Lenten Readings: Day 37

Rejoice!

apostle-paul-prison-epistles-writer-of-book-hebrews-nteb-933x445

Paul signs off on a letter he dictated in prison.

Today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary is the last from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians for awhile. The reading ends at verse thirteen, but I’ve tacked on the remaining verses. The purpose of the letter becomes evident with those verses – Paul is writing a thank you to the Philippians for giving him support while he is imprisoned and awaiting a hearing before pagan authorities. In Roman times imprisonment was not actually the punishment, but a means of controlling the accused until judgement was delivered. Punishment was financial, physical, exile, or death, depending on the crime, but it was never confinement in prison.

It is not clear from the letter where Paul was or on what charge he was imprisoned. He refers to “the emperor’s household” which may be an ironic reference to other followers of Jesus also imprisoned, although some have seen it as a reference to soldiers or those close to the Emperor; on that basis, some have read the letter as having been written while Paul was in Rome, prior to his death. It also puts any discussion of “citizenship” by Paul in sharp relief especially as Paul is described by the Acts of the Apostles as being a Roman citizen.

This part of the letter has exhortations and personal notes, as is typical in the latter parts of Greek/Roman letter writing.

Philippians 4.1-13 (14-23)
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

We have no good sense of who these people were or what they did. The Acts of the Apostles was written a generation after Paul and his letters, and it makes no mention of them. Presumably they are people in Philippi. The letters tend to suggest that Paul enlisted the help of capable of women in the communities where he set up churches, whereas Acts does not emphasise this and describes Paul working with one or two others. The Book of Life is mentioned in Psalm 69.28. and it is a heavenly book containing the names of the righteous.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

This is a lovely passage, and I cannot hear it without thinking of Henry Purcell’s Rejoice in the Lord Always (c. 1682-1685). The sense of peace it describes is transcendent and desirable. What is stunning is that he clearly experiences this joy himself, even though he is in prison.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

There is a tradition in philosophy known as virtue ethics, which can be traced back to Aristotle but has become more prominent in recent decades thanks to the work of the Scottish-American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He, with others, views the cultivation of virtues as central to living a moral life; these virtues are rooted in ἀρετή or “excellences”. Not by accident, MacIntyre was also a Roman Catholic who was grounded in the thought of Thomas Aquinas and his moral thought, which drew heavily on Aristotle. This kind of ethics would find much support in the passage above by Paul.

Paul then goes on to describe his personal situation and to give thanks for the assistance received from the Philippians through Epaphroditus.

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The friends who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

The final verse might recall the greeting frequently used in Prayer Book liturgies: V: The Lord be with you. R: And with thy spirit. In modern liturgies the response was changed to, “And also with you”. Some objected to this, feeling that it was not an accurate translation from the various sources in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew from which the call and response came from. In particular, since it was normally an ordained person who gave the versicle “The Lord be with you” it was thought that the response “and with thy spirit” was a recognition by the congregation of the special character of the speaker’s spirit by virtue of that ordination. My own thought on this is that this is a reading into ancient phrases of an exaltation of the clergy – in truth, all Christians live by the spirit, as is evidenced by Paul’s theology and usage. Clergy are set aside not by some magical transformation of their character, but by the need for the community to have leaders. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are discerned in advance of ordination and perhaps strengthened by the prayers said by the Bishop and the laying on of hands, but there is no ontological change as such – that already took place at baptism.

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Lenten Readings: Day 36

Bodies in Transformation
(Tuesday in Holy Week)

St Paul

St. Paul from the Parish of St. Mark’s, Qualicum Beach, Anglican Diocese of British Columbia, where the chrism mass today was presided over by the Bishop of British Columbia. Paul probably did not look like this, either, nor did he carry a sword, and he probably knew books as scrolls, not codices. The classical temples are a nice touch, but an incongruous baroque dome seems to be in the background, too.

Following on yesterday’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary, Paul continues in the Letter to the Philippians to encourage his readers/hearers to press on towards the resurrection.

