Mark 2:18-22 | Bursting Wineskins

rodrigo-abreu-Cj4CWKQllOM-unsplashThis verse is one that has intrigued me for over a decade. I still don’t get quite get it. I think it’s apparent that Jesus is saying that change happens and that we need to continue to evolve as a community of people in context with what is happening in the world around us, and that often means saying goodbye to customs, traditions, and rituals that we love but which may have outlived their usefulness. I also think Jesus is getting at something that is easy for us to miss and if we do, can be detrimental to our effectiveness in opening up the love and grace of Christ to new people: That is that many of our customs are not an end, but means to an end. This passage comes in the context of a question to Jesus about why his disciples don’t fast. And he essentially says, “because right now is not a time for fasting” (my paraphrase).

There is merit to digging into all that he meant by this in terms of the “bridegroom metaphor” that follows, but I think there is a more generalized point to which we constantly need to be paying close attention. By confessing that “no, my disciples don’t fast” Jesus is saying that fasting, while good and right, is not essential. Fasting was merely a means of connecting to the Spirit of God, but the people had gotten so used to doing it that they started to believe that it was essential- that it was a command of God- that one was not a good Jew if they didn’t fast. I think part of what Jesus is saying here is that we need to hold all of our customs loosely. They are merely means to an end, not an end themselves. They are vehicles by which we connect to God. Everything we do in worship, in our devotional lives, and in our small group communities are means to a greater end, and any of them are subject to one day outliving their usefulness. Because God is always up to new things, and sometimes those new things require a whole different vehicle.

So when Jesus says, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (Mark 2:19), he is saying, among other things, “fasting is not essential at all times and in all places.” As our culture shifts and changes at a rate like the world has never seen before, we as followers of Christ must hold the rituals and customs we love loosely while paying close attention to what God is doing, how God is moving, and how God is connecting with people. What are we doing to step in the flow of God’s activity in the world today? After all, the heavens have “torn open”. So too then do the wine skins that hold our tradition.

I believe God is doing something new with the Christendom today. I believe God has new wine, and we know it will burst our wineskins, so we’re holding back. It’s scary to let go. It’s scary to enter into uncharted waters. But I believe that’s what the Christian Church must do. Those new waters can be scary, but I believe that when we step into them, and courageously pick up our feet and let the current of God’s work carry us away, we will find that though they may be scary, and though we have to let go of much of what we’ve loved, those waters are good and right, and in them is liberation and salvation.

Mark 2:13-17 |No Need of a Physician

This passage is a very simple but powerful story of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. Wiley-Coyote-HelpJesus is once again on his way to who-knows-where and he sees Levi sitting at his tax booth. Levi is a tax collector. That means he is hired out by Rome to collect taxes and then take a little more for himself from those from whom he’s collecting. Tax collectors were among the most despised people in the region. They were seen as traitors since they were working for the oppressor (Rome), and they also used that power to exploit people. And they were seen as religiously unclean as well. These were not people with whom the faithful associated . But Jesus not only associates with them, he calls them. Jesus says, “come follow me”, and Levi does.

When the Pharisees (part of the religious elite) ask “why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners”, Jesus interjects with a very simple, but sneaky response. He says, “those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners”. On the surface this is a nice statement that we all like, because it means that there’s hope for us who feel we don’t measure up. And this is an important part of the Gospel, but there’s more to this statement than that. When I look at the life of Christ, I see a man initiating a Kingdom of radical inclusion. We know this about Jesus, right? He is constantly going out to the margins of society and bringing in those who are out, and including those who are excluded. The image we often get is a “come one, come all” kind of a call. And that is the kingdom Jesus is initiating. But here we see the caveat to this radical inclusion: If you think you don’t need a “physician”, then this is not the place for you. Furthermore, if thinking you have it all figured out means that you will not associate with those of us who don’t, then this really isn’t the place for you. Jesus is a radically inclusive Messiah, but he seems to have no tolerance for those who set themselves apart as the worthy ones.

