Peace, Justice, and the God of Abraham: sermon for 17 August 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 17 August 2015: Year A, Proper 15
SERMON
Texts: Matthew 15.21-28
Romans 11.1-2a, 29-36
Peace, Justice, and the God of Abraham
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Both our readings this morning touch, in some way, on the vexed question of the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. In the Gospel reading, Jesus- who was, of course, himself a Jew- has a conversation with a Gentile woman who raises the question of whether his mission is only to his fellow-Jews. About twenty years later, Paul- who was also a Jew- writes to the Christian church at Rome. Paul ponders a problem- a problem which did not seem very likely when Christianity first got under way- which both gladdens and saddens him. He’s glad, because the Jesus movement, having started off as a movement to reform the Jewish faith, has collected many followers who are non-Jews- Gentiles. But Paul is saddened by the fact that so many of his fellow-Jews have emphatically rejected his ‘good news’. Christianity, even at this early stage, has begun to seem like a new religion, rather than an attempt reform Judaism. Paul rejoices that it has the potential to become a world faith, which anyone of any background can be part of. But he mourns that his own people- and Jesus’ own co-religionists- seem largely deaf to the message that Jesus was the promised messiah of the Jews.

Quite often, people are rude about theology. They say that theologians discuss issues which are nothing to do with real life. The question of the relationship of Christianity and Judaism could be like that, if it were only about abstruse dogmas. But in fact it is a question which lurks at the heart of many of the conflicts we see around the Middle East today. In Syria and Iraq, of course, many of those fighting- and many of their victims- claim allegiance to another religion, which appeared about 600 years after the New Testament was written, Islam. But the country of Syria shares a border with Israel, a country often (and officially) described as a ‘Jewish state‘. And Christians living in both Gaza and Israel are among the victims of the current conflict in Gaza, and of the terrible violence of the so-called Islamic State fighters who seem to be rapidly overrunning Syria and Iraq.

Dig deeper and your discover more. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British Government agreed to support a policy of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, an idea which had been encouraged by influential Christians since the 19th century. Many of the Jewish settlers who founded the State of Israel in 1948 had fled Europe during the Nazi Holocaust, or were survivors of it. Hitler’s attempt to wipe out the Jews from Europe was the latest and most of the pogroms which Jews had suffered at the hands of supposedly Christian states over the centuries. Today’s State of Israel receives enormous moral, political, financial and military support from the United States government, partly because of the influence in the United States of ‘Christian Zionism’, a movement within evangelical religious circles and American politics which holds that the modern State of Israel is the fulfilment of Biblical promises (Church of Scotland, Reports to the General Assembly 2013 13.3, page 3/35).

So, 2,000 years after Jesus, and St Paul, wrestled with the relationship of Judaism and Christianity; after 2,000 years of what has often been, to say the least, a rocky relationship, we are still dealing with the question. And it is a question which is at least lurking in the background for millions of people across the Middle East- Jews, Christians, Muslims and those of other faiths and philosophies. For them it is no abstract theological discussion, but a matter of war and peace, life and death, with the potential to uproot them from their homes and destroy their livelihoods. It is such a complex question- for after all, it’s been discussed for 2,000 years now. And it is, of course, not the only factor in the troubles of the Middle East- there’s oil, repression, scarce resources such as water, all kinds of other ideologies and theologies in the mix. So complex, in fact, that we are tempted, as Christians, either to ignore the issue, or to oversimplify it.

Today, however, in our worship, we simply have to allow to speak to us the two texts we’ve heard. For it’s not my purpose to give a lecture about the history of Jewish-Christian relations, or to attempt to make peace in the Middle East. That’s not what preaching is about. We come to church to hear God’s Word speak to us from the Bible. So we listen to our readings for the day, and attempt to see what wisdom might come from them. But we do so today all too aware of ‘noises off’- the violence, torture, death and destruction engulfing so many lives and communities across the Middle East, aware of that Christians are involved in it all, sometimes making things worse, but often as victims, and trying to help the victims.

