Remember, Jesus Was Jewish

Luke 9:51-56
September 17, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Over the past two weeks, our attention has been on hurricanes and our concern for those living in the path of their destruction and maybe the one good thing at come out of the hurricanes is that we managed for a short time to put aside our differences as a nation to concentrate on caring for the victims.  Nevertheless, we would be naive to think that a wind — even a hurricane force one — can blow away the problems our country faces and the divisions that have arisen between us, and so today I want to return to an issue that I preached on a couple of weeks ago, an issue that was thrust into our awareness at Charlottesville and which many of us have continued to think about since that day, and that is the rise of white supremacy groups and anti-Jewish sentiment in the US.  According to the Anti-Defamation League, in the first quarter of 2017, anti-Semitic incidents in the US jumped 86 percent over the previous year.  Jewish children from kindergarten right through high school have been the victims of bullying twice as much this year as last because of their Judaism. 1 In our country, it has become more and more acceptable to ridicule, torment, or openly hate a person just because they are Jewish.

This injustice is not simply a national problem; I am preaching on it today because it is a Christian problem.  Now, it can be argued that anti-semitism, the condemnation of Jews on the basis of their ethnic background — their race, so to speak — can be traced to secular ideas in the 19th century, 2 but I’m not going to get into that in this sermon.  What I want to look at is the forerunner of anti-Semitism and the continuing nurturer of anti-Semitism which is anti-Judaism.  Anti-Semitism is the oppression of Jews because of their race, (their ethnic background, their ancestry) while anti-Judaism is the condemnation of Jews because of their religious practices, because of what they believe and how they worship.  Anti-Judaism is unquestionably grounded in and fed by the historic preaching of the Christian church and so as Christians, we can’t condemn anti-semitism without confronting the underlying claims of anti-Judaism that have been proclaimed from our own pulpits and by our own congregations.  As Christians, then, we need to address the foundational theological question that is raised by events like Charlottesville:  Can you be a Neo-Nazi and be faithful to Christ?

Can you be a Neo-Nazi and be faithful to Christ?

Can you be a white supremacist and be faithful to Christ?

Can you condemn, judge, and reject people who practice Judaism and still be faithful to Christ?

I am going to argue today that the unequivocal answer to that question is no: no, you can’t be a Neo-Nazi and still be faithful to Christ.  No, you can’t be a white supremacist and be faithful to Christ.  No, you can’t condemn, judge, and reject people who practice Judaism and still be faithful to Christ even — and here is the crucial catch — if you couch it in gentle terms.  In preparing for this sermon, I read a sermon posted online by an evangelical preacher who spent four pages talking about his Jewish friends, about what good people they were, how much he loved them, and how we should treat them with kindness, but ended with the words, “The bottom line is that in the end it won’t matter what earthly bloodline spawned. [If you don’t accept Christ as your Savior,]  you will be in Hell like any pagan, loudmouthed atheist, evolutionist or committed Communist.”  He loved the Jews, he said, but in the end, they would be burned with the rest of the trash.

Even when the church has managed to preach kindness to the Jews, it has tacked on the caveat that God will get them in the end.  The church has been like the disciples looking at their Samaritan brethren and asking Jesus with, I imagine smug self-satisfaction, “Shall we call down fire from the heavens upon them, Lord?”

But Jesus rebuked the disciple’s bloodlust.  To rebuke means to disapprove, to scold, to condemn.  Jesus didn’t say, “Not now, boys.  The fire will come later when they burn in hell for having rejected me.”  Jesus rebuked his disciple’s impulse to destroy those who chose not to follow the gospel they were preaching.  And I believe that Jesus would have rebuked the church’s similar impulse to condemn the Jews not only because he denounced violence and judgment of all kind but also because he himself was a Jew and he never rejected his religious background.  In the Christian church, we often forget that Jesus was Jewish and stayed Jewish right through to his ascension.  He didn’t take off his yamaka while he was in the tomb and grab a rosary or Book of Common Prayer.  He didn’t wake up on Easter and say, “Oh, look.  Now I am a Christian!”  He never denounced his Jewishness.  Even when Jesus engaged in debates with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, those debates took place within the context of Judaism because those groups, along with the followers of John the Baptist, the Zealots, the Essenes, and Jesus and his disciples all saw themselves as Jews.  When they argued among themselves, it was like Methodists and Baptists arguing over the validity of infant baptism.  Methodists and Baptists may disagree on whether a person should be baptized as a baby or an adult but they accept one another as fellow Christians — misguided, wrong headed, obtuse, ignorant Christians perhaps, but fellow Christians nonetheless.  So too Jesus preached to the Jews as a Jew and argued with other Jews about faith and the law and God and he never renounced his Judaism.  And so, once again, you can’t be a Neo-Nazi and still be faithful to Christ; you can’t be a white supremacist and be faithful to Christ; you can’t condemn, judge, and reject people who practice Judaism no matter how nicely you put it and still be faithful to Christ because Christ himself was a Jew and you cannot pledge your life to your Savior while you hate who he is.

