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Our sermons are available as audio files to listen at your convenience.
“Who Are the People of God?”
Sermon on Romans 9:1-5
On August 2, Robert Bowers, a 45-year-old truck driver, was sentenced to the death penalty for the massacre of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Prior to these murders, Bowers had been active online, reading and posting Holocaust denials and vitriolic hate messages directed at Jews. Just a little over a year earlier, members of Unite the Right, a neo-Nazi group, marched through the streets of Charlottesville with torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
These are chilling reminders that anti-Semitism is not dead, even here in America – in fact, it’s having a resurgence, in Europe, in the U.S., in several other countries. This rise in anti-Semitic hate speech and outright terrorism has accompanied the rise of so-called Christian nationalism, both here and in several other countries. For some of those who claim to be Christian nationalists, the belief that their country is fundamentally Christian (whether true or not) seems to be taken as a warrant for demonizing, marginalizing and, in some cases, terrorizing those who are not Christian.
I doubt that most self-proclaimed Christian nationalists would be able to make a theological defense of their cause. Christian nationalism in the U.S. seems to have more to do with a particular expression of “Americanness,” especially white Americanness, than with believing in the Lordship of Jesus Christ and worshiping in a Christian church. But the ancient discrimination of Christians against Jews, which goes back many centuries and has been more pronounced in some historical periods than others, has been based on Scripture and theology – lazy and misguided scriptural interpretation and questionable theology, but definitely deriving from ideas that have been endorsed by the church at one time or another into the modern era. The Christian sidelining of the people of Israel is related to a theological idea called supersessionism, the idea that the church has superseded, or replaced, the people of God known as Israel. The sinister chant in Charlottesville, “Jews will not replace us!”, is a twist on an idea that was introduced in the Christian church and perpetuated by much of it: the idea that Christians have replaced the Jews, the original people of God, as God’s darlings.
Since medieval times, Christian anti-Semitism has looked for support in certain negative portrayals of Jews in the New Testament. The Pharisees, for example: devout, Torah-observant Jews, the Pharisees are shown in the Gospels as the enemies of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, they are usually just referred to as “the Jews,” and John has little good to say about them – he mostly satirizes them for their spiritual blindness. And, of course, the crowds in Jerusalem who called for the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus have gone down in history as “Christ-killers” – even though the Gospel writers were saying more about the fickleness of human nature than anything particular about the Jews of Jerusalem. It is important to remember that the Gospel writers had a polemical purpose in portraying, for example, the Pharisees in such a negative light. Not only that, but neither “the Pharisees” nor “the Jews” of John’s Gospel referred to the Jews in general – after all, most of the characters in the Gospels, including Jesus, were Jewish – these were references to the specific religious leaders who distrusted and opposed Jesus. You would hardly expect the Gospel writers to portray them in a positive light.
So to return to the question of supersessionism: Have Christians replaced the Jews as God’s favorite people? Is the church “the new Israel”? That is the question Paul, a Jew himself, is struggling with in the Letter to the Romans. Paul is coming to terms with the fact that his worldwide evangelistic mission has largely failed with the Jews, but has had astounding success with the Gentiles. The burning question for Paul is “What is God’s plan for Israel now that God has acted for all humanity in Jesus Christ?”
Our reading begins right after the climax of the great Romans Chapter Eight, where Paul declares that “Nothing in all creation…can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Chapters 9-11 raise and answer the question: Can humanity separate itself from God? Paul is tormented by the question: Can Israel, by failing to accept Jesus as the Messiah, estrange itself from God? Does Israel actually have that power?
It seems impossible. After all, it is Israel who has received God’s greatest gifts, which Paul enumerates: “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah.” In other words, they have it all, including Jesus himself. Let’s consider just a few of these gifts Paul enumerates.
The worship: The people of God called Israel were the ones who taught us what it is to love God for God’s self alone. Think of the psalmist of our first reading: “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (84:2). Would God take that away from the Jews to give to someone else?
The law: Christians tend to characterize Judaism as a religion of legalism and works-righteousness, in which people attain salvation by being perfectly obedient to the law. That is in fact a better characterization of medieval Catholicism than it is of Judaism. In Judaism the law is seen as a means of grace, a “delight,” something “sweeter than honey,” pleasurable to reflect upon and pleasant to observe. Was God going to take away that particular means of finding holiness in everyday life from the people who had been cultivating it and living by it for centuries?
The promises: That the Jews, by living with constant recognition that the Holy One was in their midst, by upholding justice and caring for the neighbor and the stranger in their midst, could actually be a blessing to the world. Was God going to take this away?
It cannot possibly be, Paul concludes (in Chapter 11), that God has abandoned the Jews, changed God’s mind about them, and transferred the covenant to another people, the Gentile Christians. It cannot be that God has turned away from Israel to embrace the church. To say such a thing is to say that God is not faithful, that God does not keep God’s promises. It is also to say that there are constraints on God, that human responses limit what God can do in the world. To suggest such a limitation is to suggest that God has no choice but to reject the Jews in order to embrace the Gentiles, as if the love and mercy of God were parceled out in some zero-sum fashion.
Paul finally finds his answer in thinking about God’s freedom. God is both faithful to the original covenant with the Jews, and God is free to open that covenant to include others – like the Gentiles.
Now, if God was going to break open the covenant to bring other people in, the Gentiles he knew would not have been Paul’s first choice. The Gentiles came with ignorance of Israel’s traditions, with unclean habits and rituals, a polytheistic religious background, and an association with imperial Rome. Nevertheless, here they were, believing that God’s promises were for them, too, in the person of Jesus Christ.
The inclusion of the Gentiles in the early church, which was still fundamentally Jewish, had nothing to do with racial or ethnic identity, cultural history, or inherited religion – it had to do with God’s apparent desire to include those who were responding in faith to Israel’s God, the God made known to them in Jesus Christ. How ironic that Paul’s message of inclusiveness, of grace extended to people outside the original covenant, has been misunderstood or willfully distorted by so many Christians, or “Christian-adjacent” people. How ironic and tragic that groups calling themselves Christian want to exclude and harass as “outsiders” God’s original “insiders.”
There is a story in both Mark and Matthew about an unnamed woman – Mark says she is Syrophoenician, Matthew says she is a Canaanite, but the point is that she is not Jewish – who comes to Jesus seeking healing for her little daughter. Jesus, surprisingly, rebuffs her, saying that he has only been sent to the “lost sheep of Israel,” and then makes some slur against Gentile “dogs” – in other words, that his ministry doesn’t extend to non-Jews. But the woman isn’t satisfied with this answer – she says, “Maybe so, but even the dogs get to lick up the crumbs under the master’s table.” We don’t get to see the stunned look on Jesus’s face when she says this, but he immediately rethinks his position, commends her faith, and heals her daughter. For the rest of the Gospel, it is clear that his ministry extends to Gentile outsiders.
We stand in the line of that Canaanite woman, heirs to the covenant not by birth but by grace. We stand before God not because we, the church of Jesus Christ, have some special privilege and not because we are so deserving, and certainly not because we have replaced anyone, but simply because God, out of freedom and mercy and love, has included us.
Lisa D. Kenkeremath
Manassas Presbyterian Church
August 13, 2023