Over the last few weeks I have been reading a lot about the resurgence of anti-Semitism. An anonymous caller to a German rabbi threatened to kill 30 Jews in the city of Frankfurt, and swastikas were painted on Jewish shops in Italy. America is not immune. Last week swastikas and the word “Hamas” were spray-painted on a Florida synagogue.
In the second reading today, Paul writes, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For 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. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah.” When Paul says, “my own people,” he is talking about the Jewish people.
“…to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah.” That’s quite a legacy.
One of my favorite trick questions for my New Testament students was this: “Was Paul a Christian?” Think about it. Of course, Paul was a follower of Jesus, but he never says, “I am a Christian” or refers to himself as a Christian. That’s because the word “Christian” was invented during Paul’s lifetime.
Paul lived in that period between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the emergence of Christianity as a religion distinct and different from the Jewish faith. Remember that wherever Paul traveled – Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, and so on – he went first to the synagogues, because Paul understood the gospel to be good news for Jews first and foremost. Only after he got kicked out of the synagogues (and Paul always got kicked out of the synagogues) did he proclaim the gospel to non-Jews.
Paul had a profound understanding of himself as a Jew. If we jump two chapters ahead in his letter to the Romans, we find Paul saying this: “I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” (Rom. 11.1b) More than likely all the writers of the New Testament were Jews. If you read through the book of Acts, you will find that the earliest Christians continued to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem and in synagogues. The New Testament also shows us that Jesus was an observant Jew. According to the gospels, it was Jesus’ custom to go to the synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath. (Luke 4.16) Matthew tells us that Jesus miraculously produced a shekel to pay the temple tax. (Matthew 17.27) And Luke also says that Jesus began his public ministry by reading and commenting on the book of the Prophet Isaiah when he was called to the bema or pulpit of the synagogue in Nazareth. (Luke 4.16)
But from the very beginning the followers of Jesus fit uneasily in congregations with their fellow Jews and a separation was inevitable. Jesus’ followers believed that the resurrection of the just (which all Jews believed would take place at the end of days when God judged the world) had begun with the resurrection of Jesus; the followers of Jesus believed that he was the instrument through whom God would judge the world; Jesus’ followers believed that the God revealed to Israel through Torah had revealed himself more fully in Jesus; gradually, this belief in God’s revelation in and through Jesus evolved into the doctrine of the Incarnation, the conviction that God was not just revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus but that Israel’s God was fully present in Jesus, that to see, hear and touch Jesus was to see, hear, and touch the God of Sinai. And above all, the followers of Jesus were convinced that the Messiah predicted by the prophets had come to his own and had been rejected.
The synagogues in which Jesus’ followers worshiped were uneasy with the presence of Jesus’ followers. To distinguish Jesus’ followers from other Jews, the synagogue liturgy was modified to include prayers which Jesus’ followers could not in good conscience say. So by the end of the first century, the church and synagogue went their separate ways.
By and large, Episcopalians and Jews have been good neighbors to each other. Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson met in our building for a time.
One of my favorite examples of Jewish-Episcopalian cooperation is in the small town of Demopolis, Alabama. Temple B’nai Jeshurun is just across the street from Trinity Episcopal Church, and for years the church and synagogue had a happy relationship, often having joint social functions and working together on projects for the community. Then the day came where there were too few Jews to support the synagogue, and the president of the congregation took the temple’s keys to the rector of Trinity. Handing the keys to the priest, the president of Temple B’nai Jeshurun asked that the people of the Episcopal Church maintain the synagogue until there was once again a Jewish presence in Demopolis. Today the sign in front of the synagogue reads, “Temple B’nai Jeshurun – maintained by Trinity Episcopal Church.”
Sadly, though, the story of the Christian church and the Jewish people has often been one of suspicion and even violence.