Phil 3.15–21
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Pressing on towards the resurrection from the dead, pushing “on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” is an effort that comes in response to the call from God. That call is manifested in the believer by faith, and Paul tells the recipients of his letter to be like him and others who are like him. Paul does this because he believes he is following the example of Jesus, and that he lives by the spirit of God.

He warns the Philippians against the enemies of the cross of Christ, who are the pagan Gentiles who are motivated by their unrestrained desires. Their mind set is on eartlhy things, not heavenly. They are under the dominion of earthly powers – whether human or otherwise – and so their citizenship is that of the earth, whether Rome or some other jurisdiction. Paul claims that Christians have a citizenship from heaven – they are under the dominion of the Spirit. When the Son of Man comes he will subject all of these enemies under him, destroying them, and the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15). After death is destroyed, all will come alive, some for judgement, others for glory. Christians will move into that glory and receive transformed bodies – spiritual but material bodies – just like Jesus.

These are hard things for post-enlightenment followers of Jesus to accept. Is the Son of Man going to return in glory? How are bodies transformed? How is death put to death? But, again, Paul is talking about that which is logically beyond ordinary speech, the event of the resurrection of Jesus that explodes ordinary categories and speech. We experience the power of the resurrection already in our bodies, as our inner selves are renewed even as our outer selves suffer and die.

In the meantime we are foreigners, strangers in a strange land. We can never be entirely comfortable with the political world around us, because it gives us a citizenship that is less than what we have from God. There is always a tension between the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Rome. We live our lives in that tension. There may be many Christians in government and among the people, but there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as a Christian state or nation, just shadows of what we look for and hope to be.

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Lenten Readings: Day 35

Confidence in Flesh and Spirit
(Monday in Holy Week)

philippi-e1425479773166

Philippi was established in 356 BC by the king of Macedon, Philip II, on the site of the Thasian colony of Crenides, near the head of the Aegean Sea. Centuries later, it was abandoned after the Ottoman conquest (14th century). The present municipality of Filippoi is located near the ancient city’s ruins and it is part of the region of East Macedonia and Thrace in Kavala, Greece. The ancient city is currently the most important archaeological site in the region. The first excavations did not begin until the summer of 1914,and were soon interrupted by World War I. Between 1920 and 1937, archaeologists unearthed the Greek theatre, the forum, the baths and the city walls. After World War II, Greek archaeologists returned to the site, uncovering multiple public buildings.

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians was probably written before his Letter to the Romans, but reading it after Romans is quite striking. In today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary Paul gets into the oppositions of spirit and flesh, Jews and Greeks, and faith and law, but this time he doesn’t talk about how all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

We get the tail end of a passage where Jesus exhorts the Philippians to rejoice. This is not because they are not already joyful, but because he wants them to continue in that joy. Then he goes on to offer warnings about Anti-Pauline Jewish Christians.

Philippians 3.1–14
Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.

To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.

Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.

Who are these dogs who wish to “mutilate the flesh” of the Gentile Christians, who do not understand that the Gentile Christians are not under the obligations of the law? From Paul’s Letter to the Galatians it sounds as though there is a spectrum of Christianity during Paul’s time.

At the radical end is Paul, who believes that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. He is a radical egalitarian in that respect, and at the end of Paul’s Letter to the Romans lists many women who worked for the building up of the church, and at least one of whom he calls an apostle (Junia). He also, as discussed in past days, does not believe that Jewish Christians are bound by the Torah, although he knows quite well that there are many Jewish Christians who differ on that point, and when in Jerusalem (according to Acts and confirmed by what he says in 1Corinthians 9) he does observe the commandments, so as not to give scandal. What Paul objects to is those Torah observing Jewish Christians who want to make Jews out of Gentile Christians, as if observance of the Torah is required by Gentiles for salvation.

At the other end is the Jerusalem Church, led by James the Just, the brother of Jesus. It appears to be conservative, Torah observing, and men from James in Jerusalem are described by Paul as having come to the church in Antioch, Syria, and persuading the Jewish Christians to keep kosher and eating separately from the Gentile Christians. In the middle is Peter, who had led the church in Jerusalem but fled because of persecution, who is described in Galatians as having been happy to eat with Gentiles until the people from James came to Antioch. Even Barnabas, who had worked with Paul, was pulled over to the conservative side.  Paul also points out that when he went to Jerusalem with Titus, a Gentile Christian, the leadership in Jerusalem did not require Titus to be circumcised, although there were some “false believers” who did advocate this.

