. Our first reading from Acts tells us about Paul in Athens. He tells a crowd of skeptical Greeks that their altar to an unknown God actually celebrates our God, who made the world and is the One in whom we live and move and have our being.

Psalm: Psalm 66:7-18

Sometimes when bad things happen, it may feel as if even God’s presence has failed to protect us. This portion of Psalm 66 at first seems to suggest that God tests us with heavy burdens, standing aside when enemies ride over us and we must go through fire and water. This is a theological idea that we would rather not hear. But then the verses turn back to hope and faith: God hears our prayers and does not reject them. God keeps watch over all the people and, at the last, brings us out to a place of refreshment, a spacious place of relief.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:13-22

This passage from the first letter written in the name of Peter offers fascinating glimpses of the early church working out its theology at a time when many Christians faced persecution. Echoing the hope of Psalm 66, these verses assure us that we earn blessing when we suffer for doing the right thing: Just as Noah and his family endured the flood so that humanity could survive, our baptism – which Noah’s flood prefigured with salvation through water – now saves us.

Gospel: John 14:15-21

Jesus’s Farewell Discourse continues. In this week’s passage Jesus continues to assure the apostles that, while he is leaving soon to return to the Creator, he will not leave them orphaned. Even if the world no longer sees Jesus, the apostles will see him. Jesus promises that God will send an Advocate – the Holy Spirit – to remain with them forever. And, in memorable words that remain a favorite quote from John’s Gospel, Jesus concludes this passage: “If you love me, keep my commandments … They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Easter 5A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for May 7, 2023 (Easter 5A)

First Reading: Acts 7:55-60

The resurrected Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life, we hear in John’s Gospel on Sunday. No one comes to the Father except through him.

The Stoning of St Stephen

The Stoning of St Stephen (1520), tempera painting on canvas by Vittore Carpaccio (c.1460-c.1525). Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany. (Click image to enlarge)

These deeply held ideas make it all too easy for Christians to imagine that we are the chosen ones, who alone reap the benefits of salvation. Whenever Scripture makes us feel this way, it’s time to dig into the details for a clearer understanding. In Sunday’s first reading we hear of the death of Stephen, traditionally the first martyr of the church. Stephen, one of the first Christian deacons, argued with fellow worshipers in the synagogue. They regarded his talk of Jesus as the Messiah foretold by the prophets as blasphemy. When Stephen declared his fellow Jews “betrayers and murderers” for their role in Jesus’s crucifixion and death, their anger overcame them and they stoned him to death. Stephen’s last words echo the hopeful cry of Psalm 31 that Jesus repeated on the Cross: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Psalm: Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

“Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Think about this: Both Jesus, dying on the cross, and Stephen, dying under the pounding weight of stones thrown by his community, uttered this same verse from Psalm 31. Even in the painful moment of death by violence, they confessed their faith. The Psalmist, too, seeking refuge and rescue, trusts in God’s fortress-like protection and steadfast love. He asks God for safety from enemies and persecutors; he begs God to listen, to be his stronghold, his rock and castle. He asks God to listen and to save him.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:2-10

Writing for the persecuted church in Asia Minor a few generations after the crucifixion, the writer of the first letter of Peter turns to the Psalms and the prophets to find ideas similar to those in Sunday’s Gospel reading from John. These verses recall the words that the Prophet Isaiah had used to promise that the Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt on a mighty cornerstone, a living stone that the builders had at first rejected. He calls on Christians not to stumble and fall on this stone as Isaiah’s people had done, but to grow into salvation like infants nourished on pure, spiritual milk, to proclaim the mighty acts of Jesus, who called us out of darkness into his light.

