May 1, 2013
A supersessionist view of the Christian covenant might have made some little sense in a mythic worldview, but never made any moral sense. The time has long since come for Christians to drop such an arrogant claim. It has contributed to extraordinary suffering and eroded any moral authority we might think we have. In that sense, it never made any just sense of the work of God we’ve come to know in Jesus Christ.
First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael
“But if some of the branches were broken off and you, a wild olive shoot (meaning you the Gentile Christians) were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, then don’t boast over your branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root who supports you. You will say branches were broken off, (that is to say the Jews who don’t believe in Christ), so that I may be grafted in. And that’s true enough. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith, so don’t become proud. Instead, stand in awe, for if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps God will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God. Severity toward those who have fallen away and God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in God’s kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off and even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in for God has the power to graft them in again.”
You know, the old saying, “some of my best friends.” Well some of my best friends, four in particular, are Jewish. Barbara and I are helping to raise our surrogate Jewish grandson, very Jewish grandson. He’s not quite three years old. I spoke with his father a couple of weeks ago; we were talking about Zion’s future. I’m a preacher’s kid so I am perhaps a bit over-sensitive to Zion being free to choose his own way in the world. So his father, humoring me no doubt said, “I’m not trying to narrow the scope of Zion’s vocation at all. He can be any kind of rabbi he wants to be.”
When I talk to my Jewish friends I am sometimes stunned and astonished by the level of pain and suspicion that lies just underneath the surface of our relationships – Jews and Christian – and these are people I love, who love me, who know me. Maybe you know what I mean if you have close Jewish friends. I might say something about the politics of Israel, something that from where I sit, seems pretty balanced, then wham, the suspicion rises above the surface. Anything that might be misinterpreted is misinterpreted. That is not to suggest that I think I am right in all those moments; there are times when I’ve simply not understood the consequence of my “balanced” position. But this is about more than a position that can be debated. I can hear the pain, maybe even the fear, in the voices of my friends. This is not just one Jewish friend either.
I recently told a friend, “I think maybe I’m going to edit the series of sermons I did on the Gospel according to St. John, into a book.” The response I got was, “Well if you want to write about an anti-Semitic text which has inspired persecution for thousands of years, I suppose that’s up to you.” (When I preached this line, it got an unintended laugh. Not sure what to make of that. I looked and felt very uncomfortable.) Wow.
This is a sermon about Jewish-Christian relations because today’s text seems to demand it of me. I think about that moment, talking about the Gospel of John with my friend. On the one hand I can defend the Gospel of John. About half the references in that Gospel are indeed about Jews that have rejected the growing Jewish sect that eventually became Christianity. The text is not complementary about “the Jews” who are opposed to their faith.
The scholarly consensus is that John’s Gospel was written at a time when the local synagogue is splitting with this “Christian” sect. The Gospel is written from the point of view of those being thrown out of the synagogue.(1) So it’s really a gospel about one group of Jews splitting from another group of Jews and there are fairly equal references to each of those groups in the Gospel. I know; I counted them that night, so I can defend the Gospel of John but that is really not the point, is it? The point is that the Gospel of John has been used, over and over and over again, to justify persecution of the Jewish people.
This is a deep wound, the kind that travels from generation to generation. For Jews what is embedded in that text is a story of damage done when this “gospel story” is told. This is particularly true of the Gospel of John because of its language about what the author calls “the Jews.” It is bad enough when it is read, but it gets worse when it’s enacted. Throughout history, when the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is enacted, it is followed by acts of terrorism and persecution. When that movie, The Passion of the Christ, (and every time I mention that movie I have to also say that it is such a horrible movie in so many ways, I hardly know where to start), but when it was on the screen, there were synagogue burnings. Yes, synagogue burnings right here in the good ol’ US of A . . . just like history would teach us to expect.(2)
It’s not unreasonable, this suspicion, this frustration, this pain expressed in my direction – even though I’m talking about people who know me, and love me, and know that I love them. It’s the nature of the relationship between Christians and Jews. And I think we can actually understand why if we take even just a cursory glimpse at the history of our interaction.