Paul describes those who worship in the Spirit and do not rely on the flesh as being more truly “circumcised” than those who are circumcised in the flesh.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul believes he was an exemplary Jew and Pharisee, or unimpeachable ancestry and observance of the law. He describes himself as being righteous. However, he now knows that he saw the world the wrong way. He did not know what time it was, as the Jewish scholar of early Christianity Pamela Eisenbaum puts it. He thought that the coming of the Son of man and of the Messiah was still a long ways off. When Jesus appeared to him and called him to take the gospel to the Gentiles Paul realized that it already the end time, and that in Christ’s resurrection the judgement and re-creation of the world had begun. He gladly traded a righteousness that he might have under the law for the absolute certainty of righteousness by faith that he gains by knowing Christ and being known by him. He patterns his life on that of Christ, offering himself and desiring to share in his sufferings and death so that he might be raised from the dead. He wants to be found in Christ – he desires to be part of the body of Christ and integrated in him. This done through baptism, by service, and mystically by faith and grace.

My own faith feels quite certain; as Paul puts it in Romans, nothing will separate us from the love of God. The question for me is not who do I trust in, or where is my faith, but how do I respond to it? In Paul’s case it has been to preach the gospel to Gentiles. In my case it has been to be a baptised member of the church for fifty-four years, a husband for thirty, an ordained minister for twenty-eight, a father for twenty-four (and again for twenty), and a refugee coordinator for the past two. I have done none of these things perfectly, but I have been bold enough to act in the name of Christ, knowing that I would be forgiven for anything where I went astray. While I am not yet resurrected, the same power which raised Jesus from the dead is at work in me. As I get older I am less confident about anything that I might do in the flesh, but my spirit continues to grow, and in that I rest.

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Lenten Reflections: Day 34

All Israel Will Be Saved

Phantombild Paulus von Tarsus

At the instigation of German journalist Michael Hesemann the North Rhine-Westphalia State Investigation Bureau created a Facial Composite (it sounds better in German: Phantombild) of Paul of Tarsus. Given that there are no living witnesses of the man, and the oldest portrait of him dates from three centuries after his death, this must be considered a work of the imagination. Looks like a nice man, though.

Today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary is, in my opinion, the main point in the long Letter of Paul to the Romans, and it concludes the discussion that started in Romans 1.16. Both Jews and Greeks have had the good news of Jesus preached to them.  Some Jews and some Gentiles have come to know it as the power of God by the faith that is given them. As their salvation is due to the faith that is given to them, a faith that depends upon the sacrifice of Jesus, Gentile Christians have no business to be proud in comparison to Jewish Christians or Jews. Indeed, whereas Paul probably believes that non Christian Gentiles are subject to punishment for their perverse ways, in the reading below he believes that all Israel will be saved despite any sins or unbelief.

Rom 11.25–36
So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,
‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer;
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’
‘And this is my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.’
As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.

Paul simply assumes that God will be merciful to all of Israel despite their individual hardening of hearts. Paul acknowledges that this might appear incomprehensible – but God’s judgements are inscrutable, unsearchable, and deeper than we can know.

Ax I’ve been working my way through Paul’s Letter to the Romans it is apparent to me that Paul is not presenting a systematic theology, despite whatever later Biblical scholars and theologians might have thought. Paul here reminds me of his discussion of marriage in First Corinthians Chapter Seven, where he seems to be making up things on the fly.  In this letter Paul is creating an elaborate exhortation to the Romans that incorporates several insights that undoubtedly owe much to his preaching, but Paul has not worked out all the implications and details, and there is a degree of paradox, contradiction, and opacity. We ask questions that did not occur to Paul.

