This week’s blog was written on Pentecost Sunday by AE member Hazel Russman. You can also read her story by following this link….
Today is Pentecost, so the Gospel reading in our church was John 20 vv.19-23. I listened to the familiar words “…as His disciples were gathered behind closed doors for fear of the Jews” and, as always, I mentally cried “Ouch!”.
For a Jewish Christian, parts of John’s Gospel are always hard to hear. It is different when I read them for myself because then I can remind myself of the background. John was writing for a Church that was still substantially Jewish; not only was there still a large ethnically Jewish minority, but most of the Gentile members had been converted by Paul or by one of his circle and had been taught to consider themselves as Jews by adoption (see for example Romans 11vv. 16-18).
However many Christians were bitter at the official Jewish leadership because of the recent decision that Christianity was a new religion and that Jews who professed it were apostates who should be expelled from the synagogues. Against this dual background, the use of the phrase “The Jews” in an opprobrious sense to describe the Jewish leaders, as distinct from the Jewish people, who are always show as supporting Jesus, is understandable and probably unlikely to be misunderstood.
But I have the burden of hindsight. I know what all these sneering references to “The Jews” eventually led to when John’s Gospel fell into the hands of a Church that John never envisaged – a 100% Gentile Church that saw itself as a replacement for Israel, rather than an extension of it. Listening to the Gospel being read today, calmly and matter-of-factly, as if fear of the Jews were the most natural thing in the world for Christians to feel, it was almost as if the priest were saying to me, “What are you doing here? You are not one of us. You are the Enemy.”
And that was when these words suddenly sounded in my brain: “In those days the Church shut the doors for fear of the Jews, and now they shut them for fear of the gays”.
The fear and hatred of Jews that distorted the Church’s message for so many centuries was utterly irrational, but that did not prevent it from taking a powerful hold. And John shows us how, right from the very beginning, it inhibited the Church’s calling to spread the Good News. While the disciples were cowering behind closed doors, they were not able to reach anyone outside. Nor did they wish to.
Fortunately, closed doors cannot exclude Jesus. He came in anyway and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them in spite of their fears. And when the meaning of that gift became manifest a few weeks later, the first thing they felt driven to do was to fling the doors open and pour out into the street to tell everyone that Jesus was the Messiah and that He was risen from the dead.
Today, the Church’s mission is hampered just as much by closed doors and by fear. While so many Christian groups are protecting themselves from contamination by gay people, the world looks on and says, “Well, if that’s what Christians are like, I don’t want to be one!”. They react in much the same way when traditionalists show their fear of women (who might be menstruating, God help us!) presiding at the Eucharist or ordaining priests. We are gradually losing our hold on an entire generation of British people because they see us behaving in ways that they consider weird at best and downright immoral at worst.
Those people out there have a pretty shrewd idea of what should be important to Christians. They expect Christians to care about God and about Jesus. They are not particularly surprised that this has sometimes led to quarrels about who Jesus really was, and about the meaning of His death and resurrection. They are surprised and contemptuous when they see us quarrelling about women bishops and gay priests. They expect Christians to love each other and to show love for the poor and the excluded. They don’t expect us to effectively exclude each other from the Church for having different opinions on subjects so trivial in Jesus’s own eyes that He never saw fit to mention them.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev 2 v.7): it’s time to open the doors!