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Sermon – “Hebrews” – March 16, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, March 16, 2014

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg


Genesis 12: 1-4a; Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17; John 3: 1-17

Alice Herz-Sommer died February 23, in London, England. A week later the Academy award for best short documentary was given to a film made about her. “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” told the story of Herz-Sommer who, at the age of one hundred ten, was the oldest living survivor of the Nazi program of systematic murder of Europeʼs Jews. Herz-Sommer, trained from childhood as a pianist, escaped death as part of an orchestra of prisoners maintained by the regime, and she was able to preserve the life of her son. Her mother and her husband were murdered.

Two out of three of the Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe were sought out, segregated, and destroyed as part of the Hitler regimeʼs pursuit of its policy of racial purity. Threemillionmen,twomillionwomen,andonemillionchildrenwereexterminated. All segments of society cooperated in the identification, detention, and destruction of their Jewish neighbors, including churches, which turned over parish records of births in order to establish which members of the community had three or four Jewish grandparents. To the few criticisms raised at the time, the answer was made that the Nazis were only doing now what God was going to do anyway, namely that the Jews, not being believers in Jesus Christ, were destined for death and hell.

Following the war Christians, horrified at the consequences of the anti-Jewish feeling which Christian teaching had helped foster, officially condemned anti-Semitism. It became common in decades following to identify Western religion as “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” emphasizing the continuity between the religion of Jesusʼ birth and the faith founded on his resurrection. The ecumenical movement, encouraging respect and dialogue among different religious traditions within Christianity, often extended its efforts to non Christian traditions, Judaism being the one most frequently included.

Anti-semitism still exists. Generally, however, we live in a world in which Christians and Jews feel that it is right to respect each otherʼs faith. Both serve a God who insists on generosity of spirit toward the outsider, and an ethic of including and caring for the foreigner in oneʼs midst. Particularly with regard to the social justice imperatives championed by the prophets, Jews and Christians have much common ground.

Christianity and Judaism remain distinct religions. They differ on things related to the nature and purposes of God, the appropriate expectations of the faithful, and how to worship. Further, because both traditions grow out of the monotheistic assumptions which evolved within Judaism, they each serve a God who regards devotion to any discernibly different deity as idolatry, at best wrongheaded and unproductive, and at worst perverse and damned. This mutually exclusive faithfulness to the particularities of their own religious stance is what was behind traditional church teachings which devalued Judaism, along with those postures and practices of Judaism which distanced it from Christianity.

So, as so often in life, we have a problem. Two traditions, the integrity of each requiring it to recognize its distinction from the other, must find a way to relate which upholds imperatives of love toward the outsider without yielding its confidence in itself as the right way to know and serve God. Actually, since Islam grew out of Judaism and Christianity, three related religions share this problem, as do all. Today, however, because the scriptures we have read all antedate by centuries the emergence of Islam, we must consider the connection and the conflict between Christianity and Judaism. What we see may apply as well to Islam and other faiths. Any progress we can make in acknowledging and managing the conflicting claims of religious righteousness and relationship, however, is especially important in the world today. We must seek a way to honor peopleʼs religions which neither trivializes differences nor makes of them a motive for contempt or fear.

We will not resolve the tensions between competing claims to revelation and faithfulness by considering todayʼs scriptures, but we may find in the complexity of these Biblical claims some basis for humility, and perhaps humility can start the quest for a better way to be a person of God.

The call to Abram from the book of Genesis is our first scripture. God directly addresses Abram, and Abramʼs response only has to do with obedience to what Abram takes as Godʼs imperative to him. It doesnʼt have to do with cult, or custom, because until Moses reveals the law, and gets Israel to agree to the covenant, there is no religion as such.

When Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes to support his sharing the revelation of the resurrected Christ with non Jews as non Jews– in other words, not requiring them first to become Jews in order to benefit from the Jewish Messiah–he goes back to this story of Abram. That serves several purposes– one is that God promises Abram that all the nations of the world will be blessed through Abramʼs obedience to God. That introduces the blessing of non Jews. It also offers Paul a chance to highlight Abramʼs faithful response as the source of his blessing, and to compare that to the faithful response shown by non Jews hearing the gospel. Paul can point out that it is not in ritual practice nor religious identity, but in a spontaneous acceptance of direction from God, that one is justified. By returning to the story of Abram, Paul invokes a faithful person who subsequently will be claimed as ancestor by the Jews, but who himself is not Jewish, since Judaism, in the form of a national religion, wonʼt exist until centuries have passed after Abram obeys God.

This singling out of Abram, who otherwise is embedded in the stuff of tribal religion, shifts the emphasis from conformity to a social group, to personal adherence to a deity. It downplays the particularities of clan-based order, like degree of kinship and the bestowal of favored status on a successor. Instead Abram is presented as an exemplar of the individual who hears the call of God and does what God asks. This tactic, in our time, would permit us to discuss Abram to get at the psychology of faith, which, in attempting to embrace human nature as such, could move dialogue about religion away from the sticking points of history and culture. The promise to Abram that God, through him, would bless other nations, in that context means other human family groupings. Doesnʼt that say that all human beings have the capacity to relate to God as God chooses to engage them?

This matters because religion is always interior and individual while also being social and publicly expressed. Encounters with other faiths force one of these two sets of qualities to relativize the other. Paulʼs appeal to Abramʼs individuality and his personal response to God relativizes all the cultural meanings and connections Abram some day will have, and it permits his experience to be compared with the religious encounters, choices, and perceptions of other individuals, apart from questions of culture or history.

All the gospels contend with the failure of the majority of Jews to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Johnʼs gospel, in the third chapter, has a dialogue between a teacher of Israel named Nicodemus and Jesus. At least a couple of misunderstandings occur because of ambiguous words. What could be heard as “from above” also may be heard as “over again,” and what could be heard as “wind” also can be heard as “spirit.” By assigning the wrong meaning to these words Nicodemus is defeated in his effort better to get what Jesus is about. His failure to catch on surprises Jesus himself, who at one point asks, “How come you, a teacher of Israel, donʼt grasp this?”

This failure of communication stands for a broader inability to connect, exhibited throughout the gospel. Nicodemus, however, himself has more than one meaning. His coming by night and misunderstanding Jesus suggest he is part of the uncomprehending and generally hostile and hopeless “Jews” identified in Johnʼs gospels as the enemy. In explanation of the gospelʼs evident anti-Jewish feeling, it is believed that it arose out of a painful separation between the synagogue community and Jewish adherents of Jesus, who were rejected as true Jews and forced to develop a distinct identity. It does remain anti-Semitic, however, and scruples about the authority of scripture shouldnʼt prevent us from amending that.

Nicodemus, however, is not merely a Jew who doesnʼt understand. He also is a Jew who shows respect for Jesus. Amid the leadership he speaks up for treating Jesus fairly, and after the crucifixion brings burial necessities and helps inter Jesusʼ body. Added to the fact that, though the conversation failed, his initial seeking out of Jesus was based on his insight that Jesusʼ miracles were signs of his being from God, he is seen as distinct both from doubters and disciples. In a gospel in which everything usually is in terms of black and white, he comes across as gray. What this means to our own effort to relate appropriately to non Christians isnʼt clear, except that in the most anti Jewish of the gospels we find good qualities and correct insights ascribed to a Jew who fails to convert.

Finally, since both Christians and Muslims acknowledge the relationship between God and Abram, and Abraham and ourselves, we share this question: How does being blessed by Abramʼs descendants jibe with seeing their religion as false or failed?

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