But let’s also pause here for a moment: In my past I’ve been really harsh on the Pharisees, viewing them in one dimensional ways, almost as straw men to hold up my views. I have recently come to realize the antisemitism that can crop out of this view. Jesus is certainly in an ongoing feud with the them, but let’s remember that the Pharisees are Torah observant Jews, seeking to live out the Torah as they understand it and as it is has been passed down to them. Their question here is fair one. That said, Jesus’ work necessarily will confound those who are hung up on the letter of the law at the expense of the Spirit of law. So this feud is real, but let’s be careful about the way we characterize the Pharisees.

That said, The irony of what’s happening here is that Jesus’ kingdom is a wide open kingdom for all people, but the one thing that will exclude you from it is thinking you don’t need it. The paradox of God’s kingdom is that the ones who “get it” are the ones who freely confess that they don’t have it figured out; and the ones who don’t “get it” are the ones who think they do have it all figured out. You see the problematic cycle this leads us to. The overarching point I think Jesus is making here is saying to those who think they don’t need a physician or are uncomfortable with others in the physicians office, “ok. then don’t come.”

Even a physician needs another physician from time to time. The point here may be less about who needs a “physician” and more about recognizing that we all do, so let’s not exclude anyone from seeing the physician. In other words, let’s open up the healing hand of God to all humans. Even the tax collectors.

Maybe the best question out of this for us today is, “Who are your tax collectors? Who are the ones you think don’t belong? The ones that make your flesh crawl? The ones who you think are unworthy?” Honestly reflect on that. And then maybe reconsider.

Mark 2:1-12 |Removing the Roof

matt-artz-4FS0keG0FKw-unsplashI love this story. It’s among my favorites in the Gospels, maybe because these young men cutting a hole in the roof remind me of some of the wild and funny antics of teenagers I led in my years in youth ministry. I feel like I know these guys. They drove me nuts in retreats.

But there’s is also a challenging message in here. One way to describe this story is a group of  people simply trying to get their friend to Jesus, but it’s too crowded. There isn’t room for them. It begs the challenging question for us today, “Have we who are already inside the home put up barriers to Jesus to such a degree that we are forcing people to cut holes in the roof just so they can get to him?”

In this scene the hindrance to Jesus is a crowd. Unfortunately that is the least of the worries in most churches today, but are their other hindrances we’ve placed that are driving people to other creative solutions to getting to Jesus without us even being aware of it? That is, do we have customs and habits that we love but that many who are not yet in the house find a hindrance to connecting to Jesus? I would submit that there people all over contemporary culture who are finding it difficult to connect to Jesus through the traditional front door of the church, so they are cutting holes in roofs all over the place.

The difference is that they’re not cutting holes in our roofs to get into the building. They’re not even showing up. They’re finding means other than the church to find spiritual connection, healing, and growth. In church-world we often blame the moral decay of culture for why people don’t go to church anymore. But what if the problem isn’t culture, but is us? What if we’ve developed structures that simply have more barriers than paths to the presence of God in people’s lives today?

When I look around, I don’t see a morally decayed culture as much as I see spiritually starving culture. And so I would argue that metaphorical holes are being cut all over the place, as people are finding spiritual connection, healing, and growth through other means. Means such as yoga and other exercises that help you come present to your body (this is where I could go off in the ways in which we are an embodied faith, but that’s all more the Gospel of John, so I’ll refrain); and means such as intimate in home groups with no “pastor” where people just share a meal, pray for one another and search the Scriptures; means such as concerts and other public events that have a message that connects people and grows them.

That’s where I want to pause for a second. I had an awakening last Summer at a concert at First Ave in Minneapolis. It was a Bad Religion concert, a punk bad that is pretty clear about their atheism, but I think better stated their a-religiosity. I hesitate to call them atheists because their music is actually quite spiritual. There was a moment in this show when they were singing the song “Sorrow”, which plays on language from the Book of Revelation’s vision of the “new city” (lyrics below). As the band and the crowd sang out, “There will be sorrow, there will be sorrow, there will be sorrow… no more”, I thought, ‘this is church’. It had all the markings of church. Something deeper than ourselves was resonating (see video below).

