Isaiah 56:1-8 ; Romans 11:1-7, 11-32
I didn’t think it through really carefully, but I guess I’m spending this month drawing on the Old Testament, for a change, and leading our two congregations in reflections on what we can learn about the bigger situation and problems the church faces today, and proposing some positive directions forward. I’m really glad we can come together like this and get out of our particular congregational viewpoint and think bigger, for a month. Next week I want to look at the problem of anti-Judaism, which today is bound up with racism and white supremacy—our headlines remind us of this daily. But then it will be September, and we will each part again until next summer (or Ash Wednesday, when we worship together). And I’m excitedly planning for a September series on growing in our spiritual journey. So it’s going to be all about you, but I’m going to make you work, just so you know.
Well anti-Semitism is important, but today I am glad to talk about Judaism in a positive way that can inspire us and lead us to grow in our faith as Christians. I find Judaism inspiring, even though there are things about it I don’t understand or that puzzle me. I’ve been blessed with some very good friends who have shared their Jewish faith to me, including within my family. My sister Joanne was already interested in Judaism when she met my brother-in-law Marc, who is not only Jewish, but came very close to becoming a great Jewish scholar. I was in graduate school and signed up for a course on Jewish Theology—I took some pride being the only Christian guy in the class, the token goy—and we were reading an important book by the Talmudic scholar David Weiss Halivni. In the acknowledgements, Halivni thanked his graduate assistant, Marc Ashley. My brother in law! I mentioned it to Marc and he said, without any boasting, “Yeah, I pretty much wrote that book for him.” But Marc gave it up to become a lawyer, go figure.
Christianity has a very fraught relationship with Judaism. There’s the hideous history of anti-Judaism and persecution, and the current complicated issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there’s another loss that is more subtle and tragic, resulting from that split that happened when the followers of Jesus parted ways from the people Israel. From that moment, Jews saw themselves as the opposite of Christians, and Christians saw themselves as the opposite of Jews. That happens all the time when there is a messy divorce between whole peoples. Catholics see themselves as the opposite of Protestants, and Protestants, the opposite of Catholics. We mainline Protestants see ourselves as the opposite of evangelicals, and evangelicals, the opposite of us (or they just completely ignore our existence). There’s a tragic loss in all of this, a cutting off of ourselves from the best of what is found in those we have split away from. There is much we can learn from and embrace within evangelical Protestantism, and also within Catholicism. There is much we can learn from and embrace within Judaism. Or do you really think it is a Christian impulse to shun things because “we don’t want to be like those people.” Rather, that is the spirit of polarization that is ripping the fabric of our society today into shreds. This tragic ripping apart and alienation does not happen with compete strangers; it only happens with our close kin. The worst arguments happen within family, right?
Paul is feeling that in our reading today. His lament for his Jewish kin begins in chapter 9, which we heard read two weeks ago: “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— 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, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.” Paul makes it clear that he is earnestly in anguish at the fact that the people Israel have not by and large accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Now, I think Paul is a little too worried about this one. I don’t think God has been ill-served by having a vibrant, new Christian covenant existing side-by-side with a Judaism that continues in its own way to reinterpret the Torah. I think it’s just easier for us modern people to accept that there is more than one way to worship and honor God. I wish Paul were able, with us, to affirm that there is a right and honorable distinctly Jewish way to be faithful to God, and even to ask, “What can we learn from that Jewish faithfulness?”
But let’s notice what Paul does not do. He does not say, because they rejected Jesus, Judaism is over. It is defunct. We Christians have replaced the Jews. That, sadly, became the dominant Christian view for 2000 years, and it is called Supercessionism. To the contrary, Paul says: To [the Jews] belong [not belonged] the adoption, the glory, the worship, the promises.”
Similarly, in our reading from chapter 11, Paul exclaims that God has not rejected God’s people Israel. Now, he has what sound to me like weird ideas about how God has fulfilled the promises to Israel. The strangest is this thing about the Gentiles making Israel jealous. Did you catch that? / I don’t know, Paul. Sounds like something from the annals of Junior High romance. “Did you hear? So Jesus asked Moses out but Moses totally said, No Way, eeww gross!; but when he saw Jesus with that new Greek girl, he got so jealous.”
I think Paul does better when he acknowledges that the whole thing is a “mystery.” Let’s not assume there is some great divine plan going on here that we can easily decipher. Paul notes that a “hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles has come in.” God is Lord of history, and perhaps there is some great plan in all of this. I don’t agree with Paul that the plan was for the Jews to become “enemies of the gospel” for the sake of us Gentiles; just because they don’t follow the gospel doesn’t mean they are enemies of it. But Paul is confident that whatever the plan, salvation is also for the Jews. “As regards election [the Jews] are beloved,…for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” There is no room here for supercessionism, for God rejecting the Jews.
