Sunday 4 November 2018
4th before Advent
Readings Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12: 28-34
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This morning I want to touch briefly on a sensitive and complex topic. In doing so I should acknowledge at the outset that I am treading on holy ground, that my thinking on this subject is far from complete and that, in this space, I cannot say everything which needs to be said. This is offered as a preparatory sketch rather than a finished painting.
On Saturday 27 October, which is only 8 days ago, a man called Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. As we know Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath and people were gathered there to worship and to take part in a baby naming ceremony.
Mr Bowers, a white 46 year old ‘Christian’ American opened fire on the congregation and killed 11 people. Later in custody Mr Bowers is alleged to have said that he wanted to kill all Jews.
Although this happened only 8 days ago in a world of an ever faster moving news cycle it is interesting that this already feels like old news but perhaps we should learn to remember better and for longer.
If this were a one-off incident it would be bad enough but, of course, it arises from a context of apparently increasing anti-Semitism not only in America but even here, as we have seen from the arguments within the Labour Party. Of course, Europe has long had a troubled history and relationship with the Jewish people. The Nazi holocaust, or as the Jewish people call it, the Shoah (meaning calamity in Hebrew) is still within living memory for some, in fact a survivor of the Shoah just missed being caught up the Pittsburgh shooting. Martin Luther wrote against the Jews, and he wanted the Books of James and today’s letter to the Hebrews excised from scripture because he thought they were too Jewish.
In Russia and Eastern Europe there were regular pogroms against the Jews and, you may or may not be aware, that in the year 1190 there was a massacre of the Jewish population of York.
We have to take ownership of the fact that much of this antipathy towards the Jewish people has its roots in Christian culture. We may query from our perspective how Christian someone can be who takes part in such things but then it’s worth reflecting how little that may mean to the Jewish community that suffers. We are quick to apply the label ‘Muslim’ to certain terrorists without questioning the depth of their faith and yet equally quick to deny Christian complicity in anti-Semitism.
Although I sure and I hope and pray that no one here is consciously or deliberately anti-Semitic what I want to address this morning is the sub-conscious superiority complex that may infect the Christian attitude to Judaism.
What do I mean by that? Let’s start with an easy example – The Old Testament. This is not a label that you will find in the scriptures themselves but is applied by the Christian community. Our so-called ‘Old’ Testament are actually the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish people, or certainly some of them, find it rather insulting that we label their scriptures as being old in contrast with our shiny new one.
This may sound minor, perhaps even laughable, but it comes from a place called supersessionism – i.e. the belief that our faith supersedes Judaism and when a new model supersedes an old one it tends to make the old obsolete and worthless.
Have you heard of the blood curse? This is in Matthew 27: 24-25: “His blood is on us and our children”. This comes from the trial of Jesus, when Pilate abdicates responsibility, and when those Jewish people present say they will take responsibility for Jesus’ death. This blood curse has been used both consciously and sub-consciously by Christians to blame Jews for killing Jesus. But, quite apart from the contextual nonsense of applying those words to a whole religion, rather than those involved in the actual killing, it also begs the question of God’s plan in all this – if God the Father intended the crucifixion then how does it make sense to curse those who played their part in God’s plan?
Did God also intend to supersede Judaism, is that the point of Christianity? Or was the point of Jesus to take the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob out to all nations?
God made an everlasting covenant with the Jewish people, God does not break his covenants and that God the Son was not born into the line of David accidently. Salvation, he said, is from the Jews.
The story of the early church is very much one of the Hebrew and Gentile followers of Jesus existing in parallel. Indeed, rather than expecting Jewish people to leave Judaism in order to become Christians the argument in the early church was much the opposite – how Jewish did Gentile converts have to become in order to be followers of the Way? I believe that the early church would have been horrified of any interpretation of being a follower of Jesus that could have resulted in conscious or un-conscious bias against the faith community of Jesus.
Our first reading this morning was from the Letter to the Hebrews, which I have already mentioned in the context of Luther thinking it was too Jewish. In one sense, he was right, it is very Jewish, but rather than use that as reason to exclude it from our ‘Christian’ scriptures we should acknowledge that this is just as much a part of our faith as all the earlier Hebrew scriptures and, perhaps, allow this to change our view of the relationship between our faiths. This letter appears to have been written by a Hebrew follower of Jesus to his fellow Hebrews in order to tell them about the Jesus event. When people of similar backgrounds are talking or writing to one another they tend to use language and imagery that they have in common – hence the writer of this letter talks about temples and sacrifice and high priests, because that is the language with which his readers will be familiar. When talking about Jesus in this context the writer does not say that Judaism is being superseded by what Jesus has done for his people rather, I would suggest, that by becoming the Great High Priest and by entering the Holy of Holies that Jesus has become the apogee or the ultimate fulfilment of the promise of Judaism.
To take an example from our own worship life we know, I suspect, that our singing, our prayers and our sharing bread and wine in this temple, as beautiful as it is, is still only a pale reflection of the worship and the feast in the kingdom of heaven. That does not negate what we do here, by any means, but we know that the ultimate fulfilment will only be with God.
And although Jesus was often in conflict with the Jewish scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees of his time this was always motivated by challenging their hypocrisy or blindness to the true purpose of their faith, rather than their faith system itself. In today’s gospel reading from Mark Jesus has an encounter with one of these scribes. But unlike so many this scribe understands that to love God with all your being and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than making all the appointed sacrifices and Jesus tells him that he is not far from the kingdom of heaven. This Jewish scribe was not far from the kingdom of heaven not because he was either Jewish or a follower of Jesus but because he was able to see to the heart of his faith, which is a radical love of God and one another.
Before closing with a prayer, I just want to mention a wonderful document I discovered when thinking about this sermon and the subject of anti-Semitism. It was published by the Vatican only 3 years ago and is a report by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. That commission has been working for 50 years to rebuild and re-evaluate the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and the report is a summary of its current thinking. In short It makes the point that Christianity and Judaism stand in a unique relationship and cannot deal with one another as if we were just ‘other faiths’. Rather it says that Christianity and Judaism are in a ‘root and branch’ relationship, they being the root and we being the branch, that God’s covenant with the Jews is everlasting, that if we worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob then the Hebrews are our elders in faith and, finally, that no Christian can ever be anti-Semitic because, as one of my friends pointed out, to be anti-Semitic is to be anti-Christ.
I want to close this morning with a prayer for the people killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue. This prayer happens to be Jewish in origin but, as I hope I have pointed out today, that could be said of our whole faith.
“God, filled with mercy, dwelling in the heavens’ heights, bring proper rest beneath the wings of your heavenly dwelling, amid the ranks of the holy and the pure, illuminating like the brilliance of the skies the souls of our beloved and our blameless who went to their eternal place of rest. May You who are the source of mercy shelter them beneath Your wings eternally, and bind their souls among the living, that they may rest in peace. And let us say: Amen”