Gospel: John 14:1-14

For the last three weeks of Eastertide we will hear excerpts from John’s long account of Jesus’ last talk with the disciples before he is betrayed, arrested and crucified. In Sunday’s passage, Jesus tells them that he is going to go ahead to prepare a place for them. He tries to reassure them, telling them not to let their hearts be troubled; but they worry all the same, fearful because he is leaving and confused about what he means. Thomas asks how they will know the way, and Jesus responds with these familiar words: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is Jesus’s comforting word to his fearful disciples. Jesus himself is all they need; there is no need to be afraid. To know Jesus is to know God, right now and right here as we seek God’s kingdom on earth.

Easter 4A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for April 30, 2023 (Easter 4A)

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47

Every year, the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season comforts us with the image of God as our Good Shepherd, gathering up all humanity in protective divine love.

El Buen Pastor, The Young Christ as the Good Shepherd

El Buen Pastor, The Young Christ as the Good Shepherd (1660-1665), oil painting on canvas by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Click image to enlarge)

That metaphor is implicit without being named in Sunday’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the early church as told by the Evangelist we know as Luke. We hear of the evolution of the young church as a caring flock, inspired by the Holy Spirit to become a loving, sharing community, taking care of each other as they pool their resources while sharing the good news of the Gospel with the world.

Psalm: Psalm 23

Our Good Shepherd is always with us, comforting us and protecting us not only in the green pastures and still waters of good times, but also when we are fearful and afraid, walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Did you notice that we sang this Psalm just a few weeks ago, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent? Our Lectionary readings return to it often: Five times in every three years we hear its assurance that God’s goodness and mercy are always with us. When you’re feeling lonely and afraid, try sitting quietly with these verses. Breathe deeply and feel the Shepherd’s comforting presence.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:19-25

The Lectionary spares us a disturbing surprise by passing over the verses that precede this reading, but in these times we might do well to face that reality: The writer advises readers to honor the Roman emperor; then issues a startling directive to those who are slaves: “Accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” The passage we read today goes on to evoke Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, reminding the early Christians suffering persecution that Jesus suffered and died unfairly, having done no wrong. Like lost sheep, we go astray and suffer, the writer says; but we know joy when we return to Christ, our shepherd and guardian.

Gospel: John 10:1-10

John the Evangelist expands on the shepherd image here as Jesus continues his argument with a group of Pharisees. Jesus calls himself the gatekeeper for the sheepfold, the protective guardian whose familiar voice reassures the sheep. Jesus is further portrayed as the knowing sheepfold gate that opens to allow those protected to enter, while closing to keep out those who would steal, kill and destroy his beloved sheep. Then, in the following verse that we do not read this Sunday, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Easter 3A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for April 23, 2023 (Easter 3A)

First Reading: Acts 2:14a,36-41

“O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.” These words in Sunday’s Collect highlight ideas of resurrection and redemption that carry through our Lectionary readings for the day.

Christ on the Road to Emmaus

Christ on the Road to Emmaus (c.1725-1730), American 18th Century oil painting on canvas by an anonymous artist. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Click image to enlarge)

Let’s approach the first reading from Acts with careful attention, though. Peter’s words as told by Luke stem from a time of tension between post-Temple Judaism and early Christians who were hurt and angry over being expelled from the synagogues for their belief in Jesus as Messiah. But hearing Peter blame “the entire house of Israel” for Jesus’ crucifixion could lead Christians down the hate-filled path of anti-Judaism. It’s better to hear this reading as God’s gracious promise that the gift of the Holy Spirit is open to everyone.

Psalm: Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

Sunday’s Psalm is heard as a hymn of gratitude for recovery. It vividly describes the anguish of illness and the fear of death. But then through prayer the Psalmist’s thoughts quickly turn from grief and sorrow to exultation and thanksgiving, reflecting the transforming joy that recovery brings. Listen closely and you’ll hear an undercurrent of resurrection as the Psalm tells us of escaping the cords of death and the grip of the grave to win the joy of new life.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:17-23

Our second readings in Eastertide feature passages from this letter written in Peter’s name. This week’s excerpt gives us some insight into the efforts of the early church to discern the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection in our lives, working in these verses on its significance as ransom for our sins. This theological quest has continued from the early church through the Middle Ages and even to our times. One point remains clear throughout: Through Christ we trust in God; through Christ we love one another, and through Christ we gain life in the enduring word of God.