And then Paul’s last word comes out of the wisdom of grace. Whenever we Christians try to make sense of the fact that not all people accept Jesus; there are all these other faiths out there and they look pretty different; and then there are all these Christians with whom we don’t see eye to eye; and there are so many people who no longer have faith and have lost interest in God; and we get all anxious about all these people who aren’t Christians like us. / Relax, catch your breath, and take a cue from Paul. All these differences we worry about aren’t finally that important to God. In the end, we are all still one humanity, living before God by grace. “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” This is a kind of humanism in Paul, a universal embrace of all human beings. But it’s not based on the fact that deep down we all believe the same thing, or we all have good hearts, or we all meet some basic ethical standard, or we all have been endowed by our creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” All of that may be true. But for Paul we are all united in this: all of us fall short, all of us are flawed and imperfect; and yet God loves us even so. It is a refreshingly humble humanism. And it can help us let go of that anxiety, which is probably a little self-righteous, about all those people who aren’t good Christians like us.
But what if we could not only let go of the anxiety Paul harbors over his Jewish kin who have not accepted Jesus, but even see the side-by-side existence of a Jewish and a Christian way of being faithful to God as a blessing and good thing, and a chance for us to learn from one another so that we can really start to enact the coming together of peoples that Israel talks about in our reading today? What can we learn from Judaism?
First, we have to be honest and clear about the real difference between our two faiths. We are not the same. Judaism was and remains a people in covenant with God. By an act of pure grace, God took a human people, defined by language and ancestry, and made them God’s own special people, set apart and distinct. God has a blessing in store for all people through the Jews, but that only comes by the Jews being a distinct people among the many others. Everything about being a people gets sanctified by God’s election of Israel: their ancestry, family life and the quest for descendants, and the details about how they are organized as a society. That is what the Torah or Law is, and it is essential, because the Jews were to follow a shared way of being a people, a common way of life. You can imagine what it might look like if God took America or Latvia and said, you now shall be my nation, and everything about you shall be reshaped to reflect that.
Christianity is different. God did not adopt us as a whole people. According to the gospel, God elects all of humanity in one human being, Jesus the Christ. Through this one mediator, God adopts and unites with the whole human race, whether they know it or not. We Christians do not receive the divine blessing by being born into or joining the Jewish people, and fulfilling its commandments, beginning with circumcision. We receive God’s blessing by being united with Christ, starting with baptism, which as Paul puts it, is a dying to myself and a rising into Christ. Only by being individually united with Christ are we united with each other. But even as we are united with each other through Christ, we are at the same time united with all of humanity, for Christ is for all. For that reason, Christians will never be one, particular people in the ordinary human way. And we will always sit uncomfortably astride all the fences that cut across the human family: race, national identity, gender, languages, cultures. Across all of that we remain one human family in Christ, which we know and experience through our personal relationship to Christ in which I die to myself and Christ lives in me.
Judaism and Christianity are two legitimate and beautiful paths to uniting human beings with God. Each way has its temptations to go astray. I can’t take responsibility for Judaism. I suppose it would be easy for Jews to become fixed on the external elements of being a people. I suppose it is possible for Jews to lose the personal spiritual center, although this has not been my experience of the Jews I know who are observant, who take it seriously.
Anyway, we are only responsible for our own temptations. With our emphasis on a personal, interior union with Christ and God through faith, and not through works nor through being a people, especially we Protestant Christians can easily make our relationship with God into a purely personal, inward, and individualistic affair. And indeed, how often has a congregation, perhaps us, instead of being a genuine people through union with Christ, become merely a gathering of individuals, each with our own little private spiritual lives, our own quirky ideas about God and Jesus, none of us feeling the need to share our beliefs and our spiritual journey, nor to listen to those of others, so that we might grow into the unity that is ours in Christ by grace as Christ’s body and Christ’s bride. By the same token, we think the life of faith is just about what’s inside, our feelings and our personal relationship with Jesus. (Take a look at your favorite hymns.) What we do in our daily practices throughout the week, and what we do together working as one body in the world, all of that sometimes gets ignored or neglected. This is our Christian temptation, and it is made all the sharper because we live in an individualistic culture, one which assumes religion is a private affair and has nothing to do with being a people, with those things that are in the highest sense public.
We Christians need to hold on to that deeply personal, interior union with God in Christ that is our beautiful Christian witness, while not excluding everything beyond the personal. The mystery of God’s work in history created two distinct covenants stemming from Abraham’s seed, and the tragedy of human fallenness is that we have allowed these two paths to become mutually opposed and even enemies of one another. We need to be true to our Christian faith while also becoming more Jewish. We need to embrace, along with the internal life of faith, the external realities by which we walk in God’s ways, including the things we do with our bodies, our daily practices, our communal rituals. And we need to turn toward each other from the depths of our individual spiritual wisdom, and the wisdom of great Christian leaders, so that we can forge a common way of life, a Torah, a spiritual Law, something Paul himself talks about. We can become a true people, still honoring personal liberty, still open and turned outward and welcoming to all, but a genuine people of God, Christ’s living body. I’ve been longing for that my whole life. And I don’t think I’m the only one.