My point is this: This thing we call “church” needs to be a lot more adaptive. Because, you see, it’s not about church. It’s about people finding spiritual connection, healing, and growth in this crazy world. In the case of Christianity, that connection, healing, and growth is centered in opening ourselves to Christ by the power of the Spirit. And the means to that should be, as the opening of Mark indicates, torn wide open. Let’s get honest about the ways in which we might be putting up barriers to the presence of God without even realizing it. Let’s not crowd the space around Jesus. Let’s hold him loosely such that others who are seeking him may find him.


“Sorrow” (by Bad Religion)

Father can you hear me?
How have I let you down?
I curse the day that I was born
And all the sorrow in this world
Let me take you to the hurting ground
Where all good men are trampled down
Just to settle a bet that could not be won
Between a prideful father and his son
Will you guide me now, for I can’t see
A reason for the suffering and this long misery
What if every living soul could be upright and strong
Well, then I do imagine
There will be sorrow
Yeah there will be sorrow
And there will be sorrow no more
When all soldiers lay there weapons down
Or when all kings and all queens relinquish their crowns
Or when the only true messiah rescues us from ourselves
It’s easy to imagine
There will be sorrow
Yeah there will be sorrow
And there will be sorrow no more

Mark 1:40-45 | Out in the Country

136971969_5bafde8922I love the stories of when Jesus touches and heals the lepers. They are beautiful stories of Jesus reaching out beyond the societal margins and touching those he’s not supposed to touch. And in this story in particular I love that Jesus, “I am willing”. Those must have been soul-lifting words to this man. And while messages about inclusion and reaching out to the outsiders in our world is absolutely within this story, I’m not so sure that’s what this story is about or why it’s in Mark’s gospel. It’s a nice story, albeit a short one, but it quickly takes a turn as it moves from moving toward the outsider to the problem of fame.

Jesus is “moved with compassion”, which in Greek speaks to feeling deep down to the depths of one’s bowels. One could argue that level of compassion and feeling is so profound that it almost makes you sick to your stomach. That’s how deeply Jesus feels here, and because of this he heals the man. For no other reason does he do this but raw compassion and mercy. And then he does this strange thing, which he often does in the Gospels, which is that he gives this man a “stern warning” not to tell anyone about this, but to go the priests for the ritual cleansing which “Moses commanded”. What? First of all what is this ceremony that “Moses commanded”? And secondly, aren’t we supposed to boldly proclaim the hand of God at work in our lives to the world? Yes. But also no.

The cleaning is an elaborate ceremony outlined in Leviticus 14:1-32, and Jesus wants this man to be quiet about this healing until he goes through that. But why? I think it’s two reasons:

1) This is a reminder that Jesus is a Torah observant Jew. And while he’s going to do a lot that will challenge the current socio-political-religious systems of the day, he’s not there to replace Judaism. He’s there to honor it. So, yeah, I healed you, but you should still go and do rituals, do the things that we do. It’s easy for we Christians to look at the Gospel stories and think that Jesus has come to be some kind of replacement for Judaism. This is dangerous. This kind of thinking is not a far leap to antisemitism, a growing concern in our world today. Let these little verses thrown in there be a reminder of the beauty and validity of Judaism that Jesus also embraced.

2) Jesus is also concerned about the degree to which his healing power is granting him celebrity status in the region, and that he may become known for something other than what he is. He is not a magician. He is not a show. He’s not building a brand. And he knows what fame does. Fame takes your eye off the ball of authentic work, and even though you may have started out with the purest of intentions, it leads to a life of viral blog posts, book signings and keynote speaking at the latest sexy conferences. Jesus wants none of this. When fame enters in, you lose control of your schedule and priorities and your job becomes preserving the fame. So the stern warning is that Jesus doesn’t want fame to hijack his mission and work.

