Becoming a Blessing
A Sermon preached at St John the Evangelist, St Paul, MN on March 12, 2017, by Revd Dr Sam Wells
It was 1986, and I was in the town of Haifa in northern Israel. I was searching for a house. I had in my hand a scrap of paper with my uncle’s handwriting on it. A few weeks before I’d been to see him and asked where exactly it was that my grandparents had lived when they were in Israel for a few years in the early fifties. He’d found the address and it was that address that I held in my hand as I wandered around Haifa one August morning.
I was starting to find out a lot more about my grandparents. They were both born Jews, in Kiev, in what’s now Ukraine. They both, separately, were converted to Christianity and became Baptists. By different routes they each escaped Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1920s and came to Berlin, where they married and had three children: my mother and my two uncles. They escaped Hitler’s Berlin and came to London in 1938. Over the next few years, astonishingly and ironically, they spent a lot of time as former Jews sharing their Christian faith with Nazi prisoners of war. They dedicated the rest of their lives to being missionaries, in England, and, after 1945, in Germany and in Israel. Many of those they brought to faith in Christ were, like themselves, Jews.
Still holding my uncle’s scrap of paper, after a lot of searching the streets of Haifa, a lot of stopping for directions, and a lot of following the helpful finger of shopkeepers pointing just a couple more alleyways west or south, I stood before the dwelling where my grandparents had lived. And I was open-mouthed. I was astonished because I suddenly realized I’d been there before. Two years previously I’d spent a couple of months working on a kibbutz not far from Haifa, and one Sunday I’d travelled into the city to go to church. After church some kind people, from a bunch of different nationalities, had invited me back to their youth hostel for lunch. And it was outside that very same youth hostel that I now found myself standing. That youth hostel had once, 35 years previously, been my grandparents’ home.
I want you to hear this story as a fourfold analogy for the church’s relationship to the Jews. I want first to reflect on how it felt to look at a house that seemed so strange and hard to find and then to realize I’d already been there before. That’s what it’s like for Christians to encounter Judaism. Here’s the caricature. The Christian Bible has an Old Testament and a New Testament. Christians know that Jews revere the Old Testament. They also know that Jews don’t read the New Testament. Christians don’t really grasp why Jews long ago and today don’t follow Jesus or recognize him as their Messiah. So Christians more or less treat Jews as people who get half the story, and as people who have half a history – as if faith and history stopped in the first century AD. We more or less say, ‘Jews believe in the Bible except for the interesting bits.’
But that’s a colossal misunderstanding and a form of wilful ignorance. Because the immense oral tradition of the Jews and the almost limitless commentaries and interpretations of Jewish faith almost all arose after Christianity had been born. It’s sometimes been fashionable to refer to the Old Testament as the Hebrew Scriptures; but using this nomenclature simply plays along with the notion that Jews have a tradition of deficit – they hold onto the bit without Jesus. The truth is the texts sacred to Jews, especially the Mishnah and Gemara, together known as the Talmud, stretch far beyond that, and Judaism since the first century AD has developed profound traditions of which most Christians are entirely unaware.
The reason I say this is like finding a house you’ve been in before is that when Christians truly come to know Judaism and find out what makes their Jewish neighbors tick, they find a tradition that in many, perhaps most, aspects puts their own tradition to shame. Christians have got a colossal and pernicious superiority complex when it comes to Jews. We need to recognize with utmost humility that someone else has been living in this house for a long time. We’re like Goldilocks wandering possessively and sometimes destructively around a cottage that really belongs to the three bears. Spend a few weeks dwelling with Jews who live and breathe their tradition and I guarantee you’ll feel like you’ve been living a superficial, impoverished spiritual life. We make a great deal of the fact that to be close to God we need to be close to the poor. What we say less often is that to be close to God we need to be close to the Jews.
Next I want to think with you about what it meant to realize this house in Haifa in fact was lived in by my relatives, indeed my progenitors. Judaism isn’t simply another faith, like Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism. It’s the parent of Christianity. It’s the manger in which Jesus is laid. The incarnate Jesus is a Jew. The risen and ascended Jesus, sitting at the right hand of the Father, is still a Jew. Jewishness is the humanity of God. It’s part of the Holy Trinity. In today’s reading from Genesis, God says to Abraham, ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you… In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ God’s promise to Israel is not broken. The Jews are still the chosen people.
