In January of 2021, I participated in a diocesan working group on antiracism. One of the goals I was able to accomplish was to only cite theologians, scholars, and writers of colour in my sermons for one whole year. It was a great exercise that introduced me to many new voices and the chance to share their work more broadly.
This year, I noticed that the eve of the Jewish festival of Passover will fall on Good Friday. This got me to thinking about the history of Christian violence toward Jewish people on Good Friday. Pogroms and mob violence were often perpetrated against Jewish people during Holy Week due to the false belief that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. While state and church-sanctioned acts of hate like these are not as widespread today, informal ones do still occur, as we come up on the third anniversary of the Poway Synagogue shooting in April and the fourth anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in October.
For a long time, I avoided preaching on the Hebrew Bible, what we sometimes call the Old Testament, altogether. A lot of rabbis I followed on social media shared how hurtful Christians could be in their ignorance of the Jewish faith and its history, and I didn’t want to contribute to that hurt. But I’ve since had many conversations with Christians who still split God into the God of the Old Testament, a mean and nasty abuser, and the God of the New Testament, a good and kind daddy. This is a dangerous undertaking that not only robs Jesus of his Jewishness, but drives a wedge between us and the Jewish faith.
So this year I’m going to preach more on the Hebrew Bible, with help from a Jewish study Bible. And what better way to start than today’s story from the book of Exodus.
Exodus is a foundational text for Jews and Christians. The Israelites are liberated from slavery and led through the wilderness into the Promised Land by God, the breaker of chains. After they cross the Red Sea, the Israelites are brought to Mount Sinai, where Moses receives the tablets of the Torah, the covenant between God and the people – not a burden but a sign of freedom, sharing the terms of right relationship with the divine freely and transparently.
Unfortunately, of course, while Moses is up on the mountain, the people become impatient and create the golden calf, which breaks one of the first rules of the covenant and angers God. After Moses runs interference for the people, God reiterates the terms, this time even more heavily underlining the whole ‘no cast idols’ thing. The false gold of their shattered calf is subsumed by the true gold of Moses’s shining face.
What a beautiful act of openness for Moses to leave his face uncovered while sharing the covenant with the people, offering them a direct line to God, before veiling it again, in a prefiguration of the veil that separates the Holy of Holies from worshipers in Solomon’s future temple.
The Israelites finally start to truly listen, and immediately after this story, they begin to construct the tabernacle for the tablets of the covenant according to God’s instructions.
Reading that really sparked me, because it gives a whole new context for Peter’s comment about dwellings on the mountain! It wasn’t about capturing a sacred moment in time, or making an idol of Jesus. It was fully in keeping with Peter’s ancestral faith! Moses’s shining face prefigures the tabernacle. It stands to reason that Jesus’s shining…everything would also necessitate the building of a tabernacle!
But then Luke adds this cryptic line: Peter makes the suggestion “not knowing what he said.”
So does Peter get it, or not?
Well, he does, but he doesn’t. That's kinda Peter's thing.
Again, the Israelites respond to the shining face of Moses by following to the letter God’s instructions for building a tabernacle. They do get it. The God that liberated them from Egypt is the one to whom they now direct their devotion. Having formed bonds through the shared pain of slavery and the amazement of the exodus, they are all in, even though they know it won’t all be sunshine and rainbows.
As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes,
“What is being asked of the Israelites is huge, profound. Their lives will change drastically after they receive Torah. They’ll have to face all of the ways in which responsibility—covenant—can be uncomfortable, can push us, challenge us, force us to be accountable to the divine, to others, and to the best version of ourselves.”
Moses and Elijah, two prophets who both met God on a mountain and were acquainted with holy fire, were also acquainted with standing up to Empire. Moses tangled with Pharaoh; Elijah tangled with Ahab and Jezebel. Both risked death while doing so, and yet it was only through those holy battles that God’s glory was revealed: in the plagues of Egypt and in the heavenly fire at Carmel.
So shall it be with Jesus, but while Moses and Elijah managed to avoid death at the hands of the Empire, Jesus walks right into it. And he warns Peter that that’s what he’s going to do.
This is not because he was braver than them. Moses and Elijah’s work was to prove God’s power over earthly empire by showing that when God goes up against Empire, Empire loses. This truth is foundational to the Jewish faith.Jesus’s work was to prove God’s power over earthly empire by showing that even when Empire wins, it doesn’t win. The worst thing Empire can do is kill someone – and in response to that God takes out Their red pen and writes, “Citation needed.”
This is our foundational truth as Christians.
And yet we, like Peter, often totally misunderstand it.
Now Peter has the excuse of being a worker in occupied territory who grew up on triumphalist stories of an avenging Messiah while walking under the shadow of thousands of crucified rebels on the side of the road. Not all of us have the full breadth of the Empire’s oppressive power in our faces like that on a daily basis – although I’ve met some who have, in their work and lives. Jesus had to show Peter that resistance to evil is worth more than life itself, a truth that grows quite organically out of his ancestral Jewish faith.So what’s our excuse for misunderstanding?
If the Church really understood and believed this truth, what would we look like as an institution?
Would we collude so rapidly and willingly with Empire – not just once with Constantine, but over and over again with many more, leaving devastation and genocide in our wake? Would we not instead find glory in servanthood to the poor and oppressed?
Would we support corporations that perpetrate environmental destruction, decimate communities, and deny living wages to their workers? Would we not seek to respect, sustain, and renew the life of the earth?
Would we defend and uphold institutions that perpetuate oppressions Jesus himself was subject to, like prisons and policing? Would we not champion other ways of sowing seeds of justice, seeds that bloom flowers of reconciliation rather than weeds of violence?
Would we protect the anonymity, employment, and power of those who abuse and those who enable cultures of abuse within our church while subjecting survivors of that abuse to bullying, gaslighting, and apathy? Would we not model ourselves after Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who would never let his sheep be snatched up by wolves?
If we had never done those things as an institution, what would the world look like today? Would our faces shine like Moses’s? Would we have to say to one another, “Know the Lord,” or would we all know God, from the least of us to the greatest?
Friends, if we all decided today to stop doing or enabling or hiding from those things, what kind of incredible tabernacle could we build?
I’m going to let Rabbi Danya have the last word:
“What God—what ultimate truth—demands is not always easy. In fact, it’s usually not easy. We might not want to have to rise to meet the obligations to live in truth and connection and service. …Saying yes to it might be the only thing that saves us.”