PCJCMR was first founded in the 1950s with a focus on building positive relationships between Chrisitans and Jews. With the growth of a large, wonderful and diverse Muslim community in the United States, we have added development of relationships between and among Christians, Jews and Muslims to the tasks we consider crucial.  We hope to build dialogues between the faith communities on the local level, be advocates for peace and justice on issues that relate to the three faith communities, and sponsor educational opportunities.  We invite your ideas and participation in our work.  We are an informal group of members, ministers, and congregations of the Presbyterian Church (USA); we are not an offical agency of the Presbyterian Church. For further information about our denomination, click on the logo above or any of the PCUSA links below.

   
 

The God Who Keeps Covenant
A Sermon by The Rev. Cindy Jarvis
Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, PA


Genesis 32:22-30
Romans 9:1-5

"They are the Israelites and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenant, the governing 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 forever. Amen."

I must begin with the confession that this morning's proclamation is an attempt to come to terms with what happened on the floor of Philadelphia Presbytery this Tuesday last. Much that happens on that floor, month in and month out, is inconsequential to the life and worship of a congregation. The actions of Presbytery this past Tuesday, however, could be very consequential for the relationship of Presbyterians in the Philadelphia area to the Jewish community, consequential for the public voice of Reformed theology in interfaith dialogue, consequential for the relationship of individual Presbyterians to Jewish friends and neighbors.

On the surface and by way of Robert's Rules, the Presbytery simply voted down a second attempt to rescind an earlier action it had taken in January. The earlier action was to approve a messianic new church development. The Presbytery voted, and has now twice reaffirmed its intention to establish a congregation, in the Bala Cynwood area of Philadelphia, which would retain the "patterns of Jewish cultural and religious life" while confessing Jesus to be the Messiah. It would be, in the nomenclature of Messianic Judaism, a congregation of "completed Jews." Let me be clear, at issue this morning is not the modern state of Israel. At issue are the relationship of Israel and the Church in the biblical narrative and, therefore, our present-day relationship to the religious community that traces its lineage back to the covenant God made with Abraham and his seed forever.

The underlying theological conviction not explicit in the action taken is that, short of the confession of Jesus as the Christ, Israel is without hope in this world and the world to come. Much can be found in the New Testament and in Christian doctrine to support that conviction. The oft-quoted words of Jesus in John's gospel head the list: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one cometh unto the Father but by me." Christians have taken these words as marching orders: positively to bring people into a "saving" relationship with God through Jesus Christ…negatively to proclaim God's eternal judgment over any who refuse to make that confession.

But evangelism-in-general aside, there is a sense in which the particular relationship of the Church to Israel, of Christians to Jews, has about it--and has had about it throughout the ages--the character of a sibling rivalry gone disastrously awry. The Christian belief that we have replaced the Jews, not only as the apple of God's eye, but as the singular recipients of God's election-that we have "superseded" Israel as the chosen of God-has led not only, in the extreme, to a theological justification of the holocaust, but it has also kept the church from an honest examination of her own flawed relationship with the God who alone is Holy.

Now to be fair, supersessionism-the belief that God's election of the Church supersedes God's election of Israel-has come by its story line honestly. "That the God of Israel tends to favor the late-born over the first-born sons is a point of venerable antiquity among Christian theologians," writes Jewish theologian Jon Levenson. "In those circles the observation reflects the anxiety of the self-designated 'new Israel,' the Church, relative to the 'old Israel' it claims to supersede, that is, the Jewish people…. That [Paul] the apostle to the gentiles came to think that the grace of the choosing God still attached itself in some measure to Israel according to the flesh qualifies but does not nullify the astonishing reversal of the situation of Jew and gentile that he helped bring about. Without such precedents as the partial dispossession of Ishmael by Isaac and of Esau by Jacob in the Hebrew Bible-the only Bible he knew-Paul and the Church's partial dispossession of the Jews could hardly have been conceived. Christian supersessionism is much indebted to the narrative dynamics of the Jewish foundational story and, ironically, cannot be grasped apart from the story it claims to supersede."