But the man can’t resist. He shouts it out to the world, and the masses start coming. Mark says that “[Jesus] can no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country” (v. 45). He’s got to go into hiding. He’s forced to lay low and let the hype the die. I love this about Jesus, especially in this day and age of Twitter followers, YouTube hits, Twitch channels, and blog subscribers. We live in a world where it is easier than ever before to get caught up in “fame”. We find ourselves in awe of the latest Christian blogger and can’t wait for their speaking tour so we can get a signed copy of their latest book. Does that look like the Kingdom? Can you imagine Jesus doing a book signing?

None of this is entirely or necessarily bad, but what is our work becoming when our leaders in the faith spend hours sitting at a table signing books. As an aspiring writer, blogger and tweeter whose followers and subscribers are so limited that they could all fit in my living room, it’s easy for me to critique those who have the masses following them. But I think we also need to be cautious about this trend in church-world. We are all just servants who are here to be vessels of God’s kingdom on earth as it in heaven. So the next time you find yourself star struck by a prominent leader in church-world, remind yourself that they are no different than you. They’re just famous and sell lots of books. And if they’re work is designed to sell more books, their eye is off the ball. Jesus knew that fame is not innately bad, but it is dangerous. Be ware of fame, beloved.

Mark 1:35-39 | A Deserted Place


It’s been a long day. A good day. But a long day. People were healed, broken things became whole, dead and dying things came to life. It’s all in a day’s work. A good, but long, hard day’s work. And Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, the anointed one, the chosen, is tired. And what does he do? He sneaks away to a “deserted place” to pray. He apparently doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going, evidenced by the fact that his newly called disciples “hunted for him” and eventually found him, and when they do they say, “everybody is searching for you”.

Do you see what Jesus did here? He disappointed people. The work tapped him out, and even though it wasn’t finished, he snuck away to rest, even though people needed him. Living a life of being a vessel of God’s Kingdom on earth is exhausting work, and even Jesus needed a break. What Jesus is doing here is setting up a boundary. He knows he needs his space, so he goes and takes it. And he presumably doesn’t tell anybody where he’s going, because he knows they’ll interrupt him. Jesus knows just how important it is to take care of himself, to get away from it all and to recenter himself in the Spirit of God.

We need to do this too. I’m really good at it. Well, at part of it. I’m good at the shutting it off for a time, and taking a nap, and laying on the couch watching a football game, but do I really recenter myself in the Spirit of God? Not so much. This is the heart of this thing we call “sabbath”. It’s not just taking a day off of work. It’s re-centering yourself in God. This is crucial to our life in God. As pastor types we are constantly calling people to get engaged in the work of the ministry, which we  will always do, but as we do, make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Make sure you’re finding the time and space to unplug and recenter yourself in God’s Spirit.

I can’t dictate or micromanage for you how to do that. You’ll have to figure it out on your own over time. For Jesus, it looks like prayer. For me, I know I need peace and silence in the morning. I know I need to be intentional about praying and not just shooting up quick one sentence prayers in the car (which is not a bad thing, but I need more). I know I need to engage in challenging but empowering Christian community. I know I need to loose myself in song from time to time. I know I need let the Scriptures wash over me like a poem. I know I need to get on my bike and not worry about my heart rate, cadence, and speed as I just let every revolution of the pedals ground me like a rosary in the presence of God.

Last August I took a trip to Albuquerque, NM, and did a big hike all by myself. I didn’t realize how much I needed. Below is a video that won’t do it justice, but for a few moments I just stopped and looked and listened, and came present to myself, to my body, and to the presence of God within and around me. Sometimes I return to this short 45 second video to help center myself.

What is it for you? If you know, be intentional about doing it and don’t stop even if it means that from time to time something doesn’t “get done”. If you don’t know, start experimenting. Find a “deserted place”, find an intentional time, and experiment with new ways to realign yourself with the Spirit of God. Don’t give up, keep trying and, eventually you will find your rhythm, and when you do, I’ll bet you’ll find renewed energy and fervor to be such a vessel of God’s Kingdom in your community. You will do so, because you will be filled to overflowing with the active work of the Spirit of God. You’ll be overflowing with grace.

