But their minds were hardened

Transfiguration of the Lord
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4.2; Luke 9:28-36
Church of Scotland, Geneva, Auditoire de Calvin, February 27 2022

We are the church

Long, long ago, before the pandemic turned all our lives upside down, if I had asked you where is the church, you’d probably have looked at me a bit strangely and said, “Here. The Auditoire de Calvin. This is our church.”

And if I’d then asked you where do we worship God, you might well have said, “What do you mean, where do we worship God? We worship God here, in the Auditoire.”

But that was before the pandemic turned all our lives upside down.

Last week, I stole away for a couple of nights in nearby France, not far from the Musée du Désert – the museum of the wilderness or wasteland. The Musée is dedicated to the history of French Protestantism, but its name and its focus come from the 17th century when for a time it was illegal to be a Protestant in France.

So the French Protestants took to worshipping God in the open air, with sentries on the hilltops all around.

In much the same period, Irish Catholics were doing more or less the same thing, because in Ireland in those days it was frowned upon to be a Catholic.

These days Catholics and Protestants in most places, and certainly here in Geneva, have learned not to do that, not to be mean to each other.

We’ve also learned that we don’t have to be in church to worship God, because all of us – Catholics and Protestants, men and women, boys and girls –  are the church. We are the church together.

CH4 204: I am the church! You are the church!

But their minds were hardened

Strange things happen on high mountains. On Mount Sinai, Moses has a close encounter with God. He comes away with a shining face and a charter for how the Israelites as God’s people should live. On Mount Horeb, Elijah has a close encounter with God. But God is not in the earthquake, wind and fire. God is in the sound of sheer silence, the still small voice that, if we are Christians, we may interpret as the Holy Spirit. On Mount Tabor, or so Christian tradition has it, Jesus has a close encounter with Moses and Elijah. His face changes and his clothes become dazzling white.

Today is the Sunday of the Transfiguration of the Lord, so I’ll come back to this; but first, if you will allow me, I want to go somewhere else.


Eighty years ago, between 1941 and 1945, a country just to the north of us murdered six million Jews.

Midway through the Holocaust, in October 1943, Heinrich Himmler, speaking to SS officers in Poland, said this:

“Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when there are 500, or 1000. To have seen this through and … to have remained decent has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history that has never been written and is never to be written.”[1]

How could the Holocaust happen?

The best explanation lies in a chain of historical events, a concatenation of causes.[2] Take away any link in the chain, and the Holocaust doesn’t happen.

The last link in the chain is what happened between 1918 and 1933. At Versailles, after the Great War, the victors imposed a punitive peace designed to crush Germany. Then came the Great Crash of 1929, which brought the whole world to its knees. This double whammy turned the Weimar Republic into a failed state and allowed Adolf Hitler to seize power, with all the consequences that followed.

But that’s not where the chain begins.

In 1928, the young Anglican clergyman James Parkes arrived in Geneva to work for the International Student Service. He took up residence in an apartment in our Old City. From there he organized university conferences across the continent. He was distressed to discover in student and academic circles a virulent antisemitism.

How could this be? A first step traced the roots of antisemitism to the ghettoes of Renaissance Europe and to the pogroms at the time of the Medieval crusades. But he became convinced that ultimately the root lay a conflict between church and synagogue that began much earlier, in the first centuries of the Christian church. Modern antisemitism is the bastard child of Christian anti-Judaism.

Parkes published his pioneering study The Conflict between Church and Synagogue in 1934. Everything that’s been written since confirms his argument. The roots of modern antisemitism and the causes of the Holocaust can be traced back to early Christian hostility towards their Jewish neighbours.

But how could this happen? Jesus was Jewish. Peter and the other disciples were Jewish. Paul was a Jew.

But Jesus turned their Jewish world upside down.

Later in his Gospel, Luke tells of Cleopas and his wife on their way home to Emmaus, when they fall in with a stranger. “… beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (Luke 24.27)

In the Acts of the Apostles, his popular sequel, Luke tells of Philip, one of the twelve, who falls in with an Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The eunuch is reading the book of Isaiah. Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He answers, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” So Philip explains it to him. “…starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” (Acts 8.35)

These two stories reflect what, after Easter, the first followers of Jesus themselves did. In the light of their experience of Jesus, they re-read their scriptures. They re-read the old, old story of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the light of Jesus, his life and work, his death and resurrection.