(Attached to the end of the sermon is a Calendar of Jewish Persecution that reviews the best known atrocities. I read random phrases as I clicked through the six slides it took to show it all.) Just a little history of the major incidents when society, mostly Christian society persecuted Jews, starting in 70 AD, . . . moving through the second century . . . the fourth century, persecution in Spain, bloody persecutions in the first Crusade, driven out of Flanders until they repented the guilt of killing Jesus Christ. (See footnote 2) Renewed persecution of the Jews in Germany in the twelfth century, it keeps going, in England, Rome, Bavaria, Austria, France . . . would you look at this . . . This isn’t just last century, you understand, Christians have been persecuting Jews for thousands of years. Is it any wonder that suspicion and fear lie just below the surface of our relationships? Of course not.
I imagine that some might suggest that since we abhor what’s been done, since we abhor the attitude of past Christians towards the Jewish people, we’re not responsible. We might think we can distance ourselves from this history, but we can’t. We can’t because as long as the impact is felt generation to generation in the Jewish people, we carry the responsibility generation to generation in ours. I may not like it, in fact I don’t, but I’m part of that lineage. In the same way that my Jewish friends today carry the wounds of the past, I carry responsibility for that past.
This is a sermon about Jewish-Christian relations, but it’s also a sermon about forgiveness and reconciliation and what makes it possible. So right now, let me acknowledge our collective sin, the collective distortion of a lineage, my lineage, that has treated the Jews as enemies of God rather than the people who literally gave us our faith, our understanding of God.(3)
You see, it is not just secular governments that perpetrated the abuse of the Jews. No, it’s at the heart of the reformation. Martin Sassa a Lutheran bishop in the thirties, wrote up a pamphlet about Martin Luther’s writings concerning the Jews. My “second Dad,” Frank Thorne, found it in a garage sale and gave it to me. I think he wanted me to remember our history.
This pamphlet is said to have inspired the Kristallnacht attacks against the Jews. I won’t page through it, but I will tell a couple of things that Martin Luther said. “The Jewish people are liars and vampires . . . the synagogues are Satan’s lair . . . it’s a cursed, vile race.” That’s Martin Luther, the founder of the reformation.
It’s not just the Lutherans either. I come from the Calvinist, “reformed” branch of the reformation. Generally speaking the reformed theologians have more respect for the Hebrew scriptures than do our Lutheran friends. I thought for a while that maybe we were off the hook – comparatively – but then as I was preparing for my class on the Presbyterian Book of Confessions I read this from the Scots Confession dated 1560:
. . . Since Satan has labored from the beginning to adorn his pestilent synagogue with the title of the Kirk of God, and has incited cruel murderers to persecute, trouble, and molest the true Kirk and its members, as Cain did to Abel, Ishmael to Isaac, Esau to Jacob, and the whole priesthood of the Jews to Christ Jesus himself and his apostles after him. So it is essential that the true Kirk be distinguished from the filthy synagogues by clear and perfect notes lest we, being deceived, receive and embrace, to our own condemnation, the one for the other . . .
My God, what is that doing in our Book of Confessions? We can change it with a two thirds vote of Presbyteries you know; I’ve written it up; we ought to at least try to get it removed.(4)
We’re inextricably wound up in this identity. It’s a part of our past and if we’re going to heal the relationship between us and the Jews at both a personal and a corporate level, we’ll need to acknowledge our sin and repent of it. And we can begin by dismantling interpretations of texts, like the one we read this morning, that suggest the Jewish people are religiously inferior enemies of Christians. The text doesn’t say it, but the history of interpretation has. So let’s start by saying that any such interpretation is just plain wrong. It distorts the meaning of Paul’s thought; the man was a Rabbi. The whole point of this text is that Paul worries about the fate of his kinsman. Using his thought to hurt them is ludicrous. So, I thought I’d do a little Bible study here – walk through this passage and hear what it has to say on its own terms.