Mark 1:29-34 |The Whole City…

dawid-zawila-fiu89zdeTQI-unsplashYesterday we read about Jesus casting out an evil spirit in a man while in the midst of teaching in the synagogue. The story ends with his fame beginning to “spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee”. So Jesus’ ministry has just begun, and it is exploding. He is the talk of the town. This ministry begins immediately following Jesus’ temptation in the desert (1:12-13) where he heads to Galilee to proclaim the “good news” (or Gospel- the word “gospel” literally means in “good news” in Greek) and saying, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…” (1:14-15). The question is what is the Kingdom of God? What does it mean that the “kingdom of God has come near”? Remember that when Jesus was baptized the heavens tore open and the spirit of God came upon him. The kingdom of God is wherever the effective will of God takes place, and Jesus is the bringer of God’s effective will. He is the very image and expression of who God is (Colossians 1:15), so therefore his work is what the Kingdom of God is, and furthermore wherever he goes so goes with him the Kingdom of God. And what that looks like is being answered in today’s story.

The kingdom of God looks like healing, wholeness, and the silencing and disempowering of evil. The Kingdom of God looks like people advocating for those are sick and consumed by evil by bringing them to Jesus in the hopes of wholeness and healing. The Kingdom of God looks like crowds surrounding the home where Jesus’ work is active and effective and is backing up the promise of good news. The Kingdom of God looks like crowds of people swept up in the work of God around them. The Kingdom of God looks like good news in action. It looks like awe, wonder, and amazement at something bigger than ourselves fulfilling good news in our midst.

All too often the Kingdom of God is painted with clouds, or airy rays of sunshine, or a distant spinning galaxy, or (worse yet) a massive set of pearly gates in the sky. I see nothing in the Gospels that says that this is what the Kingdom of God looks like. The Kingdom of God is near, it is tangible, and it looks like broken lives becoming whole, like dead and dying things coming to life. It looks like reconciled relationships, freedom from addiction, the weak becoming strong, and downtrodden rising to joy. What is this “Kingdom of God” that Jesus says is near in Mark 1:15? It looks like Mark 1:29-24. May we all recapture a spirit of amazement at the healing, restoring and reconciling power of God in our midst here and now.

Mark 1:21-28 |Power & Authority

thomas-kelley-xVptEZzgVfo-unsplashJesus’ work begins, and it begins with teaching in the synagogue. We don’t know what he taught, but we know that his teaching “astounded” the people and that he taught “as one having authority”. This is the same language used to describe the people’s reaction to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7. After three chapters of teaching, Matthew 7:28-29 says, “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” These are almost the exact words as here in Mark. It’s possible that his teachings here were similar to that of the Sermon on the Mount.

But this is not where Mark’s focus is. Matthew focuses a lot on Jesus’ authority, while Mark seems more concerned with Jesus’ power. Other than some proclamation of the good news and the calling of the disciples, this is Jesus’ first real public act in Mark. And, as we saw as a sort of prologue to his work in the wilderness, that first act is overcoming evil. Jesus exorcizes an evil spirit, and not only are the people astounded by his teaching, but they are also amazed at his power. In fact, it is the power that he demonstrates that reinforces the authority with which he teaches.

We will see much more of this kind of power from Jesus in stories to come. He will continue to exorcize evil spirits, and we will soon see his power to heal as well. How do we feel about this today? We don’t see this kind of supernatural stuff today? Why not? What kind of power does God have today? How do we make sense of these of these stories today? It is vital to employ our reason and experience when analyzing these stories, but we also must not do so to a degree that we rationalize the stories away. Mark’s Jesus is very much “supernatural” one. He is the very “Son of God”. Let’s let him be, and let’s let these exhibitions of supernatural power challenge us.

Mark 1:14-20 |Good Newsers

Jesus has been baptized, he is named and claimed, and he has overcome evil in the wilderness. It’s go time. jason-rosewell-ASKeuOZqhYU-unsplash

We learn that John the Baptizer has been arrested, and then in steps Jesus. Does Jesus step in because John was arrested or would he have stepping in at this time regardless? We don’t really know, but it seems to me that John’s arrest is inconsequential. Jesus is ready, and John has prepared the way. So here comes Jesus.

