Tuesday of Easter 3
May 6, 2014
All Saints Chapel
Church Divinity School of the Pacific
Christianity is a story — a deep sacred story that changes lives in its telling.
As a story it depends on conflict to drive it forward and to draw people in.
But sometimes the conflict we find in Scripture cannot be easily resolved.
We are left grappling with troubling moral questions in our sacred stories.
We encounter this in our Easter lectionary, especially with Acts and John.
These books have profoundly shaped the Christian faith but have also contributed to a long narrative of Christian hostility towards Judaism.
We hear conflict in Acts 7 when Stephen blames the Jewish leaders for killing Jesus, just like other leaders had killed the prophets in the past.
And then these same leaders go and stone Stephen, as if proving his point.
The Jewish priesthood is painted as oppressive and only capable of murdering the righteous.
In John 6 we hear a snippet of a longer argument between Jesus and “Jews.”
In this passage it sounds as if Jesus is dismissing the formative experiences of Israel in the wilderness.
Moses and the God-given miracle of manna seem to matter little.
The old is dismissed – Israel’s sacred story is forced into the past it seems.
These words of conflict have had a terrible effect.
These words have been used to justify a complete rejection of God’s promises to the people of Israel.
They have been used to say that Jews no longer have a covenant with God.
This has not only been incredibly destructive for Jews, but has also served as the blueprint for later Christian abuses in eras of empire and colonialism.
The denial of God’s covenant with the Jews provided the foundation for the denial of the rights of the Lakota and Navajo and Maori and Zulu when European Christians came to their lands.
And yet we also are gathered here because we know that Jesus Christ entered this world and transformed it in the process.
We are here because we have encountered something life giving and completely transformative in him.
We gather because we believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life.
But, how can we gather in the breaking of the bread when claiming that Jesus is the Bread of Life has been used against Jewish people to say their story of life giving bread is best remembered as a story to fade away?
How can we break bread in a way that creates peace and not division?
This search for unity amidst division is at the heart of the mystery of God’s work in the world.
The gospels themselves force those who encounter Jesus Christ to make a choice about who they believe he is.
This process of making a choice about Jesus, whether he is the Anointed One sent by God, itself leads to conflict and division.
While these processes have life changing outcomes, they also have bled over, literally, into the lives of innocent people.
How do we live in the broken spaces that these readings open up?
What do we do with the stories of Jewish resistance to the Gospel of Jesus?
First, we should note that these stories are not history, at least not in our way of thinking.
They are not facts in the way we take facts.
We are dealing with narrative in a strongly rhetorical form that the people of Israel knew well.
We hear this in both stories – with the allusion to the giving of manna in the wilderness in John and when Stephen speaks of the tradition of leaders persecuting the prophets.
The subtext of the manna episode is that Israel was not satisfied with the giving of manna but demanded even more from God.
And the Hebrew Scriptures attest that the appointed leaders of Israel too often (but not always!) rejected God’s message from the prophets.
Part of Israel’s own story they told each other was that the people of God are not perfect.
Sometimes they fail totally in keeping their side of the covenant with God.
Sometimes the people of God grumble over what they lack when they should give thanks for what God is doing among them.
Sometimes those in power persecute the prophets when instead the proper response to the word of God is repentance.
And yet, the people of Israel always remain the people of God because God is not a breaker of promises.
Again and again, God promises to Israel through the prophets that he will always abide with them.
Israel always remains God’s chosen people for the sake of the nations — that truth is at the core of the very mission of the disciples of Jesus.
But the language of division in our readings remains.
We are not the first to have to grapple with these divisions.
These divisions were a core preoccupation of the Apostle Paul.
In Romans 11, we hear these words from Paul:
“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.
And so all Israel will be saved . . .
As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. . .
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “ (Romans 11:25-33)
We are compelled to sit with the reality of disunity among the people of God, Israel and the Church.
But even among these divisions, God has promised in a deep and mysterious way, to keep his covenant with his people, both Israel and now the Church.
This is the case even when Israel appears to be an enemy of the Gospel.
They still remain beloved of God.
Given this, we are required to not deepen division.
In the very next chapter of Romans, Paul urges us to a life of reconciliation:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; …; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil . ..
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:14-18)
These words of Paul take us back to the bread in John 6.
If we believe that God is a keeper of promises, we can affirm that the bread Israel received in the wilderness was good.
We can also say that when we receive our bread, we encounter the Bread of Life who sustains us by the promises that God still offers.
Paul attests that the two realities of the entire people of God, both Israel and the Church, are one in God but for now live in tension.
And we have no choice but to live in the midst of that tension.
We should use that tension to witness to the hope of reconciliation.
And the reality of that tension should inform how we live in other places of conflict – within our church, within our culture, within our own lives.
It may lead us to affirm God’s covenant making with other people like the Navajo or the Maori who have been drawn into the mystery of Christ.
We are a people of hope living in the tension of the impossible because we confess a Risen Christ who impossibly was dead and is now alive.
And we know our hopes are impossibly true because we have met the risen Christ, the Bread of Life, in the broken bread.
We hope because we know that by the power of God the Father the broken body of the Bread of Life was raised up whole and transformed.
And we hope for reconciliation between Israel and the Church because God does not break promises.
We take the broken bread with the audacious hope that the power of God will one day restore us all as one body.
God gave bread to sustain Israel in the wilderness; God gives us the Bread of Life to share in now.
Come, let us eat.