#ThreeSteps | Step 2: Step Toward…Your Siblings in Abraham
In these three chapters from Romans we are covering in this series, Paul reminds us that as disciples of Jesus, we are more than believers, people who have a particular set of beliefs about him. Individually and together, we are his. Individually and together, we step out, and we speak out, confessing he is Lord, that all our allegiance belongs to him, that we stake our lives on his life as we draw our lives from the Triune God who raised him, and will raise us, from the dead.
We step out…in faith.
And we also step toward and alongside those God has made our siblings in covenant through the promise God made long ago to Abraham.
For Paul, a Jewish Christian, writing to the church at Rome in the middle of the first century AD, a church that included both Jewish and Gentile members, this was obvious. Yes, Jewish people who were not Christians were often not friends of the gospel, as much as he longed for them to become so. But he was just as adamant, as we read today, that God has still called and elected them, friends of the Christian gospel or not, starting in the calling and covenant with Abraham. And he insists on this: God’s calling and the gifts that come with it cannot be recalled or undone.
This was a critical word for Paul to say and for this “Jewish/Gentile” church in Rome to hear. Here and throughout the letter, Paul reminds the Gentiles at Rome they cannot dismiss their Jewish sisters and brothers or the inheritance of Judaism they bring to the life of the church. Indeed, just a few verses earlier (17-21), Paul reminds the Gentiles in the church that their status in God depends upon their connection to God’s promises to Abraham. The Gentiles are now grafted into the tree of salvation begun in God’s promises to Abraham, and the life of the tree draws not from the branches, whether natural or grafted, but from the roots. Those roots are in the descendents of Abraham.
Let me suggest it would be fair to say Paul could not have imagined a Christianity that was not vitally linked with Jewish people. Indeed, whether Paul or one of his later disciples wrote what we know as Ephesians, ongoing connection with Jewish people was so critical to early Christian vision of what God’s salvation was up to that the writer could say the mystery of salvation is God’s action through Christ on the cross to “make one new humanity in place of the two, [Jewish and Gentile]… putting to death the hostility [between them]” (Ephesians 4:15-16, NRSV).
What we know, of course, is that didn’t quite happen. Jewish people and Gentiles (all the rest of the world!) were not effectively reconciled, neither in the church, nor by the church. Instead, by the fourth century, there were hardly any Jewish people left in the church in many places, and we can hear by century’s end from a leading Christian bishop (John Chrysostom’s eight Homilies Against the Jews, in Antioch, Syria) a series of denunciations of Jews and of Christians who retained any association with Jewish people or their rites. Chrysostom’s denunciations were the seeds of the rhetoric used in later pogroms, exiles, executions, and genocidal actions against Jewish people by Christian nations, leaders, rulers, and other groups that have continued to promote the persecution of genocide of the Jewish people to this day.
And still we have this assurance from Paul: [The Jewish people] are beloved… for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29).
How should we treat those called “God’s beloved?”
In the face of more than a millennium and a half of Christian anti-Judaism and segregation from Jewish people, how do we take a step forward toward fulfilling the early Christian vision of the mystery of God’s salvation, “one new humanity in place of the two,” a vision in which both forms of humanity and religious practice may continue to exist, and in which the hostility between us, is destroyed?
Where do we even start?
Let me offer a few suggestions for personal action.
First, get to know your Jewish neighbors, and as more than acquaintances. Seek to learn from them personally and from their religious practice.
Second, start reading Jewish as well as Christian commentaries on the Hebrew scriptures. Judaism doesn’t stop with the what is recorded about them in the Bible. Jewish scholars and people have continued to evolve and reflect on God’s calling and gifts revealed in the Bible, just as Christians have done with both the Hebrew Bible and the texts we call New Testament.
Third, quit using the term Pharisee or pharisaical in a negative way. Why? First, because if you were to try to align Jesus with the “schools” of Judaism in his day, he would be almost lockstep on the basics with the Pharisees. And second, because Judaism as it developed after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD reflects primarily the influence and leadership of the Pharisees. So, even if you may not intend it, using the term Pharisee or pharisaical in a negative way is to insult our Jewish siblings.
And here are some suggestions for congregational action.
First, pastors, get to know the local rabbis in your area, even if they may live a substantial distance from you. Talk together about what your congregation and theirs may be able to share with each other as congregational or small group events or mission projects.
Second, with a group of leaders in your congregation and one or more Jewish congregations, plan retreats or educational events around Jewish or Christian seasons, festivals, or key stories from the Bible we both share.
Third, help your congregation and leaders participate in the formation or strengthening of interfaith organizations in your wider community or region that include both Jewish and Christian leaders.
And fourth, do not presume to celebrate Jewish festivals (such as a Passover Seder) in the church. If you want to celebrate these festivals, do so, as our Book of Worship directs (pp. 350-351) with or hosted by Jewish families or congregations.
Some of these things may already be underway by individuals or your congregation where you are. But probably all of them could stand some improvement toward building relationships and ending suspicions and hostilities among your peoples in your community. Any or all of them could be an important step toward and with your Jewish neighbors.
But there’s more.
Paul could not have imagined a vision of God’s salvation in which Jewish and Gentile people were not taking steps toward one another, even if they did not agree on even some critical things.
But he also could not have imagined for historical reasons a development that would occur nearly six centuries later among other people of Abraham, whose calling and gifts from God through promises to Abraham are just as irrevocable: the rise and development of Islam.
There can be no “one new humanity in place of the two” when the world’s second largest religious group, Islam, is not part of the conversation and the common effort. This is not to discount Hindu and Buddhist or other religious peoples from our regard, but it is to say if Paul meant what he said, and if we take it as the word of God (and we say we do!), then we must step toward our Muslim neighbors as well.
We are, after all, called to #SeeAllThePeople.
Getting to know them, reading their commentaries on scriptures we share, participating in their religious life where we can, and ending any personal practices in speech or action that may, knowingly or not, demean or express hostility toward Islam or Muslim people may likewise be among our personal steps. And together, as pastors and congregations, our steps toward our Muslim neighbors may include our pastors getting to know local Muslim teachers and leaders, seeking opportunities for shared worship, action, or witness for the public good, and, again, creating or strengthening interfaith organizations with them.
We step out in faith… in Jesus and in his resurrection.
And we step toward our neighbors, especially our siblings in Abraham, both Jewish and Muslim.
And in stepping out, and then stepping toward, we embody our hope in the mystery of salvation revealed and realized in Jesus Christ.