Tag Archives: Jew

New Discoveries in Familiar Places

And Isaiah boldly says,
“I was found by those who did not seek me;
    I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”
But concerning Israel he says,
“All day long I have held out my hands
   to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
Romans 10:20-21 (NIV)

Among the early believers and followers of Jesus there were two main populations. There were believers who were part of Judaism, and there were those believers who were not. Those of us reading Paul’s letters in the 21st century are largely ignorant and of the tremendous conflict that existed between these two factions. The believers who came out of Judaism wanted those who were followers of Jesus to essentially be a Jewish sect within the larger religion of Judaism. This meant that anyone who wanted to be a follower of Jesus would have to 1) become a proselyte of Judaism 2) become circumcised [if you’re a male] and 3) follow all of the Jewish laws and customs.

This was no small debate of crossing theological “t”s and dotting theological “i”s. This was a major difference that went to the very heart of who Jesus was and what it meant to be a follower. Those on both sides of the issue were impassioned. There were even some from the pro-Judaism faction who followed behind Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey telling new believers that they’d been sent by James and the Apostles in Jerusalem to tell them not to believe everything Paul told them (“He’s not a real Apostle, anyway,” they explained) and to straighten them out on this “Jewish” question. They then proceeded to tell the non-Jewish (aka Gentile) believers of Jesus: 1. You must become Jews, 2. You must be circumcised, 3. You must follow all Jewish laws and customs.

Paul was furious.

This disagreement became so acute within the growing and rapidly expanding population of believers that a major meeting was called in Jerusalem. “The Jerusalem Council” as it became known, was to decide, once-and-for-all, the “circumcision” question. It was decided that non-Jews who became believers were not required to become Jews and to be circumcised in order to be a follower of Jesus. The Jesus movement was going its own way.

The debate, of course, did not end. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is still explaining, debating, and attempting to heal this rift. While the  believers in Rome were both Jews and Gentiles, Paul’s letter is addressed primarily to those who were Jewish, and he’s arguing from the Law of Moses and the Jewish Prophets that the coming of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentiles into “faith” was part of the plan all along.

Some people have asked me why I keep up my wayfarer’s journey through God’s Message over and over and over again. The answer is very simple. Every time I go back through a passage I’ve traversed before I’m doing so at a different place in my own spiritual journey. Each time I return to one of Paul’s letters I’m a little older, hopefully a little wiser, and I have a deeper experience of Life and Spirit. Sometimes things aren’t terrible different, but other times I peel back another spiritual layer and gain a whole new understanding I never had before.

That’s exactly what Paul was going in today’s chapter. When he quotes Isaiah he is holding up poetic prophecies that Jewish believers would have known and heard repeatedly in their own spiritual journeys. Paul, however was shedding new light on the same verses from the other side of Jesus’ ministry, His cross, and His empty tomb. “It’s been staring you right in the face the whole time,” Paul is saying, “but you’ve never seen it.”

Which, again, is why I keep pressing on and staying the course. I’ve discovered along the way that being a follower of Jesus is not for simple consumers, despite the many who treat it so. I’ve not found it to be a one-and-done transaction for fire and eternal life insurance. It’s so much more. It’s a progression in which old things pass away and new things come. It’s a never ending path of discovery. It’s never gotten old and is always challenging in new and unexpected ways. But, it’s something everyone has to lace up their own spiritual hiking boots to discover.

The Inclusive Exclusivity Problem

“…there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”
Romans 3: 30 (NIV)

A few years ago on this chapter-a-day journey I wrote that the first century conflict between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile (non-Jewish) followers of Jesus was actually a foreshadowing of the great Dr. Seuss’ story The Sneetches:

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars. 

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the Beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!” 

In the case of the Jewish and Gentile believers, it was circumcision and the Law of Moses (a.k.a. Leviticus) that became the metaphorical star on their bellies.

As a 21st century follower of Jesus journeying through this letter of Paul to the Romans, it is critical that I understand this underlying tension and conflict. It is the driver and motivation for Paul’s letter. For centuries the Hebrew people had leveraged their gracious appointment as “God’s people” into creating and maintaining a theology of exclusion. They were the star-bellied Sneetches maintaining their private section of the beach and no one without a star on their belly was allowed. The Jewish followers of Jesus had spent their entire lives inside a cultural tradition that was thousands of years old telling themselves that they were exclusive.

The Gentile believers, on the other hand, had spent their entire lives knowing that the Jewish people lived, by-and-large, in their private culture and excluded anyone who wasn’t one of them.

