All Saints Margaret Street | Evensong & Benediction Sunday 10 June 2018

Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 10 June 2018

Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses

Readings:  Jeremiah 6.16-21; Romans 9.1-13 

“I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.” 

Last Sunday evening Fr. Michael suggested that the readings then, and so too, those we have just heard, from two of the most challenging and difficult figures in scripture:  the prophet Jeremiah and the apostle Paul, were pretty heavy going. 

They were of course both Jews; as was our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Paul’s “anguish” over his kinsfolk, his willingness like Moses to give up his own life if they could be saved, arises from the fact that the majority of them had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. What did this mean?  Was God’s covenant and its promises to them been cancelled?  If so, could God’s word itself be relied on? 

Chapters 9 to 11 of Romans, sandwiched as they are between the serious theology of faith and grace and justification in Chapters 1-8 and its practical application in Christian life we find in the closing ones, were neglected for much of Christian history.  

What led to a re-evaluation of their importance was the Holocaust. This presented Christian theology with a massive theological challenge. How had this happened in a supposedly Christian culture and society? Why had the churches not been able to resist it more effectively? 

Christianity’s links with Judaism are closer and deeper than with any other religion. Just think of this service. In it we have sung from the Psalter, the hymn book of the Jewish people, which also provides the core of Christian worship. We have listened to a reading and an anthem from the scriptures of the Old Testament; the Hebrew scriptures incorporated into the Christian Bible. While there have been attempts at various times to produce a de-Judaized form of Christianity with an expurgated version of the scriptures, the Church has always rejected these.  

The scriptures we have inherited are at the roots of our tradition.  Without them we cannot really understand Jesus. But interpretations of scripture hostile to the Jews have had tragic results.  A pressing challenge for Christians in the light of the Holocaust is to discern whether the New Testament itself is anti-Jewish. 

Paul’s letters are the oldest Christian writings we have.  In them we find the first Christian interpretation of the scriptures – the Hebrew scriptures – for they were the only ones they had.  These letters have had a huge impact on Christian perceptions of the Jews and Judaism.  Much of Christian tradition has seen Paul as rejecting his Jewish past, being very critical of the Jewish people and their supposedly legalistic religion. 

A number of statements in Paul’s letters do reflect conflicts with other Jews.  In some passages he criticises Jews who did not accept Jesus.  He contrasts the Jewish Law and the redemption he had experienced in the death and resurrection of Christ.  Later Christians often assumed that Paul had left Judaism and become a Christian in a world where Christians and Jews were already clearly divided. 

In the West, Roman Catholics and Protestants came to interpret Paul through the experience and theology of Augustine, and Protestants in the light of Luther’s as well. Both these towering figures went through severe personal crises in which they felt they could not fulfill the moral demands of Christianity; both experienced divine grace as releasing them from the struggle.  Both shaped their theologies in the light of their experience of divine grace freely given to undeserving sinners.  

As a result, generations of Christians understood Paul as rejecting the alleged legalism of Judaism; thinking that Paul viewed the Torah in a very negative way.  While Protestants and Catholics might differ on how Paul was to be understood, for both, his remarks about Torah often understood as “the Law”  were often thought to express a fundamental rejection of Judaism and all Jews who did not accept Jesus as Lord and Messiah.  Christians usually regarded Paul’s conversion as one from the old, superseded religion, to the new and true one. Conversion came to be about the salvation of individuals rather than peoples. 

From the early church to the 20th century, hostile interpretations of scripture have often shaped negative Christian attitudes and policies towards Jews.   Christians often defined their own identity in opposition to the “evil” Jews, who were seen as enemies of God and of Christianity. They usually believed that Judaism had been superseded by Christianity. Christians had replaced Jews as the people of God.  God’s wrath was upon the Jews for their supposed rejection of Christ. They shared a collective guilt for his death and this endured down the generations.  

As a result, Christians inherit a long, tragic history of animosity toward Judaism. This was not just a matter of ideas. Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia learned to dread Good Friday; when both Catholic and Orthodox Christians would hear prayers which referred to perfidious Jews and sermons in the same vein and then spill out of church to attack their Jewish neighbours as “Christ-Killers.” 

Traditional Christian animosity toward Jews was based to a large degree on differing and hostile theological interpretations of the Bible. So its basis was very different from that of modern anti-semitism.  This developed in the mid-19th century,  it grew out of a racist perversion of science which saw the white “aryan” race as superior. Its end-result was the Nazi project to destroy European Jewry. 

It is no exaggeration to say that in the years since it took place, the Holocaust has been the greatest single moral challenge for Christian theology. It has forced the Church to confront its past attitudes and their lethal consequences.  Even if Nazi anti-semitism was based on pseudo-science, we cannot ignore the fact that the Christian tradition of anti-Judaism was the seedbed in which it was able to take root and flourish. While the Nazis were also deeply hostile to Christianity – with its doctrine that all are the children of God – they found plenty willing to collaborate in their “Final Solution” of the “Jewish Problem,” in Germany itself, in eastern Europe and Vichy France.  These often saw themselves as traditionalist Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic. And if they were not active participants, they were content to look the other way. 

At the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church confronted its past condemnation of the Jews as collectively responsible for the death of Jesus and abandoned it. Much of its argument is based on what Paul has to say in these three chapters of Romans.  For all his sharp critique of his fellow-Jews, he will end up asking: “…has God rejected his people? By no means!”  In a complex scriptural argument, he sees the fate of Jews and Gentiles as bound together.  Gentile Christians must not despise the Jews, because in the mystery of God’s purposes for his creation, their salvation comes from the Jews. In turn, their salvation is linked with that of the Gentiles: “a hardening has come upon Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and so, all Israel will be saved.”  

In the meantime, and more immediately, the poison of anti-semitism is still with us.  The rise of extreme right wing parties, especially in Eastern Europe but also in the West, claiming to defend the Christian culture of Europe, especially against Islam, is also marked by anti-semitism. On the extreme left, similar noises can be heard. Even a couple of our newspapers, fired by pro-Brexit fervour, have indulged in “dog-whistle” tactics with anti-Jewish messages for those who can hear them.  The work of undoing centuries of lethal prejudice is far from complete. It will require more than the half century it has had so far. 

When Pope John XXIII, whose baptismal name was Guiseppe, met the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome, he said to them in words from Genesis, “I am Joseph your brother.”  Pope John Paul II, who as a young man in Poland had seen the destruction of Polish Jewry by the Nazis,  said when he visited the Synagogue in Rome, the Jews are not only our brothers in faith but our “elder brothers.”   

“They are Israelites, and to them belong 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, who is over all. God blessed for ever. Amen.”