So how did we get from there to here?  Why did the church, whose Savior was a Jew, whose disciples were all Jewish, and who even embraced the Jewish scriptures as informative to our own faith life, become the central player in the growth of anti-Judaism over the last two thousand years?

Bear with me for a few minutes now while this becomes less of a sermon and more of a history lesson.  If we are going to confess and repair the damage from the sin of the church’s anti-Judaism, we have to understand where that bigotry came from and how it came to dominant the church because it didn’t happen right away.  For the first three hundred years, the new Christian churches and their Jewish neighbors lived side by side in the Roman empire, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes spitting insults at one another as they fought about theology and whether Jesus was the Messiah.  Christianity during those first centuries was very diverse in its theology and practices.  Some churches were made up entirely of Gentile converts and had so little knowledge of their Jewish ancestry that the gospel writers had to include parenthetical explanations of Jewish customs. 3  Other churches remained as much Jewish as Christian, continuing to observe the entire Jewish law while also professing salvation through Christ.  The book of Acts tells us that the apostle Paul helped foster the Gentile Christian churches but that Jesus’ brother, James, and many of the 12 disciples remained very Jewish in their practice.  The churches they led in Judea continued to follow kosher laws, observed the Jewish holy days, practiced circumcision of their male children, and followed the teachings of Jesus.  We tend today to think that they were misguided but some scholars have pointed out that unlike Paul who never met Jesus (except in a vision), Jesus’ brother and close associates knew him well, spent years with him while he was teaching, and so their more Jewish form of Christianity might actually better reflect Jesus’ own understanding.  Maybe Jesus intended for us to be more Jewish in practice than we ended up. 4

Nevertheless, this diversity of thought about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity that existed in the first three centuries came to a rather abrupt end in 380.  That’s when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Now religious identity was not just a matter of theology but also determined your ability to hold office in the Empire and wield power in society.  Upton Sinclair once said, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”  Well, after 380, if you wanted to advance up the political ladder, you needed to make sure that your Christian faith was beyond question; your career depended on your being unable to understand how Christianity and Judaism might be compatible.  And so it was the most dogmatic of Christians who gained influence in the new Christian state and they wielded the power of their office against any who might be inclined to be more tolerant.  After 380, oppression of the Jews became institutionalized: Jews were no longer allowed to hold office in the Roman empire, interfaith marriage was forbidden, and Jews were not allowed to give witness against Christians in court.  Because political offices were combined with church offices, the ones making the laws also wrote church doctrine.  Needing to justify their political positions, Bishops taught that the subjugation of the Jews was justified because the Jews were being punished by God for having crucified Jesus.  In hindsight, this claim was a particularly hypocritical statement because it was actually the Roman government that crucified Jesus, the same government in which these Christians now held office.  Sadly, even some of our most famous and beloved church thinkers promoted anti-Jewish sentiment.  St. Augustine, who is arguably the most influential Christian theologian in church history wrote, “How hateful to me are the enemies of your Scripture! How I wish that you would slay [the Jews] with your two-edged sword, so that there should be none to oppose your word!”

For the next thousand years, the anti-Jewish preaching of the church continued and grew as Jews became the scapegoat for every crisis.  They were blamed for the split between the east and west empire.  They were blamed for the bubonic plague and over 900 Jews were burned alive as retribution.  Jews were slaughtered during the Crusades, innumerable times they had their land taken, and they were expelled from their homes and towns.  One Jewish saying wryly summarizes every Jewish holiday as, “They tried to kill us.  They failed.  Let’s eat.”