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus who we meet in Luke’s narrative this week seem uncertain and worried, much like the apostles fearfully hiding in a locked room who we heard about in John’s Gospel last Sunday. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” the two regretfully told the stranger on the road to Emmaus. They don’t seem to have been convinced by the women’s report about Jesus’s rising, either. But then they stopped to eat, and the mysterious traveler revealed himself as Jesus when he broke the bread. We remember this every Sunday in the Eucharist when the celebrant holds up and breaks the bread with an audible snap as we conclude the Eucharistic Prayer.

Easter 2A

\Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for April 16, 2023 (Easter 2A)

First Reading: Acts 2:14a,22-32

The Great Fifty Days of Eastertide have now begun, and our readings for the next six Sundays will direct our thoughts toward the meaning of resurrection.

The incredulity of St. Thomas

The incredulity of St. Thomas (c.1622), oil painting by Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588–1629). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.(Click image to enlarge)

We’ll hear of the apostles in the early church following Jesus’ way; mysterious appearances of the resurrected Christ, and Jesus’ own words about God’s promise of eternal life. Our first readings through the period will draw from the Acts of the Apostles. That begins on Sunday as we hear Peter on the day of the first Pentecost, addressing an amazed crowd. In a fluent sermon Peter declares Jesus the resurrected Messiah promised by the prophets. Then he baptizes 3,000 new Christians made believers by the amazing events of the day.

Psalm: Psalm 16

In his talk to the people of Jerusalem in the first reading from Acts, Peter quoted verses 8 through 11 of Psalm 16. Now we chant the full Psalm, and it conveys the same broad promise in slightly different words that may be summarized as: God teaches us, God watches over us; God protects us, and God gives us joy forever.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:3-9

The two short epistles of Peter offer us fascinating glimpses into the developing ideas of Christ, resurrection and hope for salvation in the early church. They were probably written in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) around the end of the first century. Perhaps writing to reassure a persecuted community suffering “various trials,” the author reminds them that through Christ’s resurrection and life, God offers us the joy of a lasting inheritance and salvation earned through our faith.

Gospel: John 20:19-31

What do the disciples do in response to Mary Magdalene’s joyous announcement that Jesus has risen from the dead? They hide in fear in a locked room, doubting the woman’s declaration. Then Jesus suddenly appears among them! He shows his rejoicing friends his wounds, then sends them into the world in peace, with the breath of the Holy Spirit, to declare the Good News. Then comes Thomas, who wanted to see and touch Jesus’s wounds before believing that he had truly risen. Yes, the wounds are real. This is no ghostly spirit! “Have you believed because you have seen me,” John tells us that Jesus asks. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

A Kaddish for Jesus: Holy Week repentance and regret for anti-Judaism

I offer this 2013 sermon every year during Holy Week as my annual reminder that the Gospels we read during Holy Week reflect a vicious anti-Judaism that has contributed to misunderstanding and even hate by many Christians over the centuries. Let’s commit to hold these thoughts in context, regret and repent our historic institutional anti-Judaism as we gather for Holy Week services.

A Kaddish for Jesus

Maundy Thursday, March 28, 2013
A Kaddish for Jesus
Robin Garr
Sermon at St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Louisville, Kentucky

יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא

Yitgaddal v’yitqaddash sh’meh rabba …  
“Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name …  ”

Christ Before Pilate Again

Christ Before Pilate Again (1308-1311), tempera painting on wood by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319). Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena, Italy.

So begins Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer in which family members or friends honor the memory of a loved one who has died.

We gather this evening in memory of Jesus’s last supper with his friends, when he showed them the dignity of service and the meaning of humility by lovingly washing their feet.

Tomorrow, Good Friday, we’ll remember Jesus’s passion and death on the cross.  Tonight,  Jesus and his friends are sharing a Passover dinner. Within 24 hours, Jesus’s friends would have been sitting together, mourning his death with an ancient version of something like the Kaddish.

After all, Jesus and all his apostles were Jewish. They studied the Torah and they worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher; many saw him as a prophet.

As we enter the three holy days of Jesus’s passion and death leading to the Easter joy of Christ’s resurrection, I’d like us to take a few minutes to remember  – and honor – the Jewish tradition that Jesus believed and that Rabbi Jesus taught.

Now, you might be thinking, “Why bring this up?”  Certainly it’s no secret that Jesus was Jewish and that Christianity is rooted in Judaism, sharing the same First Testament. But why go into all that now, during the holiest days on the Christian calendar?

I would suggest that there is no better time for us to think about our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters than now, when our scripture readings through Lent, Palm Sunday and Good Friday confront us with the harsh words that the leaders of the early church had for the Temple authorities.

Early in the Gospel of Luke, “the Jews” in Jesus’s home town got so angry with his first preaching that they chased him out of the synagogue and tried to throw him off a cliff. Luke goes on to tell how the Jewish scribes and priests were constantly spying on Jesus and trying to trick him into saying things that would get him in trouble.

In tomorrow’s Good Friday services we’ll hear John portraying “The Jews” as a nasty gang, out to get Jesus. They’re dead-set on making sure that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate won’t let Jesus off on a technicality. Earlier in the Gospel, John calls the Jews “children of the devil,” and warns  that the Jewish authorities were constantly hatching plans to kill Jesus.

We  hear “The Jews … The Jews … The Jews” like the beat of an angry drum. But as we listen to John’s Gospel tomorrow, let’s bear in mind that in Jesus’s time there were many Judaisms, not just one.  Much like the church today, there was a huge variety of Jewish practices and scriptural interpretations, and they didn’t all get along.

Jesus very likely squabbled with a group of Temple authorities who saw nothing but a troublesome uproar over  his active public ministry, his healings and his call for “good news for the poor.” In these days, especially at Passover time in Jerusalem, the Roman rulers weren’t shy about cracking down on anything that looked like trouble. This noisy rabbi was getting a lot of attention, and nobody wanted that!

And when Matthew wrote that “the Jews” shouted out to Pilate, “His blood be on us and our children,” he set down a vicious charge that would be hurled back at Judaism for 2,000 years. Placing the blame for Jesus’s death on “the Jews” set a flame that would ignite a shameful history of pogroms and persecutions and, eventually, the Holocaust.

In this post-Holocaust world, all people of good spirit look back and say, “never again.”  To this end, let’s not just shrug off the anti-Jewish verses that still reside in our scriptural tradition.

It’s important to recognize that the stories about Jesus – the Gospels – were not written down until some 40 to 70 years after the crucifixion. Not many first-hand witnesses were still alive, and bad attitudes and prejudices had already built walls between Christians and Jews.

Forty years after the crucifixion, the Romans had destroyed the Temple, and most of Jerusalem with it. The Christian faith had reached out to embrace Gentile converts and was spreading across the Mediterranean and beyond, but its leaders still thought of the church as “Christian Jews.”

Judaism, meanwhile, focusing on the synagogue as center of community in a world without a Temple, now viewed the Christians as more than heretics.  Christian Jews were thrown out of the synagogues and told to stay out. Everyone involved was human and flawed. Anger and tempers flared. It was in this fiery setting that the Gospel stories were written and the idea of “the Jews” as unrepentant killers of Jesus set in stone.

But as Marcus Borg points out in his recent book, Evolution of the Word, the Gospels don’t indict  all Jews, only the individuals responsible for Jesus’s rejection – and, years later, the Christian community’s rejection from the synagogues. “To fail to recognize the historical circumstances and the limited intention of these passages,” Borg says, “is to perpetuate the long history of Christian anti-Semitism.”1

“His blood be on us and on our children”?  “The scribes and chief priests …       watched him and sent spies”? “The Jews, The Jews, The Jews”? When we hear these words during Holy Week, the holiest week of the year, let’s remember that it would not be inappropriate for us to pray Kaddish for Jesus:

“Yitgaddal v’yitqaddash sh’meh rabba … Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world, which God has created according to God’s will. May God establish God’s kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.”