The Apostle Paul had a conundrum. He understood that God had promised to the Jewish people, the chosen ones, the ones who are to bring God’s covenant, God’s grace, God’s salvation to all the nation’s of the earth – he understood that God had promised those people that God would be faithful to them, draw them into God’s presence, that they would be made whole. Then the Apostle Paul met the risen Christ and, right or wrong, believed with every fiber of his being, that Christ was the way in which God was going to accomplish that. But most of Paul’s relatives, most of the Jews, right or wrong, had decided that Jesus was not the messiah, that Jesus was not the way God was revealing God’s work in the world.
So Paul had to figure out what to do about the fact that it appeared as though a whole segment of God’s people were being excised, rejected by God. That was his conundrum. Is God’s promise not to be trusted? Is God not to be gracious to God’s people? If God is not going to be gracious to the people of Israel, then can we trust God to be gracious to us? This is Paul’s problem. Are God’s promises reliable.
He imagines an olive tree, an olive tree with a strong trunk.(5) Let’s understand this tree as the covenant that God has with the people of Israel; it is a covenant of grace which is to say, it is a promise that God will unfold God’s creative power in them. It is not a covenant of works. It does not mean that you need to follow the rules in order to get God to love you and work in you. The Jewish people have – at their heart – a covenant of grace. I know you weren’t told that in Sunday school, but it’s true. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can tell they preach a covenant of grace because the ten commandments are in Exodus chapter twenty and not in Exodus chapter one.
God did not look down on God’s people, see them suffering at Pharaoh’s hand, and say to Himself, “Oh I know what I’ll do, I’ll give them ten rules. If they follow them, then I’ll save them.” No, God took them out of bondage and brought them into the wilderness. God gave them the ten commandments so that they would know how to live a life that was at peace with one another and at peace, complete with God. A covenant of grace. It is that faith they gave us.
So there it is, that one covenant of grace, growing up out of the ground. But it seems as though some Jews, and these are the Jews we keep reading about in the Christian scriptures, (often identified as the Pharisees), lost track of the idea that it was a covenant of grace and instead sought a system where, if they worked it just right, they would be able to claim for themselves the salvation of God; they would not have to rely on God’s grace. Whether or not that is true, that some Jews thought that is I suppose open to debate, but it is certainly true that the Christian sect of Judaism at the time, thought so.
And it is not to hard to believe since after all, it’s a human tendency. We’d rather be in control. In fact, you’d have to say that right now the majority of Christendom believes, at least in practice, that you earn your way into the presence of God. The majority of Christendom takes the Pharisaical approach, that God is not a God of grace, rather a God that will do you in if you don’t follow His rules.
But for Paul, those who reject this grace, many of his people are then necessarily cut off from God’s saving grace. Then we have a new covenant of grace that grows out of the same trunk, another branch, a predominantly Gentile branch. But all from that one trunk, you understand. If the trunk represents the covenant of God’s grace then the people grafted into this trunk are those who live lives of trust, lives oriented toward that gracious God, the God who seeks an opening from within us to express God’s love and God’s creative power into the world. And so for Paul, these early Christians in latching hold of that grace, are grafted into the trunk.
This was important to Paul because he recognized that the dignity of all people was at stake; that’s why he was insistent that the Gentiles be brought into the covenant of God’s grace. Whole groups of people simply cannot be set aside. The notion that whole groups of people can be set aside for God’s purpose is the dangerous idea that drove the final solution in the Third Reich. Any time you care more about the process, the “big picture” than you do an individual life, horrifying things happen. Paul couldn’t imagine that God was doing that to God’s people. He knew that God’s promise had to come to all people and so he was absolutely convinced that one day soon, the rest of his people, the rest of the Jews would be grafted back into the tree.
So here is what’s important about that. What is means is that the trunk of the tree is not Jewish, but it is equally clear that it is not Christian. It is not a Christian trunk – never has been. The trunk represents life given by God, a life filled with the near, expressive love of God – near to them, near to you, near to whoever is living a life trusting in the nature of God’s gracious, creative love – no matter the tradition. I would grant that Paul was not thinking in such terms when he wrote, but he also wrote from within a mythic worldview with its exclusive claims on truth. He thought that the end of was coming and that soon God’s chosen people would be grafted into the tree thus bringing shalom, peace, wholeness to the world. At this point I think it is safe to say he was wrong about that.