So what are those insights? I cannot enumerate all of them, but these are the most significant ones in Romans:
1) God has declared that Jesus is the Messiah by raising him from the dead.
2) Jesus is prophesised in the Scriptures. Paul repeatedly refers to them apparently from memory, in Greek. He is probably quoting from the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. Paul saw the Jewish scriptures as a testimony to Jesus.
3) As is expected by Jews generally, this Jesus as Messiah is descended from David.
4) The gospel is to be preached to both Jews and Gentiles.
5) Paul has been called by God to bring the good news to Gentiles, an act of grace by God.
6) A person who has faith has received salvation – they will not be judged for their actions but because they have faith. This is not to say that their actions are not good, but simply that these acts are not the basis for God’s mercy.
7) Subjectively, faith is a kind of obedience. However, faith is also, from the God’s eye perspective, something fore-ordained and predestined. Paul accepts this paradox of apparent free will and yet determinism by God.
8) “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” In other words, God will judge the pagan Gentiles for evil thoughts and actions.
9) Christian Gentiles have no basis for judgement, for they are in the good graces of God not by their good deeds, but because of God’s mercy on them, which is manifested in them by faith.
10) Judgement and partiality by Gentiles of others suggests that they are relying on their good deeds, and not living by faith (this goes back to the undoubted commandment of Jesus that his followers should not judge others).
11) Jews who rely on observing the law to escape judgement are also not living by faith. They will be found to have fallen short of the law, especially hypocrites who say one thing and do another. However, Jews who observe the law as a manifestation of faith will be saved.
12) Jews like Paul who have accepted the gospel are no longer bound by the law, but if they observe parts of it in the name of the gospel, or as a manifestation of faith, they do no wrong.
13) Gentile Christians are not required to live in accordance with the Torah, as they are not Jews.
13) All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This is true of Gentiles as well as Jews, whether following the law written on their hearts or the Torah.
14) Christians live by the spirit of God that is within them, but can fall back into old ways (such as judging others). Gentile Christians were previously ruled by sin and death. Christians are free from sin.
15) Christ dies for us, but Paul does not explain how this reconciles us to God.
16) Christians are united with Christ in his death, so that we might rise with him.
17) The spirit is manifested in calling God “Abba, Father” and by sighs too deep for words.
18) All Israel will be saved.

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Lenten Readings: Day 33

Grafting the Olive Tree

olive-tree-bchaaleh-4-678x381

“The whole point of grafting is that each part of the grafted tree keeps its original character.” – Greek olive tree farmer talking to author Sara Alexi

In today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary Paul is building to the climax of his Letter to the Romans, in which he addresses the Gentile Christians about their pride versus Jews and Jewish Christians.

Rom 11.13–24
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness towards you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.

Paul uses the metaphor of grafting in order to deflate any pride the Gentile Christians might have. Grafting involves taking the young stalk of a plant of one species or variety (the scion) and attaching it to another plant (the root or rootstock) so that it takes advantage of its vascular system. Plants can naturally grow together, so humans have long used it as a method of growing various types of fruit. Typically the rootstock is of a wild variety that is resistant to disease, grows easily, but does not produce much fruit or fruit of a small size. The scion is typically domesticated, productive, and desirable. Grafting is used with fruit trees like apples, vines such as grapes for wine, ornamentals such as roses and cacti, and sometimes unusual combinations such as potatoes and tomatoes. In Paul’s time the grafting of domesticated olive scions onto wild varieties of olive rootstock was everywhere. Once the graft (or grafts) have taken, most of the wild branches are broken off so that the domesticated scions can derive sustenance from the rootstock.

Paul twists the metaphor, though. Instead of grafting a domestic scion onto a wild rootstock, Paul describes the extension of the Gospel to Gentiles as the grafting of a wild scion on a domesticated rootstock, which no farmer would actually do. This twisted metaphor corresponds to the surprising mission to God to the Gentiles – its strange, like the father in the story of the prodigal son, or the owner who pays all his workers the same regardless of whether they worked all day or one hour.

Gentiles have no right to be proud, as if they were better than the Jews who were broken off the plant so that they might be grafted in. The Gentiles did nothing to deserve being grafted in, as they have faith as a gift from God. Then Paul talks about how Israel will be grafted it anyway, provided they do not persist in unbelief. That could mean that either Israel will turn to Christ, or that they will be re-grafted in on the basis that their faith is similar to that of the patriarchs and prophets (most probably the former, but things develop in the rest of the chapter).