It’s Christianity’s sin, perhaps the greatest of all its many sins, to have forgotten this. Medieval Europe found diversity difficult to comprehend. Jews were vilified and persecuted. The universal ban on usury inhibited the economy, and the Jews’ willingness to break the usury ban became vital to finance, a source of enrichment to some Jews, while at the same time becoming a pretext to despise and yet envy the Jews. Christians who rejoiced in the salvation Jesus brings and all other benefits of his passion seemed meanwhile eager to make every Jew culpable for the crucifixion. This tendency to ostracize, blame, fear and yet depend on the Jews culminated centuries later in the Holocaust.
Christians today think of the Holocaust as part of the horror of the Nazis and the rationale for the slaughter of the Second World War. But we don’t dwell sufficiently on the events of 1933-1945 as a religious catastrophe. We perceive Jews wondering why God did not prevent this apocalyptic swathe of death; but we seldom recognize that its justification was based on a millennium of Christian anti-Semitism. And that this was an act not just of genocide but of fratricide – these were not vulnerable strangers but our brothers and sisters. This was my family.
And that brings me to the third element of my search in Haifa 28 years ago. It was complicated. In fact, it was a secret. My family had a forbidden secret – and that was that my grandparents worked before, during and after the war to bring Jews to faith in Christ. It was such a terrible secret that until he died a few years ago my other uncle would never even speak about it. And this confusion has characterized a great deal of Christian interaction with Jews since the Holocaust. A sense of guilt, shame and pity after the Holocaust has created a reticence to talk about Jesus, and that has led to treating Jews not as family but as an imprecise other faith. And of course you’ll have noticed that my search for my grandparents’ house took place in Israel. Israel is the secular state created out of the Zionist movement as a way both to recognize the ostracism of Jews in the world and to create a place of safety and flourishing. And in some people’s eyes this secular state fulfills the words of Genesis and brings about a self-governed Jewish state in Palestine for the first time for 2500 years. It’s no coincidence that my grandfather’s first name was Israel.
The State of Israel has fulfilled many Jewish dreams and discharged much Western guilt and been a place of much endeavor, courage, brilliance and hope. But its existence and history have sometimes not brought out the best in its supporters, its enemies, and its leaders. For many hotly-contested reasons Israel has not yet proved to be the happy ending to the terrible story about Christianity, Western civilization, and the Jews. It remains a challenge for the West in general and the European Christian churches in particular to accept responsibility for creating the conditions that made the existence of Israel necessary. It remains difficult for the Arab world to imagine that the existence of a Jewish state in its midst can truly be experienced as a blessing. And it seems hard for Israel and its ardent supporters to accept that scrutiny of some of its policies is not a questioning of its very existence and a return to the centuries of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.
And until these conditions change, everything in the region is going to be extraordinarily complicated. Meanwhile Christians are going to remain hopelessly conflicted about whether they should be acting out of guilt and reparation for their anti-Semitic heritage, solidarity with Palestinian Christians and suffering people in the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza, and refugees in neighboring countries, or sympathy with Israel and friendship with Jews as members of a common people. You can imagine when Jewish and Christian members of my family get together all this is in the room before we ever open our mouths.
I want to leave you with a fourth image from the story. Imagine yourself as that young adult searching around Haifa holding a scrap of paper. And that scrap of paper is the Bible, which is a gift to Jews and Christians; and yet that scrap of paper is also the sorry tale of 2000 years of history, in which Christianity has shown all its worst features in relation to the Jews. And when you do find the right address (and it may take a good deal more searching yet), you’ll find a dwelling place where Jews and Christians are together a blessing to one another and to the world. Because that’s what God’s promise to Abraham was originally about: not an entitlement to land or privilege or protection, but the way in which God would bestow a blessing upon all the families of the earth.
In Genesis 12 God says to Abraham, ‘I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.’ Can we Christians really say we have blessed the Jews? If we can’t, perhaps it becomes easier to understand why our calls for justice in the West Bank and Gaza fall on deaf ears. Genesis 12 goes on to say to Abraham and the Jews, God called you to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. That’s what the Jews were made for: to be a blessing.
And we Christians owe our existence to them. We have to admit: we really have made a terrible job of saying thank you.