As the Jesus movement rapidly expands across the known world, attracting followers of both the Jewish and Gentile camps, you’ve suddenly got star-bellied Sneetches and the Sneetches with “no stars upon thars” thrust together and co-habitating a “no-man’s land” section of Spiritual Beach.

Paul in his letter, is addressing this divide by explaining to the Jewish believers that God’s Message all along has never really been a theology of “exclusion” but one of “inclusion.” He’s walking a theological tight-rope, hearing the voices of his fellow Jews arguing with him about the law (i.e. “So you’re saying the Law is nothing?“), and hearing the voices of the Gentiles making counter arguments on the other side (i.e. “Well if more sin means there’s more of God’s grace to forgive me, then why don’t I just sin more so that there will be more grace?!“), and through it all he’s trying to bring them all together by laying out an inclusive understanding of what God has been doing all along in the Great Story so as to realize the end of Dr. Seuss’ yarn:

[That] day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars. 

This morning in the quiet I find myself admitting that we human beings have a penchant for systemically creating social  and personal exclusivity. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of time in our tribes, our religions, our country clubs, our street gangs, our political parties, our families, our races, our racial ghettos, our denominations, our social systems, our church groups, our middle/high school cliques, our small town and big city attitudes, and et cetera, and et cetera, and et cetera.

Jesus came to change all that.

And, we’ve messed that up, too.

Which means that this morning I have to confess and admit the ways I’ve gone all “star-bellied Sneetch” in my own ways (and there are multiple ways I have done so) along this life journey. Paul reminds me in today’s chapter: We’ve all (that would be inclusive) fallen short of God’s design and desire.

Maybe when I was younger I was ignorant and didn’t understand. I can’t claim that anymore. I am a mature adult. If I am going to follow Jesus. If I’m going to really follow the heart of Christ, then I have to stop shutting people out, pushing people away, and ignoring people who are uncomfortably and inconveniently different.

In that regard, the message of Paul to the Romans is every bit as relevant today as it was then.

Change, Action, and Reaction

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Acts 11:1-3 (NIV)

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting Letters from Pella, a one-act play I wrote some years ago to an academic conference. The academic conference celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of H.P. Scholte, the founder of our town. Scholte, a secessionist pastor in the Netherlands, led hundreds of Dutch immigrants to carve out a new home on the Iowa prairie in 1847. Historians from both the Netherlands and the U.S. participated in the conference.

At the Scholte Conference with Dutch historians Leon van den Broeke, Ron van Houwelingen, Michiel van Diggelen, and George Harinck

Each year in our town’s annual Tulip Time festival we celebrate a polished narrative about our founders, but as I researched the actual events that transpired in those first years I found a very different story. Letters between the first immigrants and their families back in the Netherlands gave evidence of anger, conflict, discord, and disagreement. I sought to give voice to that story in my play.

Newton’s Third Law states that for every action there is an opposite reaction. Along my life journey I’ve observed that there are, at times, parallels between physical and human interactions. As both leader and participant in many human organizations I’ve observed that any action or initiative that introduces change to a human system will create a reaction from that system.

In today’s chapter, Peter returns to Jerusalem from his experience of being called by God to the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius and his entire household became believers. They had been filled with Holy Spirit and Peter realized that God was doing something “new” in this rapidly growing Jesus movement. The movement was expanding beyond the Jewish tribe to include non-Jewish “Gentiles” whom Jews found religiously unclean. There was a general attitude among the Jewish people of that day despising and looking down on anyone who wasn’t born Jewish.

In going to the home of a Roman Centurion and befriending Cornelius and his household, Peter had crossed a whole host of religious, social, and political lines that his tribe religiously held with systemic rigor.  Now he returns to Jerusalem and the Jewish believers hear what happened, they criticize Peter for what he’s done. Peter’s action has created a powerful reaction.

Peter provides his defense, explaining his vision, God’s call for him to go with the three visitors, and his experience in Cornelius’ household. According to Luke’s description, the believers in Jerusalem “had no further objections.” The Greek word translated “no further objections” is esuchasan which is defined as “quieting down,” “rest,” and “becoming silent.” In other words, no one pushed the issue with Peter, but my experience as a leader tells me there were those who kept their mouths shut publicly and began to whisper their questions and criticism of Peter behind his back. Radical change to deeply rooted human system doesn’t quickly result in “no further objections.” This Jew-Gentile conflict is not going to go away.