But he was pointing towards something true. His perception about the nature of God and God’s interaction with the world remains. For in a world that sees beyond the exclusive claims of mythic religions, we can see in Paul’s vision, branch upon branch upon branch, from whatever tradition, or whether you have none, grafted into this same tree. We can see that the grace of God knows no boundaries for as people live lives oriented towards the gracious, unfolding, creative power of God, they will know the love of God sourced from that tree.
It’s not a Christian trunk. It’s in God’s nature to draw everything together into perfect harmony, Jews and Christians certainly, but everyone else as well. The trouble comes because the Apostle Paul was writing with a mythic focus struggling to make sense of what he knew about God from within his exclusive, mythic frame. From that a horrifying misinterpretation of this chapter has come. It goes something like this: There was initially an old covenant, we call it the Old Testament, and then Jesus came along and superseded that old covenant. God then made a new covenant, a New Testament that is superior to the old one. That interpretation is wrong, just plain wrong.(6)
It is in God’s creative nature to bring about shalom in all creation, of that I am sure. The movement from the chaos and horror of our past to the beauty and hope of our future is and will be painful for it is always a move from death to new life.
Our Jewish friends are justifiably suspicious and afraid. The wounds run deep. It requires us not only to acknowledge, but to understand the depth of what we Christians have done. It requires us to sit ready to listen to the pain and the suspicion, even from our closest friends, to know it, even feel what we can. If we cover it over, we are covering the opening through which the Spirit of God expresses itself into the world. So we open our hearts to God and seek God’s healing because if Paul was sure of one thing in this entire confused and confusing chapter, he was sure that God would one day graft all people together into one glorious covenant sourced by the creative love of God. It is from that place, with that desire that we seek the gracious creative power of God to make something holy and beautiful of what we have wrought.
(1) For all I know they should have been thrown out. I am not discussing that one way or another right here.
(2) By the by, a great deal of this intense hatred is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. “The Jews,” no matter who they are identified with in the story, did not kill Jesus. Crucifixion is a Roman punishment; the Romans did it. In fact in my view a point of the story is that even the Jews were involved in this horror; it goes without saying the rest of us would be. We’ve made the Jews a scapegoat for our own behavior.
(3) Christianity is after all just a renewal movement. Did or does the religion of the Jews need renewal? Of course, but certainly no more so that the Christian religion. My God, look what we have done in the name of our faith!
(4) Really, it comes down to this: the Presbyterian church has absolutely no moral authority to speak on matters of justice as regards the Jewish people and their relations with the Palestinians, period. No Moral Authority Whatsoever. Until we show ourselves to be repentant we need to keep our filthy mouths shut.
(6) Have you noticed over the last couple of years that I’ve tried to get out of the habit of referring to the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament,” and instead refer to the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures? That is because I do not believe in a supersessionist covenant. I can’t see it that way. Join me in the effort. It’s not an easy habit to break.
A Calendar of Jewish Persecution(7)
Destruction of Jerusalem 1,100,000 Jews were killed and 97,000 taken into slavery and captivity.
Rebellion of the Jews in Mesopotania, Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus. Jews and Romans inflicted many barbaric atrocities on each other, causing the death of several hundreds of thousands of Romans and Jews.
The Bar Kochba rebellion (Bar Kochba was a false Messiah). Caused the death of 500,000 Jews; thousands were sold into slavery or taken into captivity.
Roman Emperor Hadrian commenced his persecution of the Jews. Jerusalem established as a pagan city. Erection of a Jupiter temple on the temple mountain (Moriah) and a temple to Venus on Golgotha. Jews were forbidden to practice circumcision, the reading of the Law, eating of unleavened bread at Passover or any Jewish festival. Infringement of this edict brought the death penalty.
Constantine the Great established “Christianity” as the State religion throughout the Roman Empire; issued many anti-Jewish laws.
Theodosius the Great expelled Jews from any official gate position or place of honor. Permitted the destruction of their synagogues if by so doing, it served a religious purpose.