The other day the Moderator of the General Assembly of our Church, The Rt Rev John Chalmers, called for prayer for the crisis in Iraq, and for the recall of Parliament, acknowledging that this country had a role to play because of our previous involvement. The Moderator said, ‘In 2003, we were part of the force which invaded Iraq, so we played a part in bringing about the conditions which have led to the current perilous instability. How can we ignore our moral duty to assist the victims?’. So, with Iraq- and also Gaza- in our minds, what do we hear from the ancient texts of the Bible today?

The first thing I think we have to hear today is Paul’s conclusion about the status of the Jews. His Letter to the Romans is Paul’s most systematic attempt to explain all the implications of the Gospel. He is thinking about what the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ means- what it means not just for Christians, but for all people, indeed, for the whole of creation. And that includes pondering the question of why so many Jews had rejected Christ- a deeply distressing situation for Paul. He writes, rhetorically: ‘I ask, then: did God reject the Jews?’ His answer is emphatic- ‘Certainly not!… God has not rejected his people, whom he chose from the beginning… For God does not change is mind about whom he chooses and whom he blesses’ (Romans 11.1,2,29-30).

If the Church had paid more attention to these verses, we could have avoided the terrible history of pogroms, violence, discrimination, and worse against the Jews which has scarred the history of the last 2,000 years. For too much of our history, Christians lived with the notion that the Jews had been rejected by God. As Christianity became a state religion in so many parts of the world, the Jews became scapegoats, subject to discrimination, restrictions of various kinds (like having to live in ghettos) and bursts of violence. But Paul clearly teaches that God has not rejected the Jewish people. Even if, as Paul admits, many Jews have rejected the Gospel, the promises which God made with the Jewish people in the past still stand.

In 1986, Pope John Paul II became the first Bishop of Rome to visit Rome’s main synagogue, where he movingly referred to the Jews as ‘our elder brothers’ in the faith. Pope Benedict went further, calling Jews ‘fathers in the faith’ for Christians. When I was a student, I attended the General Assembly one day when the Moderator was my Old Testament Professor, Robert Davidson. The day began with the singing of a psalm (always a magnificent moment in the General Assembly hall), before the Moderator asked the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom to address the assembly, greeting him, of course, in Hebrew. Scots Presbyterians have always valued our Jewish heritage- the Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible, including those wonderful Psalms, are treasured by us. Judaism stands in a completely different relationship to Christianity from any other faith. The Jewish people are heirs of God’s covenant, and Christianity is shorn of much of its meaning if we do not pay attention to the Jewish roots of our faith. And so the first message we Christians have to hear today is that anti-semitism can never be an option (especially after the Holocaust of the twentieth century). Christians and Jews are part of a family of faith- we owe the Jewish people so much.

Yet the tension is there right from the beginning, and perhaps it began after Jesus, having encountered opposition to his message from many in his own Jewish community, decided to take a break from Galilee. Our reading from Matthew’s gospel today tells us of the only time Jesus moves out of Jewish territory, out of Galilee, possibly because he simply can’t find anywhere in Galilee where he can get some peace and quiet. He goes across the border to Phoenicia- ‘the territory of near the cities of Tyre and Sidon’- a foreshadowing of the Gospel going out into the whole world, breaking down barriers, becoming a world faith, open to all (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew vol. 2 ad loc). He meets a woman described as a ‘Caananite’- a group of people treated as old enemies of the Jews. Yet she calls him ‘Son of David!’- acknowledging him as a descendant of the greatest of Israel’s kings. She’s heard of his reputation for curing those troubled in mind- ‘Have mercy on me, sir! My daughter has a demon and is in a terrible condition’. But Jesus will not speak to her at first, and is disciples want to send this hysterical woman away. So he tells her he’s only been sent to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’- to win his own people back to their God, not to help a Gentile, an non-Jew- like this woman. When she persists- she falls on her knees, pleading for is help- he seems to realise that there is faith in this Gentile woman. Perhaps with a smile, he says ‘It isn’t right to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs’- in other words, I can’t give you what’s meant for the people of Israel. But this woman, despite her grief, can smile too, and answers him with the witty riposte, ‘True- but even the dogs eat the leftovers!’ And so replies, ‘You are a woman of great faith’ and grants her request for healing for her daughter.