Think carefully about those words. Hear what they say. And now think about this: That first verse of Kaddish sounds a lot like the words that Jesus taught us when we asked him how to pray:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come. Your will be done,  on earth as it is in heaven.”

Speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

1Borg, Marcus J. (2012-08-28). Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written]. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Easter Sunday A – Principal Service

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for April 9, 2023 (Easter Sunday A – Principal Service)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:1-6

It is Easter Day! Faith in Jesus’s resurrection on Sunday, the third day after his crucifixion, is at the very heart of Christian belief.

Christ and St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb

Christ and St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb (1638), oil painting on panel by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669). Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace, London. (Click image to enlarge)

We shout “alleluia” – literally “praise God” – on Easter Sunday as we celebrate the resurrection and its promise of victory over death. All of the Easter Sunday readings speak of renewed life and joy. In this first reading, the Prophet Jeremiah celebrates the people’s return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. The prophet imagines a joyful scene of dance and music, and looks forward to re-planting the land in new vineyards that will bear delicious fruit.

First Reading or alternate Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43

Happy Easter! Alleluia! We move forward with joy into the 50 days of Eastertide, a liturgical season that continues through Pentecost Sunday. Throughout the Easter season, our first readings will be taken from The Acts of the Apostles, the apostle Luke’s stories of the early church and how it grew. In this passage, which may be used alternatively as either the first or second reading for Easter, we see Peter touched by the Holy Spirit. He addresses an amazed crowd with a fluent sermon declaring the resurrected Christ as Messiah, fulfilling the prophecy attributed to King David in Psalm 16, and assuring us of our hope for eternal life through Jesus.

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

If this Psalm portion sounds familiar, it should: It shares more than half of its verses with the Psalm we read last week for Palm Sunday. A celebration of the first Passover as the people fled Egypt ahead of Pharaoh’s wrath, it sings of joy and gratitude. Like the ancient Israelites, we are overjoyed at our salvation; we are delighted at this victory over death; and we are grateful for God’s goodness and mercy. God has heard our prayers and responded, laying a new cornerstone for a just world. This is the day that the Lord has made: Let us rejoice and be glad!

Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-4

Even in difficult times, Christ is with us, this short letter assures the persecuted Christians of Colossae in Asia Minor, the land now known as Turkey. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, Christians are connected in baptism and raised through life in Christ, the author of this letter assures the people. The following verses urge the people to endure their difficulties with patience and the strength that comes from God’s glorious power expressed through Jesus – not in a long distant second coming but here and now.

Gospel: John 20:1-18

As important as the story of the empty tomb and the resurrection are to our Christian faith, each of the four Gospels nevertheless tells it in slightly different ways, much as eyewitnesses to any amazing event may remember different highlights. But one point is consistent in all four Gospels: Mary Magdalene was there. In this version from John, one of the two Gospels that may be read on this Easter Day, Mary is portrayed in beautifully tender verses as the only one who stayed at the empty tomb after everyone else left. There, to her joy and delight, she meets Jesus.

Alternate Gospel: Matthew 28:1-10

Just as multiple witnesses to any remarkable event often recall the details in conflicting stories, each of the four evangelists brings different details to their account of Jesus’s friends finding the empty tomb. In Matthew’s version, two women – Mary Magdalene and Mary – go to t the tomb alone. They find it empty, meet an angel in white and then encounter the risen Christ, who sends them to tell the other disciples the good news. The other synoptic Gospels, Mark and Luke, show them frightened, uncertain, running away in fear or running back to get the men. Only in Matthew’s Gospel do the women do it all, in fear and great joy.