He goes to Galilee, where he will spend a lot of time, and right away he’s picking up where John left off. He’s proclaiming the “good news” and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near, or more literally, “at hand”, which means that it’s within grasp. What all this means is what the following chapters will describe.

The next thing that happens is Jesus begins to call his disciples. In this we see that the work Jesus is called to do is not just for Jesus. Along with Jesus’ baptism comes a sense of call. He is the Beloved Son of God, and this is not just a name or a title, but with it comes a job. That job is proclaiming the good news and calling people to “repent and believe the good news”.

Beloved, this is our job too. This is what Jesus calls his disciples to do with him. What is that? It’s simple, beautiful, and important. First of all the “good news” is that we too are God’s beloved children. We are not who the structures of the world often tell us we are, which is “not enough”. Our jobs, our grades, our families’ approval, our own shame do not define us. The Heavens have “torn apart” and broken through all of that to tell us that we are Beloved.

And to really let that in requires a reorienting of our lives, or “repentance”. Repentance is not some ritual we do in order to cleans ourselves to satisfy an angry God and get to Heaven. Repentance is a complete rethinking of what is most true, and then turning to go and live that way, and then in it we find true, everlasting, and abundant life (slipping into the Gospel of John here!)… or you might say we find the Kingdom of God.

As Christ followers, our job is to do that ourselves, which is to say we “leave our nets”, not necessarily literally, but metaphorically. We leave those things that we think give us value and worth (e.g.: our success in the marketplace or academia) and we step into the presence of God where our value and worth and innate within us, just as we are with nothing to prove to anyone. God loves you. So, Beloved… love yourself!

Then we go and spread that good news to the world around us. In this sense, let us be “good newsers”. Let us be… dare I say… “evangelists”.

Mark 1:9-13 |The Heavens Torn Apart

And now Jesus shows up. We are a mere nine verses in and Jesus shows up as a full grown human, getting baptized, and ready to go. Mark doesn’t even tell us of Jesus entering the water, let alone any dialogue with John the Baptizer, but the narrative cuts to “And just as he was coming up out of the water…” This is what Mark’s wants us to brina-blum-nqttZgQZFyc-unsplashfocus on. Not the baptism as a whole, but what the baptism does, what it means, what its result is. And that is a twofold connected point.

  1. As he comes out of the water, Jesus sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove. The structures of the world are so rigid, so reinforced, so marginalizing, that for the Spirit of God to break through, the heavens must tear apart. This rather violent breaking open of the heavens is followed, however, by a peaceful descent of the Spirit. In baptism, the rigid structures we place around the presence of God break open, but then the presence of God gently and peacefully finds us.
  2. Jesus sees the heavens tear open and the Spirit descend, but he also hears something: A voice from those heavens says, “you are my son, the Beloved; with you  I am well pleased.” Jesus is named “The Beloved”. In his baptism the heavens tear open, the Spirit descends, and he is named, all of which becomes a kind of ceremony readying Jesus for his work.

And that is exactly what happens next. “Immediately” Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness. There he will be tempted by Satan, will live with the “wild beasts”, and will be tended to by angels. We will see throughout this Gospel that while there are systems of the world that Jesus is here to dismantle, it’s all rooted in something far bigger and deeper than anything of the world. As the Apostle Paul later says, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

We must be about the work of dismantling oppressive systems in our world, but we must do so by recognizing and overcoming the spirit that generates them. The spirit of racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamaphobia and all other such isms and phobias that deny humans both basic human rights and their innate belovedness needs to be overcome. Yes, we need to break down structures and change laws, but there exists a spirit behind all of these that the work of Jesus is about overcoming.

The heavens don’t tear apart because it’s a nice story. The heavens tear apart to bring about a different spirit in the world, one embodied in Jesus. So too are we, the Body of Christ, to embody this spirit, a spirit that overcomes the spirits of darkness that drive us to fear, hate, and subsequently marginalize and oppress one another; a spirit that breaks open and overwhelms the world with the “good news”, which is that all are the beloved of child of God in whom God is well pleased.

