Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Hebrews 8:6-13
Psalm 85
Mark 3:13-19

REFLECTION: "A Very Difficult Conversation with a Big and Dirty Theological Word!"
Today, as we read from the Letter to the Hebrews, we are presented with a very difficult passage; one that requires some really particular exegesis to understand when held in context with the totality of Scripture. But first a quick history lesson.

As the title of the Letter implies, it was written to the Hebrews; in other words, to Jews. But that only tells half of the story. This wasn't some tract written to be distributed to people in Synagogues that were still teaching Torah. This letter was aimed at Jewish Christians who, one one side, felt pressured to return to Torah-obedience as a means of salvation, and, on other side, who felt that their liberation from the Law opened up a new pathway that was exposing them to, and tantalizing them with, the practices of pagan Gentiles. Thus, the author is deeply concerned about the fidelity of the convert-audience, going so far as to urge those hearing or reading the words to "...hold firmly to what we believe." (Hebrews 4:14)

Now, let's concentrate on a difficult point found in our reading today, which can be summarized in the very final verse of our first reading:

"When God speaks of a “new” covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and will soon disappear." (Hebrews 8:13)

It is deeply unfortunate that a concept known as Supersessionism has been used over the centuries as an excuse (and I consciously choose the term excuse!) for people with anti-Semitic attitudes and beliefs to twist the New Testament into a rallying cry against the Jewish people in general, and individual Jews in particular. It is unfortunate because, today, the doctrine of Supersessionism is in massive decline among Christians, and I think that such a decline is directly connected with an institutional memory among Christians of the actions of their fore-bearers throughout Europe who marginalized, harassed, and excluded Jews from civil life, and deprived them of their liberty, their religious freedoms, and yes, at times, of their lives.

Supersessionism, however, is a clear teaching of the Letter to the Hebrews, and of the particular passage we have read today. The Old Covenant between God and the People of Israel is, "obsolete... out of date" and, "will soon disappear". Why is this so? Because the Old Covenant is was fulfilled in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus himself stated: "Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose." (Matthew 5:17). The New Covenant, its rites and hits promises, has superseded the old.

Notice, however, that neither the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, nor Jesus himself ever makes a blanket exclusion of the Jewish people from the 'rolls of the chosen'. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul explicitly describes, through the Olive Tree analogy, how the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and the institution of the New actually interact.

In the Olive Tree analogy, “Israel” and “Church” are essentially the same thing - they are viewed as alternate designations for the chosen people of God who abide in a right relationship with Yahweh. “Israel” or "Church" is likened to an olive tree, from which some branches were cut off (unbelieving Jews) and other branches were grafted in (believing Gentiles). Note what was cut away - unbelievers. Note what was grafted in - believers. Believers, Jew and Gentile, remain grafted to the tree. Unbelievers, Jew and Gentile, are cut off. Of course, as long as the cutting is alive, it can be grafted back on... but that's another homily in and of itself!

Jesus's words are in keeping with what we heard yesterday in our reading from Hebrews, about the things of the Law being types and shadows of a greater reality. The Law pointed to Jesus, in which it has its fulfillment. At the cross, the Covenant established in the wilderness is completely fulfilled. Jesus meets the terms of the Covenant to the letter, and in doing so empowers the transformation of that Covenant, for those who believe, into a new relationship with God... a New Covenant sealed in his blood. It is this New Covenant of which we speak at the Table of the Lord, each time we lift the cup of salvation and call upon his name.

Such a belief is not, remotely, anti-Semitic... nor should it ever be used as an excuse for any kind of violence of hatred. God knows we have more than enough of that in the world now! In fact, the concept of Supersessionism is not intrinsicly anti-Semitic. Now, you might expect such a profession from me, as a Christian, but actually, this belief is far more eloquently spoken of by David Novak, a prominent Jewish rabbi and theologian, who, in 2007, when writing on Edith Stein, a Jewish woman who converted to Catholicism, stated, "Christian supersessionism need not denigrate Judaism." In his writing, he went on to explain why. Suffice it to say, in this context, that it is ironic that a Jewish rabbi recognizes this fact, but many Christians fail to do so, precisely because of a fear of being labeled anti-Semite.

Friends, the Old Covenant remains an eternal signpost, and it is eternally fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. The rules, structures, and worship of that Covenant are no longer necessary for a right relationship with God. The Old Covenant remains important, because, remaining as it does in the collective memory of Jew and Gentile alike, it still, to this day, points the way to its fulfillment, who has opened up the way that the Old Covenant is a type and symbol of.

In Galatians 6:16, Saint Paul refers to the people of the New Covenant as the Israel of God. The name Israel means "the one who prevails with God". Those who 'prevail with God' do so, not because of their genetic lineage, but because they have placed their full faith and confidence in God. Paul summarizes this concept beautifully and so poetically earlier in Galatians when he writes:

"For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you." Galatians 3:26-29

Supersessionism does not mean that the Jews bear collective responsibility for Jesus' death...

Supersessionism does not mean that the Jews are damned to eternal fire for rejecting Jesus...

Supersessionism simply means that the Old Covenant, its forms and symbols and practices, has been superseded by a New Covenant, for the Old has been perfectly fulfilled... 

...and that perfectly fulfilled Covenant stands, to this day, as evidence of the love of God, made manifest in Christ Jesus.

It is in that love that all people have access to the Creator, now, and for all eternity.


That Christians everywhere would denounce violence in all its forms,
most especially in the religious strife
that leads to tension, bigotry, and hatred between people of various faiths;
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

That world leaders would be sensitive to the beliefs of the peoples who live in their nations,
granting them protection from persecution
and encouraging dialogue among peoples of many convictions
to the end that human rights and individual freedoms may be preserved and strengthened;
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

That we would, in our daily lives, stand firm in our faith,
boldly confessing the truth we have received,
while, at the same time, being respectful
and demonstrating love to those whose faith differs from our own;
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

That all those who devoutly ponder the Law and the Prophets
would find, in Christ Jesus,
the fulfillment of God's promises to his set-apart people;
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

That we,
the people of the New Covenant,
may be strengthened in faith,
confident that the Lord hears us
when we bring our prayers and petitions to him...
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.