Last year during the final week of Lent, I visited a certain large church to present Christ in the Passover. It was their custom during this season to read a relatively long section of the Passion narrative before the sermon, and I sat alone on the platform as the pastor read from the Gospel of Matthew. Listening to him read about the events that led to the Messiah’s crucifixion, I began to feel very uncomfortable. The joyful spirit I usually have before I speak evaporated, and in fact, I felt frightened.
Ill had been reading that gospel narrative alone in my room, I would not have felt fear. It probably would have moved me to tears of sorrow and gratitude for Christ’s death for me as I realized the immense injustice of his rejection, humiliation and suffering. But somehow, hearing that passage read in public to a congregation of Gentiles at Easter time stirred a deep unease in me that bordered on terror. My mind knew that the congregation was friendly. They had extended a loving invitation for me to speak, and I, in turn, should have been feeling only my usual sense of love toward those to whom I minister in churches. Yet my heart was reminding me of other times and other places.
My Jewish people have experienced so much suffering at Easter time—pain induced by persecutions from those who thought they were doing God a favor by punishing” the descendants of some who had failed to recognize the Messiah. At one time in Eastern Europe it was illegal for Jews to be seen in public on Easter because the authorities could not keep the masses in control. Easter was a time for pogroms, the senseless persecution and slaughter of thousands of innocent people “in the name of Jesus.” My grandfather’s family and friends were among those victims. The accusation of “Christ killer” has brought pain to me as it has to many Jewish generations before me. Of course the answer to such an accusation is that the entire human race is guilty of Christ’s death. It was our sins that led him to Calvary, and our need for atonement that kept him on the cross, but that is another topic. The hurt due to misunderstanding of that fact remains, and that was the uneasiness that stirred in me as I sat on the platform of the church that day.
You see, we Jews are a people who carry with us the experiences of our past generations. This is true whether they are good experiences like the exodus from Egypt or the revelation at Sinai, or bad experiences like the expulsion from Spain and the pogroms of Poland. And sometimes the pain over the charge of Jewish guilt for Christ’s death still is stronger than my feelings of warmth over my redemption. This is such a problem that when my Bible school professor, who loved the Jews, spoke of the judgment he felt had come upon the Jews for the death of Christ, I was compelled to argue with him—not because I knew that he was theologically wrong, but because I was irrationally “fighting for my life.”
I have come to regard the Bible as a letter to mankind, and I feel comfortable with Matthew, a Jew, delivering God’s message of rebuke to my Jewish people. Nevertheless, it makes me uncomfortable when I feel that other people are “reading our mail” as it were: taking messages that God gave to the Jewish people—personal messages—and flaunting them.
I’m sharing these feelings at Easter time not because I want you to agree with them, but because I want you to understand my people. If I, a young Jew born in America where there is relatively little anti-Semitism, who have been a Christian for four years, can still feel that way, how much greater are the fears and discomforts of my father, my grandfather and your Jewish friends over this matter? How lovingly and prayerfully we must tread! We must allow the Bible to speak to them and not exhort or rebuke too much, knowing the pain with which they must deal.
Of course as I stood up to speak that day in the church, the love and peace of God came flooding back into my consciousness. I thought of my message, Christ in the Passover, and I was grateful for the opportunity to tell why Christ allowed himself to be crucified; that he had acted in love and had taught his followers love; and that whoever had the mind of Christ by faith in him would necessarily love the Jewish people from whom he came. The way of peace is the way of the cross, and the message of the cross is reconciliation.
I ask you to pray for the mending of the hearts of my unbelieving Jewish people, and even for the mending of those who already are believers. And please pray also for our staff, who daily encounter reactionary pain in the form of anger from Jewish unbelievers who think that we are preaching the “God of the Gentiles” in whose name many were persecuted.