This is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, that we see in just the first nine verses of Mark. The question is… how will he do it? Keep reading.

My Antisemitic Faith: A Christian Pastor’s Wrestling with Christendom

Over the last three years, antisemitism has been on the rise. It’s a fact, one that deeply troubles me. And as I speak out against it, organize vigils to stand with my Jewish dmitry-bayer-K2dXWEEw0fg-unsplash.jpgneighbors, and work to build a better and more whole community, over the years I have become aware of just how antisemitic my own faith is.

I am Christian, and even though I- a pastor- have my doubts sometimes, every Christmas my faith is renewed. There is something about the Jesus story that begins with him coming to us as a child that resonates deeply within my soul. But while I am firmly Christian, and as I work week in and week out in preparing Biblically rooted sermons, I am also in a place of deep wrestling with the ways in which my faith not only props up antisemitism, but also generates it.

It all begins with the idea of supersessionism. This is the notion that Jesus and the “New” Testament/Covenant supersede the “Old”, and in this way replace it. This can’t be, for as Jesus clearly says in his seminal teaching (The Sermon on the Mount), he did not come to “abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Yet, even as I embrace that, in order to have a Christology high enough to be in congruence with orthodox Christian Theology and belief, Jesus necessarily becomes not a fulfillment of the law and prophets but the fulfillment.

As all of this fans out through Christian Theology, we find ourselves- especially at Christmas time- making and fiercely defending claims that Jesus is the divine being, the Christ, the Messiah, sent to earth to save and redeem all, and nothing and no one else is. As I often say in Christmas sermons, “he is the one Israel has been waiting for”. Our Christmas carols sing of “Messiah’s birth” and “born is the King of Israel.” Even my favorite Advent hymn (perhaps my favorite of all hymns) sings, “Israel’s strength and consolation…” This is then fulfilled on Good Friday and “proven” on Easter Sunday. All of this is necessarily supersessionist, and it is not a far leap from supersessionism to antisemitism.

In the Gospel of John- a Gospel I deeply love- the phrase “The Jews” comes up 59 times in its mere 20 chapters, most often in a negative light, and has been used for centuries to prop up antisemitism. Johanine Scholar Karoline Lewis points out, thankfully, in the introduction of her commentary, “John’s Gospel has repeatedly justified anti-Semitic beliefs and behavior due to Jesus’ strong words to the ‘Jews’ throughout the narrative” (p. 5). She goes not to explain that this phrase is more of a reference to the Jewish leadership of the time and with whom Jesus was in ongoing dialogue and rabbinic argument. But we must ask, why did the author of John choose this phrasing? We are naive to deny that antisemitic sentiments may have been a, if not the, motivating factor. And this Gospel has been used perhaps more than any other to prop up antisemitism throughout Christendom.

Then there’s the issue with the Pharisees. I’ve been massively guilty of antisemitic preaching and teaching around this. The Gospels don’t paint a pretty picture of the Pharisees, and there were some issues in those day, but when “Pharisee” becomes synonymous with “anti-Christian”, what we are actually dealing with his not “anti-Christian” but… well… antisemitism. The Pharisees were a specific group within Judaism, who were well educated, Torah observant, held high positions in their religious circles, and were seeking to live out the faith handed down and entrusted to them. The goings-on between them and Jesus were a “family” argument, much we like we Methodists are having right now. Jesus indeed had hard words for them (he opens up a serious can of “woe to you” whoop-ass on them in Matthew 23), which inform the story and from which we can learn, but these people were not evil, nor were they enemy. We too often make the Pharisees into one dimensional straw men that we can take down, and in so doing, the seeds of antisemitism are germinated.