This morning I’ve been thinking about some of the “reactions” to systemic change that I’ve observed and experienced over the years. Some of them are instructive. Some of them are tragic. Some of them are downright comical. Yet this spiritual journey had taught me that spiritual growth always necessitates change. God is always calling me and challenging me to love more expansively, forgive more deeply, and to be more sacrificially generous. Those things don’t happen unless there is a willingness within my spirit to things changing, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.

H.P. Scholte certainly experienced his share of “reactions.” Twice the pastor was thrown out of the pulpit by his own congregation when they didn’t like the changes he had introduced into their social and religious system. They called him a scoundrel. Those are the things our town politely forgets to talk about. Yet, all of those radical, uncomfortable changes brought about a really bright future for our town.

Growth happens through change and struggle, while human systems tend to cling to a comfortable status quo. I see this paradigm wherever God is working in the Great Story. If I want to grow, I have to  prepare myself for the reactions I know will be coming my way.

To Religious Rule Keepers: Go Castrate Yourselves

I just wish that those troublemakers who want to mutilate you by circumcision would mutilate themselves. Galatians 5:12 (NLT)

What we read in God’s Message can easily be confusing without the historical context. Paul’s letter to the Jesus followers in Galatia is a great example.

At the time Paul was writing his letter, the rite of circumcision in which the foreskin of the male penis is cut off and removed had been part of the Jewish religion for over a thousand years. The tradition dated back to the days of Abraham in the book of Genesis. In the early days of Christianity there was a huge debate raging whether you could be a follower of Jesus without keeping the labyrinth of Jewish laws, rules and regulations such as circumcision. Because Jesus  and all of the disciples had been Jews, many were teaching that following Jesus required converting to Judaism with all of its requisites, including circumcision.

Paul had gone to Galatia and taught the message of Jesus which is actually very simple: turn away from your wrong doing, believe in Jesus and invite Him into your heart and life. Then, follow Jesus teachings and love others. Many in Galatia believed and there was a growing group of Jesus followers in the town. Paul left to go to other cities and in his absence some men came to town claiming to be of greater authority than Paul. They started telling all the Jesus followers that they were required to convert fully to Judaism. All the men who believed in Jesus would have to have the foreskins of their penises cut off.

Paul was righteously ticked off. In fact, the English translators who translated what we read from the original Greek language in which Paul wrote are always  so careful with the verse above. In the original Greek, what Paul is really saying is “I wish those who are teaching that you have to be circumcised would go all out. They shouldn’t stop with the foreskin of the penis, they should go ahead and castrate themselves.”

We can scarcely imagine what huge theological issues the early church grappled with as those who followed Jesus differentiated themselves from the Jewish traditions from which they emerged. The entire letter Paul writes to the Jesus followers in Galatia is about this one major theme. Jewish tradition was about zealously keeping all the rules of the law of Moses. It was a system built on rules, rites and sacrifice. Paul is telling them to forget the letter of the law and focus on the Spirit of the law: love God, love others.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. We no longer have these same theological conflicts, but the heart of the conflict remains. People still like to make faith in Jesus about keeping rules and regulations so as to appear righteous before others. Just last night I had a conversation with my daughter who has been recently chastised by someone for not toeing the line of their religious rules. My advice to her came right from Paul’s letter: Follow Jesus and choose love.

I didn’t add “let the religious rule police go castrate themselves”….but I thought it. Like Paul, I felt a little ticked.

Chapter-a-Day Acts 22

Sign for "colored" waiting room at a...
Sign for “colored” waiting room at a Greyhound bus terminal in Rome, Georgia, 1943. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The crowd listened until Paul said [the word “Gentile”]. Then they all began to shout, “Away with such a fellow! He isn’t fit to live!” Acts 22:22 (NLT)

It’s amazing how one racially charged word can incite an entire crowd to violence.

In America we are constantly reminded of the historic racial tensions between whites and blacks that have framed our history and our existence for hundreds of years. As a young person I naively thought that Americans were the only people in the world who had such a struggle. Along the journey I’ve discovered that racism and prejudice run deep and wide in the human experience.

In today’s chapter the Jewish people in Jerusalem showed their prejudice against non-Jews. Of course, the Jewish people know what it means to be shunned and oppressed. Anti-semitism existed then and still exists to this day. When I visited Jerusalem several years ago I was amazed at the racial tensions that continue to exist within the city. The city felt to me like a powder keg of racial and religious tension with a very short fuse.