By the time the Catholic church had begun to lose its political influence and fracture apart in the 1500s, some Protestant reformers hoped that Jews would flock to the new Protestant churches, thankful to be free of the oppression of the Catholics.  When the Jewish people insisted on remaining true to their own faith, the Protestants also turned against them.  In 1543, the great reformer Martin Luther produced a pamphlet called, “The Jews and their Lies.”  Luther believed that the Jews’ refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah was leading not only to their damnation but endangered the welfare of any who encountered them.  I debated reading his words to you because they are so disturbing but if we are truly to confess the church’s sin, we have to be willing and humble enough to hear the worst of what has been said in Christ’s name.  Luther wrote, “Be on your guard against the Jews, knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which sheer self ­glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously…they are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury. Thus they live from day to day, together with wife and child, by theft and robbery, as arch-­thieves and robbers…”

Martin Luther’s hatred of the Jews was so thorough that he recommended that the Jewish synagogues be burned, their houses destroyed, their sacred writings taken from them, their rabbis forbidden to teach, their silver and gold removed from their houses, and that they be forced to work at heavy labor and allowed only to live in barns.

“Deal harshly with them,” Luther writes, “as Moses did in the wilderness, slaying three thousand lest the whole people perish.”   Luther’s pamphlet is extremely disturbing to read and what is more disturbing is that his pamphlet was reproduced and distributed by the Nazis.  Luther’s words became the blueprint for the genocide of the Jews in the Holocaust.  What is equally disturbing is that Luther’s pamphlet continues to be reproduced today and distributed among neo-Nazi’s and white supremacists in our own nation. 5

In 1944, the Reverend William Ralph Inge said, “If we wish to find a scapegoat on whose shoulders we may lay the miseries which Germany has brought upon the world, I am more and more convinced that the worst evil genius of that country is not Hitler or Bismarck or Frederick the Great, but Martin Luther.”

Anti-semitism is a sin and it is our sin, a great black mark on the history of our faith.  And because it is our sin, only we in the church can atone for it.  The nation can pass anti-hate laws and support civil liberties for the Jews, and it should, but only we in the church can do the work that is needed to challenge and change the underlying theological doctrines that gave birth to anti-Jewish thinking.  Dr. Vernon McGee, Presbyterian minister and host of the old time “Thru the Bible Radio network” said, “The primary step that every believer in Christ should take today is to understand the biblical background for anti-Semitism and to understand what is the underlying cause of it.”  I’ve tried to do some of that today but I can’t undue two thousand years of preaching in one sermon.  I’m good but not that good!  What I am going to do instead is to keep coming back to this issue periodically throughout the year.  I’m not going to preach on it exclusively — you’ll still get the normal weekly diet of comfort, grace, and discipleship — but this fall I am going to preach on some of the stories in the Hebrew scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) so that as we hear again those stories and see how they can inform our faith lives, we will remember and honor the Jewishness of Jesus.  We will appreciate the rich heritage that Jews and Christians share together.  Then, in the new year, I will take some time to look at the passages in the New Testament that have been used to claim superiority over the Jews and ask how we can redeem those passages as being informative to our faith without doing it at the expense of the Jews.

In the meantime, I ask you to do some work of your own as well.

1.  Recognize and confess the role the church has played in the rise of anti-Judaism throughout the world.  Read about it, pray about it, think about it, and talk honestly with others about it.  When you see a rally of white supremacists say, “That is absolutely wrong and I’m afraid that we in the church must share the blame in that sin.”  Anti-semitism isn’t “their problem;” it’s our problem.

2.  Engage the Bible thoughtfully and critically.  Paul said that God made a promise to the Jews that they would be God’s people for all time and God doesn’t break God’s promises, so if you read a passage that sounds like God is giving up on the Jews, consider that it may not be saying what it sounds like it is saying.  There are a lot of translation decisions that were made by English editors influenced by the church’s history of anti-semitism, and there were a lot of cultural differences in the first century that we may not always understand from here in the 21st century.  If scripture seems like it can be wielded as a weapon to hurt others, it may be the one holding the Bible who is in error, not the Bible itself.

3.  Don’t fall into the mistake of thinking that you can love the Jews but still condemn them to hell.  That is the thinking that led to the Holocaust.

4.  Say to yourself every day, “My Savior was a Jew.  Baruch Adonai Elohenu.  Blessed be the Lord our God.”

Footnotes:

  1. https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/us-anti-semitic-incidents-spike-86-percent-so-far-in-2017
  2. Social Darwinism had a large influence as well as ideas promoted by atheists such as Karl Marx
  3. See, for example, Mark 7:3-4
  4. http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_chov.htm
  5. If you want to read the whole pamphlet, be forewarned it is disturbing.  You can read it at: https://archive.org/stream/TheJewsAndTheirLies1543En1948/LUTHERDr._Martin-The_Jews_and_their_Lies_1948-EN_djvu.txt