As we sweep through the history of Christian Theology and Church History, we find antisemitism and supersessionism all over the place in varying degrees. And I say varying degrees, because there are many of us trying to find our way through this faith while naming and hopefully dismantling this. But the truth is, it is so deeply embedded in the faith, that to do so means not only reimagining the Gospels, but doing so in a way that challenges our hymnals, our creeds, and our core doctrines handed down to us. If we do not challenge them, we prop them up, and in so doing are not just heirs to antisemitic theology and doctrine, but participants as well.

But what then are we to do? Because while I continually see the antisemitism embedded in much of Christianity and Christendom, I also come to the manger every Christmas in tears. The story changed, and is changing, my life for the better. I’m a more whole person because of the Jesus Story. Something beyond myself happened to me and in me because of it. It’s not just theological. It’s personal. It’s spiritual. It’s at the core of my being. We have some really dirty bathwater, and I want to throw the bathwater out, but I don’t want to throw the Baby Jesus out with bathwater. Is that possible? I hope so. I’m trying. I may be left with a Jesus I don’t entirely recognize, and while that’s scary, it may be good.

So what do we do? I don’t entirely know, but here’s what I’m working on. And I am doing so because, fellow Christians, when it comes to antisemitism, our hands are dirty. Really dirty.

  1. Name the antisemitism in our faith. We need to stop trying to gloss over it. When we encounter it, it’s time we say, “yup. that’s supersessionism and it’s dangerous, and we need to rework that.” There are some obvious places to do this, chief among them the way we break up our Bible. I’m not sure what else to call the “New Testament”, but we need to done with the name “Old Testament.” It’s not old. It’s been around a long time, but the Covenant is still very much alive and embodied in our Jewish siblings today. Call it the “Hebrew Bible”. This is a really simple, easy switch. Just do it.
  2. Honor the Torah specifically. My understanding of the Jewish faith is that it doesn’t look at the whole of the Hebrew Bible like we do. The Torah is primary and needs to be held as such. While we will still refer to and study the Hebrew Bible as a whole, let’s remember that the first five books shape and frame everything, and even are in fact the story to which Jesus’ life was hinged.
  3. Don’t do Seder meals unless invited by Jewish friends and/or you are led by Jewish friends. Fellow Christians, we are not Jewish. Do not appropriate such sacred days as our own. While Holy Communion has some roots in a Seder, it is not one. It is a meal, a feast in which we (among other things) remember Jesus.
  4. Preachers and Pastors, here’s the big one: Reimagine the Christian story to such degrees that we err on the side of combatting supersessionism and antisemitism rather than on propping up Christendom. Jesus can handle it. Lovingly, patiently, and boldly work through the Gospels with your congregations in ways that reimagine them such that we find a Jesus that saves not by demanding conversion to a religion (the last thing he wanted), but a Jesus that saves because he leads us in breaking down all systems and structures that exclude, marginalize, and harm categories of humans. From what I hear from Jewish friends these days, one of the best ways we can combat antisemitism is not merely by naming and dismantling antisemitism, but by using the privilege we have to combat also Islamaphobia, xenophobia, homo/transphobia, sexism, racism, classism, and- as the United Methodist vows call us to- “resisting evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they prevent themselves”.
  5. Listen to our Jewish siblings. The truth is, The Church has done a lot of harm in regards to antisemitism. As antisemitism grows today and subsequently fears of simply lighting a menorah are realized, we need to listen and give voice, rather than rationalize and minimize. We also need to listen to our Jewish friends theologically. We have a TON to learn from them. They have an understanding of the story that can radically enhance our understanding of it and what Jesus may have been up to. Too much of Christendom has been steeped in knowing. We need to shift it to learning. We have a lot to learn, Beloved.
  6. Go to vigils and gatherings designed to combat antisemitism. Even organize them. Much of antisemitism is rooted in Christian history, theology, and doctrine. Let’s show our Jewish siblings that we stand with them, even literally.

The above is just a beginning. The bottom line is this: We Christians are naive to deny that our faith props up antisemitism. It does. In no way, am I calling for us to abandon our Christian faith, but I am calling us to carefully examine it, test it, name its centuries old failings, deconstruct it, and reimagine it along the way. Let’s change the narrative. If that makes me a heretic, I guess I’m okay with that.