The grafting of the Gentiles into Israel is described as” unnatural” which in Greek is παρὰ φύσιν (para phusin, or “contrary to nature”). Interestingly, this is the same phrase used to condemn same-sex behaviour in Romans 1.26; this prompts the question is that if God does unnatural things, is there an argument that not all things considered contrary to nature are necessarily wrong, but if filled with grace and love may become praiseworthy?

Finally, as the Greek farmer said to Sara Alexi, “The whole point of grafting is that each part of the grafted tree keeps its original character.” If one really understands grafting, the rootstock must stay alive and continue as it was. The Gentile Christians who are disappointed that Jewish Christians and Jews continue with their practices and observances are people who do not understand this principle. There may be some graft chimeras life Paul, but the rootstock in this case remains Jewish.

Tomorrow we conclude the Lenten Readings from Romans (we pick up with Romans in chapter twelve on the Tuesday after the Sixth Sunday of Easter). Starting on Monday in Holy Week, we read bits and pieces from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, First and Second Corinthians, and finish with passages from the First Letter of Peter and the Letter to the Hebrews.

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Lenten Readings: Day 32

Inclusion

Art High Museum Bill Traylor

Untitled (Exciting Event: House with Figures) Bill Traylor (c. 1854–1949) Montgomery, Alabama c. 1939–1947 Poster paint and pencil on cardboard 13 1/2 x 13 7/8 in. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, T. Marshall Hahn Collection, 1997.114

Has God rejected the Jews? For much of the past twenty centuries most Christians have answered, “Yes.” Most Christians believed that they had a new covenant through Christ withh God, and that this replaced the old covenants. The Church was seen as the new, improved Israel ; this kind of theology is called “supersessionism“. Judaism was tolerated at best as a reminder of what God did not want Christians to be. While Jesus, his disciples and Paul were all Jews, this was ignored and forgotten, so that to some Christians it coma as a shocking suggestion that Jesus was a normal Jew, indistinguishable from his peers (which is why Judas had to identify him to the Temple police). In the 16th century Martin Luther, although initially well disposed to Jews, eventually became a profoundly anti-Jewish author, advocating that they be driven from Christendom, their synagogues destroyed, and their books destroyed. This had a profound effect upon German attitudes towards Judaism, and was a major contribution to Antisemitism (discrimination on the basis or Jewish race, not just Jewish religion).

One wonders, then, what these folks did with the following passage, today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary.

Rom 11.1–12
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.’ But what is the divine reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

Paul seems to suggest that at the present time, that is, when he was dictating this letter to the Romans, that there were many like him, foreknown by God to be called in grace to be a follower of Jesus. Paul sees himself in some respects as another Elijah, and recounts the story from the First Book of Kings, Chapter 19, where the prophet flees Ahab and Jezebel flees and believes he is utterly alone. But God says, no, there are yet seven thousand in Israel who are faithful. Likewise, Paul sees a faithful remnant among the Jews living at his time.

 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,
‘God gave them a sluggish spirit,
eyes that would not see
and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.’
And David says,
‘Let their table become a snare and a trap,
a stumbling-block and a retribution for them;
let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
and keep their backs for ever bent.’

So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!

Paul sees the majority of the Jews experiencing  a hardening of the heart. As is his practice, he backs this up with a scriptural quotation. It is not at all clear where Paul is quoting from in the first scriptural reference – perhaps one of Isaiah’s diatribes against those who would combine the worship of Yahweh with Ba’al or some other Canaanite god. The second reference is to Psalm 69.22, although it is out of context – in the original it is part of a curse that the psalmist is casting on those who persecute him.

But then Paul pulls the rug out from under his readers, readers who may already be quite critical of Jewish Christians and all the rest of the Jews. Paul points out that through Jewish stumbling and an apparent defeat salvation has come to the Gentiles, but God in divine mercy and grace will include the Jews in salvation in full accord with the covenant. There is no supersession, only an expansion of grace given to Gentiles. This gets expanded in the next chapter or so.