In this story we see Jesus finding faith where perhaps he didn’t expect to find it- in a woman beyond the pale of Israel, almost an enemy of his own people. And with faith comes healing, blessing. The Christian Gospel transcends boundaries, and that’s because the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel, is also the God of all creation. This was not a new insight- already in the Old Testament, there is a sense that Israel’s God is also the God of the whole world, that his mercy extends even to heathens. And with the advent of Christianity, the God of Israel does, indeed, begin to be acknowledged as the God who loves the entire world.

Once, people worshipped tribal gods. You believed that your tribe had a god who especially looked after you. And, frankly, it sometimes seems as though we still believe that. At the end of the Falklands War in 1982, Margaret Thatcher was furious that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, also prayed for those bereaved in Argentina. Yet the archbishop was right to do so, for each death in war grieves God’s heart equally. We cannot now put our universal God back into a nationalistic box- God cares for all people, regardless of nationality, race and even religion. And that is the second thing we can hear from our readings today- that God’s love is universal.

Today the modern State of Israel is once again at war. The Israeli people have been put in danger by rockets fired by Hamas terrorists from Gaza, and so the Israeli military machine has moved into Gaza, in what the Israeli government defines as self-defence. The result has been devastation for the beleaguered people of Gaza. Even schools and hospitals have been attacked by Israeli forces. On the basis of the numbers alone, it’s hard to believe that Israel’s response has been proportional. As of 8 August, the BBC were reporting almost 1,900 Palestinians had been killed since the beginning of July, but only 66 Israelis- all but two of them soldiers.

I really think that if Christians take sides in this, we should take the side of whoever is suffering. As Jesus did, we show compassion regardless of who needs comfort and healing. Earlier I mentioned so-called Christian Zionism, the belief that the country called Israel is somehow a fulfilment of biblical prophecy. The problem with Christian Zionism is that its followers tend to support the State of Israel regardless of what happens. Their theological error is to confuse biblical Israel with the modern state of Israel (for that reason, the Church of Scotland General Assembly has rejected the doctrine of Christian Zionism (Church of Scotland Reports to the General Assembly 2013 3.13.2, page 3/34). Christian Zionists- and the politicians they sponsor- are therefore prone to support whatever the policy of the current Israeli government is. Yet surely, when there is so much suffering going on, Christians have to say that we abhor violence which kills innocents- whether that violence is that of the Islamic extremists terrorising Christians and others in Syria and Iraq, or Hamas firing rockets at Israel, or the military might of the state of Israel wrecking the lives of the people of Gaza.

The late Professor Robert Davidson, the Moderator who greeted the Chief Rabbi in Hebrew at the General Assembly, loved the Hebrew Bible, and urged those of us who were his students to revere our Jewish Biblical heritage. According to his obituary in The Scotsman:

Davidson was the founding chairman of the Scottish Palestinian Forum, and gave balanced leadership in this complex political issue. He was held in great affection throughout the area and was a powerful advocate for justice for Palestinians. As Moderator he visited the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, Israel and the West Bank and was tear-gassed: an experience he viewed with his customary equanimity.

He chaired a study on ‘Theology of Land and Covenant’ which reported to the General Assembly of 2003 (Church of Scotland Reports to the General Assembly 2003 6.3.2 and 6.3.3, page 35/19). It steered clear of any simple solutions, saying that ‘As Christians we must always acknowledge and rejoice in our debt to the Jewish people’ and that therefore ‘we must do everything in our power to oppose anti-semitism in any form’. But it also stated that for the sake of justice, ‘criticism of certain actions of the State of Israel must not be taken as an inevitable sign of anti-semitism’ and that there were of course ‘questions which focus upon respect for Palestinian human right and the need for the recognition of a viable Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel’.

The God of Israel is a God of peace and of justice. God calls his people to reach out to those beyond the human borders we create. Our God is not a tribal God, belonging only to one nation. God’s purposes are beyond our human imaginings, his dreams beyond all we can dream of.

Having grappled with these great mysteries, St Paul could only finish with words of awed praise, and there, perhaps we should stop too:

How great are God’s riches!
How deep are God’s wisdom and knowledge!
Who can explain his decisions?
Who can understand his ways?
For all things were created by God,
and all things exist through God and for God.
To God be glory for ever! Amen.

Romans 11.33,36 (GNB alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo