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“Concerning Christianity and Judaism”
The Third Sunday in Eastertide
“Though Pilate had decided to release Jesus, you Israelites rejected him, and killed the author of life.”
Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from Acts chapter three. And, every time they roll back around, it is important for us to remember that Peter, on whose lips the book of Acts places those words of accusation against the Jews, was, himself, a Jew, as was Jesus.
Which is to say that, when we read those severe sounding words from today’s lesson in the book of Acts, we are reading them as outsiders; listening in on a conversation between Jewish people, some of whom believed Jesus was the Messiah, and some of whom did not.
Which is true, not only in this case, but, throughout much of the New Testament. Take, for example, last week’s gospel lesson, which said that the risen Lord came to see the disciples, who were hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” Everyone in that story was a Jew; the disciples who were hiding, those from whom they were hiding, and the risen Lord, too.
The truth is, in the early years of the church, while everyone who was in Judaism was not in the church, everyone who was in the church was in Judaism. Which is not surprising, given the fact that Jesus, himself, was a Jew, who never converted from Judaism to anything, but who died a Jew, just as he was born a Jew.
I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I think about all this, from time to time; about the ties that bind Christianity to Judaism. Baptism in water, for example, which is so important to us, is a sacred gesture we borrowed from Judaism, where Gentiles who joined the synagogue had to be fully immersed. And, the bread and cup of our communion table, needless to say, we adopted, and adapted, from Judaism’s Passover. The Holy Spirit we count as part of our Trinity is the same Spirit of God which hovered over the creation in Genesis, and animated that orthopedic hoedown in Ezekiel. Even the resurrection of the dead is not a new Christian innovation in God, but a hope held first in Judaism. And, our Lord’s Prayer, the one we pray each week, bears a strong family resemblance to a Jewish prayer which includes the words, “Hallowed be the name of the Father. May your kingdom come on this earth.”
And, most importantly, of course, there is Jesus, himself, who, when asked by an inquirer to say what mattered most, did not offer a new “Christian” answer, but quoted two verses from the Hebrew scripture, the two great central truths of both Judaism and Christianity: “Love the Lord your God with all that is in you. And, love others as you love yourself.”
I cannot think of those great and wonderful connections between Christianity and Judaism without recalling Amy-Jill Levine’s unforgettable image in which she said that one way to imagine the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is to picture yourself standing on a railroad track, where the rails are separate from, but parallel to, one another. Now, imagine yourself turning around, she said, and looking as far back in the past as you can see, until the two rails merge into one at the horizon. And, then, imagine yourself turning back around and looking the other way, as far as you can see, to the horizon in the future, where the two will merge, again, as one. Indeed.
All of which is why I so often say that Northminster is one of the most fortunate churches in the entire world, because of the fact that, before we owned our own building, we actually worshipped in the synagogue. In fact, every now and then, I will hear some of you who were here in those days say, “I joined the church at the synagogue.” Which, even after all these years, never fails to stop me in my tracks.
It all came about in the simplest of ways. We were searching for a temporary home, so, a Northminster member, Leland Speed, asked a Beth Israel member, Maurice Joseph, if Beth Israel might rent us their old sanctuary. To which Mr. Joseph replied, “No. We will not rent our space to you. We will, however, give it to you.” And, with that, Northminster became the most fortunate church imaginable. In a world full of churches, every one of which owes their origins, and traces their beginnings, to the synagogue, we actually got to meet in a synagogue.
That story, the story of our temporary home at Beth Israel, is one we will never let fall to the ground; a distinctively Northminster story our high school seniors will carry with them when they leave us in a few months, a story little Annabeth Taylor, and all of our children, will learn and know; the story of a Christian church, which, once upon a time, lived, for a time, in a Jewish home; a snapshot of the whole history of Christianity and Judaism, and a small sign of the great truth that we are all, together, the beloved children of the one true God; the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. Amen.