Persecution of the Jews in Spain. All Jews who refused to be baptized had to leave the country. A few years later the remaining Jews were dispossessed, declared as slaves and given to pious “Christians” of position. All children 7 years or over were taken from their parents and given to receive a “Christian” education.
Bloody persecutions of the Jews at the beginning of the First Crusade, in Germany. Along the cities on the Rhine River alone, 12,000 Jews were killed. The Jews were branded second only to the Moslems as the enemies of Christendom.
Jews driven out of Flanders (now part of Belgium). They were not to return nor to be tolerated until they repented of the guilt of killing Jesus Christ.
The Jews of London had to pay compensation of 1 million marks for allegedly killing a sick man.
Renewed persecution of the Jews in Germany at the beginning of the Second Crusade. The French Monk, Rudolf, called for the destruction of the Jews as an introduction to the Second Crusade. It was only because of the intervention of Emperor Conrad who declared Nuerenberg and a small fortress as places of refuge for the Jews, and that of Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, that the result was not quite as devastating as at the time of the First Crusade.
French King Philip banished the Jews from his domain. They were permitted to sell all movable possessions, but the immovable such as land and houses reverted to the king. Seven years later he called the Jews back.
At the coronation of Richard the Lionhearted, unexpected persecution of the Jews broke out in England. Most Jewish houses in London were burned, and many Jews killed. All possessions of the Jews were claimed by the Crown. Richard’s successor alone, relieved the Jews of more than 8 million marks.
At the IV Lateran Church Council, restrictions against the Jews by the church of Rome were issued.
Edward I banished the Jews from England. 16,000 Jews left the country.
Persecution of the Jews in Franconia, Bavaria and Austria. The Nobleman Kalbfleish alleged that he had received a divine order to destroy all the Jews. 140 Jewish communities were destroyed, and more than 100,000 Jews were mercilessly killed.
King Philip the Fair banished the Jews from France. 100,000 Jews left the country.
In France, 40,000 shepherds dedicated themselves for the Shepherd Crusade to free Palestine from the Moslems. Under the influence of criminals and land speculators, they destroyed 120 Jewish communities.
Jews were accused of having incited outlaws to poison wells and fountains in the district of Guienne, France. 5,000 Jews were burned at the stake.
Jews were blamed for the plague throughout Europe, especially in Germany. In Strausberg 2,000 Jews were burned. In Maintz 6,000 were killed in most gruesome fashion, and in Erfut 3,000; and in Worms 400 Jews burned themselves in their homes.
Jews were blamed for having defiled the “Host” (wafer used in the Mass) in Brabant. The accused were burned alive. Again, all Jews were banned from Flanders and until the year 1820, every 15 years a feast was kept to celebrate the event.
Persecutions in Spain. In Seville and 70 other Jewish communities, the Jews were cruelly massacred and their bodies dismembered.
Second banishment of Jews from France.
The Franciscan monk, Capistrano, persuaded the King of Poland to withdraw all citizens’ rights of the Jewish people.
The Spanish inquisition directed against the Jews.
The banishment of Jews from Spain. 300,000 Jews who refused to be “baptized” into the Church of Rome left Spain penniless. Many migrated to the Muslim country, Turkey, where they found tolerance and a welcome.
Banishment of the Jews from Portugal. King Manuel, generally friendly to the Jews, under pressure from Spain instigated forced baptism to keep the Jews. 20,000 Jews desired to leave the country. Many were ultimately declared slaves.
First Ghetto established in Venice.
Banishment of Jews from Naples and 10 years later, from Genoa and Venice.
Restriction of Jews in Russia, Jewish men were forced to serve 25 years in the Russian military. Many hundreds of thousands of Jews left Russia.
All former restriction, against the Jews in the Vatican State were re-inforced by Pope Pius IX.
Renewed restrictions of Jews in Russia. Frequent pogroms (massacres); general impoverishment of Russian Jewry.
Commencement of persecution of Jews in Hitler Germany. Inception of the systematic destruction of 6,000,000 Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.