Take the book of Isaiah. Some Christians have read what it says about a suffering servant as so clearly about Jesus that they call it the fifth gospel. Jesus is the suffering servant who dies on a Roman cross to redeem the world. When we read these passages, it’s almost impossible for us not to see Jesus hiding in plain sight.

It comes as a shock to realize that no one had ever noticed a crucified and risen messiah anywhere in the Old Testament until the earliest disciples looked at these texts in the light of what they already believed had happened in Jesus.[3]

When Paul was a Pharisee, he thought that the followers of Jesus were distorting the scriptures and leading people astray. When he himself became a follower of Jesus, he thought that those Jews who didn’t see what he now saw were blind. In our epistle he says, “…whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” (2 Corinthians 3.15-16).

In the letter to the Romans, Paul laments the failure of so many of his fellow Jews to believe the gospel: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. … I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” (Romans 9.2-3)

In chapters 9 to 11 of Romans, the heart of his letter, Paul wrestles with this mystery. Two thousand years later, we can’t simply repeat what he says, but we can see that he writes out of a great empathy for his people.

Fast forward a few generations, however, and the church has become largely a non-Jewish church. For this church, the Christian re-reading of the Old Testament is obviously true, the Jews who reject it are stubborn, and in their stubbornness they are rejected by God. The church inherits the promises of the Old Testament; the Jews fall under its judgment.

The conflict between church and synagogue is ratcheted up a notch when the Roman empire becomes Christian and the church uses the legal powers of the empire against the synagogue; in the Middle Ages it becomes really nasty; modern antisemitism builds on the legacy of Christian prejudices and stereotypes even as it transforms them; and eighty years ago, the Jews of Europe are in the gas chambers.

We have no truck with antisemitism – at least, I hope we don’t. But listening to this story, we must feel a little like King David, when the prophet Nathan looks him in the eye and says, “You are the man.” (2 Samuel 12.7)


Now back to Mount Tabor.

Some stories in the Gospels tell us what Jesus said or did or what was done to him. Others tell us who Jesus is. The story of the Transfiguration is in that second category. Its punchline is the voice in the cloud that says: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

But can we listen to that voice?

In her book Faith and Fratricide, the American Catholic Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that anti-Judaism is “the left hand of Christology”, the flip side of what the church believes about Jesus.

Jesus is God’s Son, the Chosen one, Israel’s Messiah, the Word of God incarnate. The church that witnesses to him is the true Israel, the new people of God. And the synagogue that fails to see this is no longer Israel, no longer God’s people.

“Possibly,” says Ruether, “anti-Judaism is too deeply rooted in the foundations of Christianity to be rooted out entirely without destroying the whole structure.”[4]

It is undeniable that for much of our history anti-Judaism has been the flipside of the church’s Christology. But practice is one thing and principle is another.

I think that unless we say what we traditionally say about Jesus, we cannot root out anti-Judaism from our faith.

One of the best-known lines in John’s Gospel is in chapter 14, where Jesus says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6)

We can say that, it seems to me, only if we accept the high view of Jesus we find in John’s Gospel. If Jesus is not the Word of God made flesh, then we cannot say that no one comes to the Father except through him – not without excluding from salvation most of the human race. If, however, Jesus is on the God side of salvation as well as on the human, anyone who is saved is saved through him.

The first letter of John says: “No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2.23)

But the same letter also says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4.7)

There is a tension, even an apparent contradiction, between these two claims. To resolve it, we need not just a high view of Jesus but also a triune God: not two in one, but three.

We need the Holy Spirit.

It is the Spirit, Paul tells us, that pours the love of God into our hearts (Romans 5.5), and it is love that saves us and enables us to love in turn. The Spirit is like the wind that blows where it chooses (John 3.8) and, in my view, is not to be confined with the walls of the church.

After all these complications and complexities, let me end with the simple words of Jesus, in Luke’s sermon on the plain:

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit … The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil.” (Luke 6.43, 45)

In the end, the question is not whether we are Christian or Jewish or something else, but whether we have been touched by the Spirit and out of a good heart produce good fruit.

We are of course called to witness to Christ and rejoice when people come to him. But our witness is as much in deeds of compassion as in words, and the people we most need to bring to Christ are ourselves.


[1] https://phdn.org/archives/holocaust-history.org/himmler-poznan/speech-text.shtml; https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/nazi-statements
[2] Steven Beller, Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2007)
[3] See Richard B Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016); David M Crump, Like Birds in a Cage (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2021).
[4] Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997), 228.

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