The point about this is that while God is just, a more central characteristic is that God is  so spendthrift and generous that it explodes the ideas of fairness and equity. God does not want to exclude but include, and so takes the risky step of becoming vulnerable and suffering with us. God, outside of creation, enters into creation but is treated as an outsider by both the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. He is a disappointment to the Zealots and impractical to the Herodians. He does not stand apart as the Essenes did, and dares to talk to women, Samaritans, and pagans. He comes from the margins of Jewish society, from Galilee, which had been settled by Jews only a few generations before. His death of the cross remains a stumbling block to his own people and is utter foolishness to pagans. The good news his disciples proclaimed was so outrageously out there that most people found it perverse and cultish. It should never have succeeded. And yet it did.

I think that one of the reasons it succeeded was that the message of Jesus was an invitation to join at the table where there is always room for more. Inclusion is sometimes derided by some Christians, but I would like to think that God’s love is greater than any constraints I can think of to put on it.

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Lenten Readings: Day 31

To the Ends of the World

Beachy Head

Beachy Head, England

The very first time I flew out to Vancouver was in 1986, when I attended a Divinity Students Conference at the old Vancouver Divinity School. After flying across mainland Canada for five hours Vancouver was finally in sight. As we approached the city we flew past it out over the ocean, ultimately to turn around and land at YVR – but I had the most unreasonable sensation that I had flown out beyond the edge of the known world. After all, beyond the west coast, what was there but the immense Pacific Ocean, a huge void? As it turned out, what was just beyond the Lower Mainland of British Columbia was Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, where I have lived since 1995, but I did not know that then. All I could think was that if Jerusalem was the centre from which the gospel was proclaimed, this was about as far away from it as you could get. This was the End of the World.

Why does Paul preach the Gospel? Apart from the strong impression that Jesus asked him personally to do so, he also feels that in doing so he plays a role in the  fulfillment of the scriptures. A strong theme in Christian theology of the last days (aka eschatology) is that before the Son of Man returns the good news of Jesus must be preached to the ends of the world.

Rom 10.14–21
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.

But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for
‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
and their words to the ends of the world.’
Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
with a foolish nation I will make you angry.’
Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,
‘I have been found by those who did not seek me;
I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’
But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.’

Paul again, using something like a proto-Talmudic method, quotes verses in support of this view. In sequence, and with the NRSV translations from the source text, they are:

Isaiah 52.7: How beautiful upon the mountains
   are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
   who announces salvation,
   who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
Isaiah 53.1: Who has believed what we have heard?
   And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
Psalm 19.4: yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Deuteronomy 32.21: So I will make them jealous with what is no people,
   provoke them with a foolish nation.
Isaiah 65.1-2: I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
   to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’,
   to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
   to a rebellious people

Paul again appears to be quoting from memory from the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The impression made by this concatenation of verses is that God will reach out to the Gentiles, and that the Israelites/Jews were repeatedly rebellious. The extension of God’s mercy is intended to provoke the Jews.

Paul wanted to go to the ends of the earth in order to proclaim the good news. He wanted to expedite the coming of the Son of man. Interestingly, this same belief and impetus was behind St. patrick when he went to Ireland. For that missionary bishop Ireland was about as far and distant a place as one could go; beyond Ireland was only water. In 1910 the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh reflected the same belief – that the kingdom of God would be hastened by the preaching of the gospel to all peoples. The ends of the world for them were places like Mecca and the far west of China.

The gospel is proclaimed both geographically and temporally. Christianity has for many decades ceased to be a European religion. If anything, the average Christian today is a female African. Europe and North America are arguably less Christian than they were, largely due to the rise of agnosticism. The mission for Western evangelists today is not overseas, it is literally outside our door.

As it turns out the actual antipodes of Jerusalem is several thousand km northeast of New Zealand. The nearest inhabited land seems to be an island called Rapa Iti, a very isolated island that is part of French Polynesia. The indigenous Polynesians seem to have arrived only in the 13th century, and today some 500 people live there. Because it is considered part of France, its people are all EU citizens, and can freely travel to the EU to live and work. From what I can tell from the Internet, all the inhabitants of the island are Christian.

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