That is to say, the narrative dynamics of the Jewish foundational story reveal a God who chooses in freedom those whom God will designate to carry God's promise into the future. Before the birth of Christ and in the history of Israel, God had been revealed as a God who surprised human expectations or conventions in God's choice of the carriers of the promise. For Israel, this had to do with which branch of the bloodline received the nod, often meaning the younger rather than the older sibling was chosen. But for Paul, God's freedom further suggested that, though Jesus came from Israel, yet he had to be rejected by Israel as Messiah so that God's new covenant of grace might now be for us. In point of fact, had the religious leaders of the day seen in the birth, life and teachings of Jesus the coming of Israel's Messiah, there would have been no gospel to the Gentiles. Rather the story of God's covenant with Israel would simply have remained a covenant with the people who claimed Abraham as their father.

But then comes to mind the question on which last Tuesday's vote turned: in choosing to be in relationship with the likes of us, has God rejected Israel? Does our covenant with God make the first covenant null and void? Says Paul, "By no means!" He argues in these three chapters of his letter to the Romans (likely the last of his letters and so the culmination of his thinking) that the Jews' rejection of Jesus was God's will for the sake of the reconciliation of the world. Perhaps the most interesting supposition on Paul's part, as he tries to make sense of our common and conflicted story as Christians and Jews, is his assertion that God has hardened the heart of Israel "until the full number of Gentiles come in" to the covenant. God has made Israel "enemies of God for [our] sake," he writes, "but as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their ancestors, for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable." In other words, God does not go back on God's promises and the first covenant holds forever.

Our common hope then becomes, according to Paul, that in the fullness of God's time, we will all be branches growing out of one common root of faith in the Living God-Gentiles being the wild olive shoot grafted on through Christ and Israel being a natural branch.

We are left, therefore, in the meantime, to sort out our relationship with the firstborn sibling of this God-the same God we know in Jesus Christ--who keeps covenant. Suffice it to say, if Paul's take on salvation history bears any relation to God's purposes, and if Christians are really intent upon hastening the Day of the Lord, then we had better get to work on all those Gentiles out there, religiously having coffee at Starbucks on Sunday morning, and leave God's relationship with Israel to God! Or better yet, we would do well to enter a conversation with our Jewish brothers and sisters, whose hearing of the biblical story that we share just might open our minds and hearts to an understanding of God's purposes we could never know without them.

Though that is precisely what the church I have loved all of my life cannot seem, in these increasingly conservative days, to do. To give it the best spin, we believe the gospel ought not be kept from anyone; to give it the honest spin, we believe we have been given, in Jesus Christ, the corner on true religion and can alone mediate the relationship between God and humanity. Much as I have bet my life on the truth that in Jesus Christ the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, I can no longer quietly accept my fellow Christian's conviction that the translation of God's revelation into the Christian religion gives us a reason to judge as inadequate the relationship of Israel with God. So with Paul, I say of my community of faith: I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.

Perhaps that is why Karl Barth's inflammatory commentary on the Book of Romans spoke to me as never before in the midst of trying to make sense of the Presbytery's action. For what I have come to realize, in the face of my own disappointment and embarrassment and sadness at the loss of the witness I thought Presbyterians had been given to bear in the world, is that God's purposes are even and especially revealed in the events which uncover the church's own brokenness and unfaithfulness and need of God's mercy. "The disease from which the church suffers," says Barth at the end of his commentary on the verses of our text this morning, "is that God is God and that God is the God of Jacob [the God who makes the Truth to appear above the deceit of human beings]. Only one thing can cause us great sorrow and unceasing pain and that is the rugged problem as to whether the [word spoken by the Church] does anything more than disclose the deceitfulness of [human beings]. Does it also disclose the Truth of God? Have we lost the Church of Jacob? Or do we possibly, in some way or other, actually belong to the impossible, unknown and invisible Church? Must we merely leave this problem as a problem and-'await a miracle' as they say who have no hope? Must we listen for the Gospel and whisper stammeringly that the Church of Jacob is established in eternity? Assuredly not: our duty is to take seriously to heart the known tribulation of the Church and to wrestle with God, the God of Jacob: I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

So may this congregation become, more and more, a church that wrestles with the God of Jacob: claiming little for our human grasp of the Truth of God and all for God's always surprising grasp on us in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!

For further information about PCJCMR please email Charles Henderson.