Today our passage from Romans comes from the beginning of a long section in which Paul addresses his “sorrow and unceasing anguish” about relationships between Jews and Christians. Has Christianity superseded Judaism and how do we understand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament or as I would prefer to say the scriptures and the apostolic testimony? These remain questions of great importance especially when anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise again. In our time Christians have had to examine their consciences, re-read the texts and consider how flawed understandings of God’s purposes with his people led to such horrors as the holocaust.
These re-considerations and re readings have been fruitful for Christians. We have come to new understandings of both Jesus and Paul in their Jewish context. Particular titles that spring to mind are, “Jesus the Jew” by Geza Vermes and “The Misunderstood Jew” by Amy-Jill Levine. Amy-Jill’s book is a very accessible text and can be strongly recommended to all preachers. For those who are looking for a more academic approach I can also recommend; “The God of Israel and Christian Theology” by R K Soulen. Soulen is an American Methodist Minister and academic theologian. His book is discussed over several pages by John Barton in his recent prize winning and bestselling book: “A History of the Bible-the book and its faiths”. Well that’s enough book recommendations for now.
Turning back to Paul we should note that he asks himself; “has God rejected his people?” He replies; “by no means” and then asks again; “have they stumbled so as to fall” again he insists; “by no means”.( Romans 11v 1 and 11 ) Paul then proposes a scheme whereby in the purposes of God all will be brought to salvation. He further insists that the gifts and call of God are irrecoverable that is to say God never goes back on his promises. In Galatians 3 v 29 he insists that if you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. Or as Pope Pius X1 remarked in 1938: anti-Semitism is inadmissible. Spiritually we are all Semites.
It’s also important to remember how deeply the world of the “Old Testament” is embedded in what we call the New Testament. Throughout the gospel record the echoes of Israel’s scripture are continually to be heard so it is important that we use this scripture in our worship and prayerful reflection. Jesus declares in the Sermon on the Mount; “think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5 v 17). To the travellers on the Emmaus Road Jesus, at this point in the story incognito, “interprets to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself”. Paul when he proclaims the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 v 4 declares that “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” He means what we call the Old Testament because the gospels had not then been written. Perhaps Psalm 16 is in his mind. Some of these texts are challenging to thoroughly modern Methodists but for me at least that is why they are of great value.
To conclude on a personal note. I come from North London where Jewish people were and are a much loved and respected part of the community. When the synagogue in Palmers Green was bombed in the war a temporary synagogue was established in our largest Sunday school hall-it was a big Church. We were taught in Sunday school to take pride in this aspect of our Churches history. At about the same time the Council for Christians and Jews was established and I have been a member for some years. The CCJ has a branch in Birmingham and arranges interesting meetings from time to time.
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”.
Psalm 118 v 26 and Luke 13 v 35.