Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 11 May 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
In 1965, during the flurry of Vatican II pronouncements, Pope Paul VI solemnly stated that the Jewish people were not solely (important qualification) responsible for murdering God. The crime of ‘deicide’ which had been a frequent and unthinking element in Catholic and Protestant polemic, was absolved. That was, in part, a response to the holocaust. Sadly it did not put an end to the anti-semitism which has blotted so much of Christian history, probably because there is a more profound nagging question behind it than the dog-whistle cry of ‘Christ-killer’. It is the core New Testament question of how we get the Christian Church as the result of a Jewish Messiah. We often fail to notice that question. The answer lies in the detail of St Paul’s theology, some of which we heard restated in our second lesson, from Ephesians. The lectionary provision for this evening linked the revival of the old covenant by Ezra and Nehemiah with the imagery of the church as a holy temple in the Lord, a structure of which the apostles and prophets are foundations with Christ as cornerstone. So, is this a radically new building, a new covenant which supersedes the old completely? We heard these words,
‘He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances’
That’s clear enough, isn’t it? No more Law for anyone; Jesus for all. Well, not quite.
Ephesians was either written by a disciple of Paul, or was a late work by Paul himself, and we find in it a distillation of Paul’s theology. As in Romans and Galatians, the underlying topic is how do we, non-Jews, get to be ‘in’, how are we the people of God? Misunderstanding Paul’s answer to that question has led to the possibility of anti-semitism within Christian thought.
I suspect most of us have heard and even held a version of Paul’s teaching which a careful reading of the New Testament will not support. It probably goes something like this: since Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, and since, after his death and resurrection, we are all in relationship with God through faith, the Law is superseded for all and the Jewish people must abandon it and become Christians if they are to be ‘saved’. So much Christian history has been premised on the superseding of Jewish religion by the new covenant, and indeed so much shameful anti-semitism and suspicion has been perpetuated by the Church, that we easily forget, or never learn, the complexity of what is actually argued in the New Testament about our Jewish brothers and sisters. Like me you probably grew up with that supposition that the Jews have to accept Christ, and be converted to Christianity, in order to benefit from the new covenant. But the picture is much more nuanced than that.
In fact, frequently in the New Testament, we are shown not only how we are included (of course we notice that!), but also, and this is the important bit, that we are included alongside our Jewish brothers and sisters. That may be news to you: it was news to me the first time I read it, only about 10 years ago, because this fascinating truth about New Testament teaching is mostly unspoken.
The Gospel of John, especially, has left us with a black and white picture of Christians versus Jews, especially in the Passion narrative (John’s version of the events of Good Friday), where we frequently hear a hostile group, referred to simply as ‘the Jews’, identified as the principal persecutors of Jesus. Because this story has been read or sung every Good Friday for centuries, often in an emotionally heightened liturgical and musical setting, much Christian anti-semitism can be traced to it. But everyone in John’s story is Jewish except Pilate and a few soldiers. There are no Christians in the story – these are all Jews arguing with one another. Like Matthew, John writes from a later context, in which followers of Jesus have been excluded from the synagogues. This, as Fr Ted might say, ‘would be an ecumenical matter’, an argument within one religion, like the reformation arguments which are still with us. And we know that in all family quarrels – which this is – the arguments are usually heated and exaggerated; family quarrels are not noted for cool logic or indeed a great regard for facts. At this point, anyway, John is writing polemic, polemic addressed to one group of Jews by another group of Jews.
We don’t notice, because the gospels don’t address this question directly, and also because St Paul, who wrote his letters decades before the gospel writers did their work, had already spent a lot of energy working it out. If you read carefully what he wrote, it may surprise you. The letter to the Romans is the key.
The conventional wisdom about Paul is that he’s a sort of super-Jew who, after his conversion on the road to Damascus, became a super-Christian, repudiating his Jewish past and wanting his fellow-Jews to join him. When they refuse, he turns the full force of his polemical skills on them. Most Christians probably think of the story like that. But if you read Paul carefully he never repudiates either Judaism or God’s special relationship with the Jews.
Rather, he frequently says that the Torah, the Jewish Law, is and remains the way of salvation for them. Paul’s argument, actually, is that the cross of Jesus is for Gentiles what the Torah is for Jews, that both are means of salvation and righteousness, and that this is good news for the Jews. I’ll just say that again, because it’s the point that is usually missed. Paul says that the cross of Christ works for us in the same way that the Law, Torah, works for Jews. He doesn’t say Jews must get rid of the Torah, any more that he thinks we must be subject to it.
In other words Jews do not need to become Christians to obtain the promises – in the Torah, they already have the promises as Jews. Similarly, Gentiles do not need to become Jews and subscribe to the law (this is the bit we listen to, because it’s about us), for Gentiles cannot keep the law; because of the cross they don’t need to. So Paul’s argument is for an inclusive God who has provided for both Jews and Gentiles, after the event of the cross. God’s promises, the radical nature of those promises, is that they are for both Jew and Gentile, but they operate differently, like two currencies that both buy the same commodity (currencies in which faith is a common component).
I’m sorry to repeat myself, but I think I need to say this again. What the Jews have, and have never lost, according to Paul, is now also available to the Gentiles, to whom he is the apostle. We gentiles have it because of the Cross, while Jews have it because of the Torah, the Law. Contrary to much popular Christian perception and, sadly, much preaching, Paul never argues in Romans that the Gentile church has displaced Israel, nor does he argue that the Jews must embrace Christ. Paul does argue that as God spoke to the Jews through the Law, he now speaks to those outside the Law, the Gentiles, through Christ. Jews are meant to embrace the good news of Christ – but that doesn’t mean they have to become Christians. The good news they are invited to embrace is that Christ is the means for non-Jews to know God.
You see the difference. Jews are supposed to be happy for us, but are not required to abandon their own tradition. The gospel for Paul is not simply ‘Christ crucified’ but that through Christ crucified the Gospel has been extended to the Gentiles. Paul’s Good News was never intended to be Bad News for the Jews.
For Paul, Jews experience the righteousness or justification of God through faith grounded in the living Torah, which includes the promise to Abraham, but is not about ritual purity regulations. Gentiles experience the righteousness or justification of God through the faithfulness of Christ, the ground of their faith. The promises of God are sure, and so too must be the status of those to whom the promises are made. In the matter of election the mind of God does not change, or surely we Christians would have much to fear by now: after all Islam might otherwise represent, precisely, a newer testament than ours!
All this is equally clear in the passage we heard this evening, but verse 15 sounds a warning note,
‘He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances’.
These words are without parallel in Pauline writing, or indeed the New Testament. They provide one argument against Paul’s authorship, because this sentence goes so much further than he does anywhere else. Indeed they contradict a saying of the Lord himself – ‘I came not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it.’ (Matt. 5.17) Though they offer the strongest challenge to the argument I’ve been making, they do not contradict it. Because for Paul the Law, the entity which he declares does not apply to gentiles, is not the Torah as a whole. From Romans and Galatians it is clear that he uses the word to mean Sabbath observance, food laws and circumcision. The reference to circumcision here supports this. What is superseded is the ritual Law as boundary marker. This is the dividing wall and hostility that has been broken down by the Cross.
It is a statement of mutual inclusion. That is a principle of the gospels as well as St Paul’s good news. It is an overarching principle of the New Testament which needs coherent application in the Church, not just on this issue.