At the heart of Jesus’ teaching was the truth that God’s Kingdom does not exist for one particular racial, ethnic, or national group, but for all people and nations who will believe and follow. To this end, the two strongest leaders (Peter and Paul) were sent by God to share God’s Message with the non-Jewish Gentiles and begin the process of obliterating the wall of prejudice that stood between the two groups. The book of Acts sets the stage for the emerging historical record. Over the first few hundred years after Jesus’ resurrection, the Message would be boldly carried by believers throughout the known world and shared with any who would listen regardless of race, creed, or nationality.

Today, I’m thankful to serve a God whose Kingdom exists above human limits and weaknesses, and who calls us to ascend out of our Earthbound prejudices to enter in.

Chapter-a-Day Acts 11

from Shayan via Flickr

And since God gave these Gentiles the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to stand in God’s way?” Acts 11:17 (NLT)

We can scarce understand what momentous paradigm shift Peter and the early believers experienced in the events chronicled in the past few chapters. It was deep, profound social unrest. The walls the Jews had built up between themselves and the non-Jews (Gentiles) through the centuries were tall and thick and seemingly impenetrable. As Jews, the 12 apostles of Jesus were comfortable keeping Jesus’ work and teaching within the clearly defined boundaries of the Jewish law and culture. As had happened so many times in the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, God had other plans; Plans that would obliterate their own personal agendas.

Peter walking into Cornelius’ house and ministering to him and his family is not unlike a southern Ku Klux Klan member in 1930s America walking into an African American’s home for a meal. It’s like an Irish Catholic walking into a Protestant’s home in Northern Ireland and embracing them. It was radical and it was sure to reverberate through the young Christian community with conflict, dissent, and boisterous protest. And, it was clearly the work of God.

As the arguments rose in crescendo, Peter asked the crucial question: “Who was I to stand in God’s way?”

Throughout my life journey I’ve witnessed God doing the inexplicable, and I have stood in the center of the resulting maelstrom of vehement disbelief, anger, and dissent. I have run into individuals and groups who want to dictate what God will do, when He will do it, and how He will go about doing it. They want God to fit nicely inside the box of their own design and cultural or denominational comfort zone. I have watched people stretch and twist God’s own Word to defend and justify their prejudiced views. Like Peter, I have even been guilty of it myself.

Increasingly I find myself desperately desiring that God’s will, not mine, be done. The only boundaries I desire to place on God are those that God Himself has ordained and set in place. I want God to have free reign in my heart, my life, my home, and my community. God forbid that I should ever stand in the way of what He is doing, but grant that I may free fall into it.

Chapter-a-Day Ezra 2

Mosaic of the 12 Tribes of Israel. From a syna...
Image via Wikipedia

“These are those who came from Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon, and Immer. They weren’t able to prove their ancestry, whether they were true Israelites or not….” Ezra 2:59-60 (MSG)

Coming from a “good family” means a lot in many circles. As a child, I remember kids on the playground comparing notes about famous people in their family tree. My Great Aunt worked tirelessly to prove that she belonged in the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.). Even in the little Dutch-American community where I live I know that I’ve experienced a certain amount of acceptance moving in that other newcomers do not simply because I have a Dutch surname.

When reading the Old Testament, it’s important to remember that for Israelites in ancient times, the family of origin was huge. Your occupation and your position on the social pecking order was a all determined by family tree. To fully participate in the rites of the temple you had to prove your genetic connection.

When Jesus came and offered salvation to anyone who placed their faith in Him, Jew or non-Jew, it was a radical paradigm shift for the group of Jewish followers in His inner circle. Saul or Tarsus, later known as the Apostle Paul, was a Jew of high standing and persecutor of the early Christians until he was personally confronted by the risen Jesus and immediately became a faithful follower. Paul often bragged about his Jewish pedigree when debating with his fellow Israelites about Jesus, but was the most rabid proponent of loving, reaching out to, and including non-Jewish Gentiles into the Christian faith. Paul was the first to fully embrace the truth that in Jesus there is no social pecking order based on your family tree or religious pedigree. Those who follow Jesus are spiritually the same:

So where does that put us? Do we Jews get a better break than the others? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners. Romans 3:9 (MSG)

I can only imagine the shame that “those who came from Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon, and Immer” felt at being the only ones among the 42,000 Israelites to return to Jerusalem who could not prove their pedigree. I have to believe they felt the condemning looks and subtle prejudice from the “blue blood” Israelites with whom they journied.

Today, I’m glad that my relationship with God has nothing to do with my genetic code or family tree. I’m grateful that God does not have a spiritual pecking order of “haves and have nots.” We are all, every one of us, “have nots” until Jesus, in His mercy, graciously forgives us, redeems us, and adopts us into His spiritual family as a joint heir of God’s rich spiritual inheritance.

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