About three hundred years after the crucifixion and resurrection, Christianity had the good (or perhaps bad) fortune to become the “official” faith of the Roman empire. Suddenly, the followers of One who said his kingdom was not of this world and who forgave those who crucified him had the power to persecute and even put others to death, a power they exercised far too often against Jesus’ own people, the Jews. The church’s liturgy came to include prayers for the conversion of the Jews. One of the holiest days of the church’s year – Good Friday – became a day of persecution and violence against the Jewish people.
The last country in Europe to abolish legal restrictions against Jews was Italy. Prior to that, Roman Jews suffered all kinds of indignities. Roman Jews were required to live in a tiny neighborhood, so close to the Tiber River that it was frequently flooded. One pope even required Jews to wear distinctive yellow hats
Some trace the roots of Christian anti-Semitism to the New Testament itself, and there is some support for this. The oldest gospel, the gospel of Mark, tells us that the “chief priests and scribes” brought Jesus to Pilate to be crucified. (Mark 15.1, 3, and 10) However, John’s gospel (which was written twenty or thirty years later) says that “the Jews” brought Jesus to Pilate. (John 19.12)
I want to be perfectly clear: I believe that God is fully and perfectly revealed in Jesus, that God was and is uniquely present in Jesus of Nazareth. But we can believe in the uniqueness and completeness of the revelation of God in Christ without believing that God no longer reveals Himself to Israel in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.
Christians must never forget their debt to Israel:
· The faith of Israel was the first to join righteousness with piety. Israel’s God demanded not only ritual and sacrifice but also the just and ethical treatment of widows and orphans, the poor and physically afflicted.
· Israel gave the world the Torah with its incomparably lyrical and powerful tales of creation, fall, and flood. These stories continue to inform our relationship with God and with one another.
· Israel gave the world Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets. Their scathing denunciations of irresponsible wealth and callous power still thunder against tyranny and greed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., employed the rhetoric of the prophets to bring down the structures of discrimination.
· Israel gave the world and still gives the world the example of fierce loyalty and faith in the face of unimaginable persecution. Not even the Holocaust could destroy the faith of Sinai.
· And above all, Christians must give thanks to Israel for giving us Jesus Christ, a Jew, nurtured in a Jewish home and synagogue, steeped in the scriptures of Judaism.
But what of the future? Some would have us believe that the faith of Israel will one day wither away or that those who hold the faith of Israel and do not put their faith in Jesus of Nazareth have no place in God’s eternal kingdom or are condemned to punishment in the next life, but that is not my belief.
Today’s second reading is from the 9th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christians in ancient Rome. If we jump two chapters ahead to chapter 11, we hear Paul saying these words: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!... God has not rejected his people…” (Rom. 11.1 and 2)
Two thousand years ago, Jews excluded the followers of Jesus from the synagogue, but from then until now, the church has had the upper hand and has exacted a bitter price from the Jewish people. It may be, however, that we are entering an age in which neither the synagogue nor the church will be in a position to dictate to the other, a secular age in which all faiths have a precarious place in the public square. It may be that we are entering a time in which church and synagogue must make common cause against those who would mock and despise all religion.
The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in our first reading today is a good parable for the relationship between Jews and Christians. Christians and Jews have been wrestling with each other for 2000 years. We have injured each other in this wrestling match. But it is in wrestling with each other that we both learn who we are, find ourselves blessed, and see the face of God.
We do no favor to the synagogue nor to ourselves to trim and modify our belief to avoid offense. We should confess firmly and clearly our faith in the crucified and risen Lord. Israel should just as firmly and clearly confess its Sh’ma: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…” We owe each other the respect and courtesy first to listen attentively and then to disagree politely but firmly. But Christians and Jews are a part of a two thousand year old conversation, often a rancorous argument, but a dialogue nonetheless. I cannot speak for the Jews, but I know that our side of the argument would be profoundly impoverished without the contribution that Israel has made and still makes. We are better Christians for listening to what Israel has said and still says. So I say, Todah rabbah. Thank you very much indeed.