Is Jesus Jewish?

We have just celebrated the miracle around which Christian life revolves: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It makes one wonder if we are truly ready to embrace a Jewish Jesus.

Jesus is seen as a Jew in many pulpits and pews, but usually as an exception, an anomaly. In too many sermons, commentaries and hymnals his teachings on love, inclusion and forgiveness are set up as a contrast against the Jews and Judaism of his day. What makes him distinctive, we say, is that he’s not like the other Jews. He reached people on the margins. He talked to women. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. But these characterizations of a Jewish Jesus are still distorted. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains why:

“Jesus becomes the rebel who, unlike every other Jew, practices social justice. He is the only one to speak with women; he is the only one who teaches nonviolent responses to oppression; he is the only one who cares about the “poor and the marginalized” (that phrase has become a litany in some Christian circles). Judaism becomes in such discourse a negative foil: whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn’t it; what Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category.”

Yes, Jesus reached out to all kinds of people. Yes, he counselled mercy and patience. Yes, he healed and set people free. But rather than see Jesus as different from the Jews around him, it is time to see Jesus’ ministry as a natural evolution of the whole history of Jewish teaching, ethics, morality, practice and service of God. Otherwise he serves as an archetypal anti-Jew.

Let’s think about it for a moment. If Jesus were fully Jewish, operating in a Jewish context, living a Jewish life, studying Jewish texts, praying to a Jewish God, clothing himself in the Jewish commandments, where else did it come from? If we believe that Jesus was one with the God of Israel, then surely, Jesus drew upon the same Source and sources that inspired all the other teachers, miracle-workers, prophets and kings that preceded and surrounded him. Quite often the rabbis of his era were arriving at the same conclusions he was, from the Golden Rule, to teachings on Sabbath, the importance of love of God and neighbor. Others were engaged in calling disciples, healing and miracle-working. Even his interactions with women, children, and Gentiles were not anomalous.

More than that, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is marked by theological and behavioral leaps, beginning with Abraham’s innovation that God is one, not many; continuing with Moses’ skilled but previously unknown leadership in leading the Israelites from slavehood to peoplehood; game-changing visions from prophets; and the courageous renewal of Judaism under Nehemiah and Ezra after the return from Babylonian exile. Jesus is the product of generations of Jewish innovators, completely in line with the spiritual genius that went before him and even those that came after him.

If we were to truly embrace a fully Jewish Jesus, it would take a renewed scholarship, prayers, poets, professors and Bible study writers and teachers. It would take some work to leave behind comfortable but dishonest dichotomies and ready stereotypes – not that easy for already overworked church leaders. But there are many excellent resources that can help, for example, “The Jew Named Jesus” by Rebekah Simon-Peter. It’s worth the effort. We are grand participants in a historic reconciliation, the fruits of which are only beginning to be realized.

This historic reconciliation points out an underlying truth: it hasn’t always been good between Christians and Jews. A long history of Christian teaching of “contempt of the Jews” made positive interfaith relations all but impossible for centuries. After hitting a theological bottom in the Holocaust, though, the church has intentionally hammered out new theologies and reached for new understandings that allow for love, acceptance and embrace of Jews. In response, Jews have done the hard work of forgiving and rapprochement too.

All of this brings us to the point where we can ask the question: Can we truly embrace a fully Jewish Jesus? Even the question is a good one. It leads to all kinds of other interesting questions. If Judaism and Christianity could hammer out a new relationship, is the same possible for Christianity and Islam? If we could, should we?

The truth is, the work has begun. And it’s been initiated by Muslims. In 2007, 138 Muslim clerics and scholars representing every branch of Islam sent a beautifully worded and carefully researched letter to Christian leaders. This letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” stated that as the two largest world religions, the peace of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians. It used as its reference point the Hebrew Bible teachings of love of God and neighbor, saying they were common to both Islam and Christianity.

We have the opportunity to turn a new page. To restore and revamp our understandings of Jesus and Judaism, and to open our hearts to new understandings of our Muslim neighbours. What a great response to the Easter season this would be. They’re certainly risky moves, especially in an age of nationalism, terrorism, and blame-game politics. But isn’t that when the resurrection is needed most?

What really matters?

Beyond the realm of churches, religious blogs, and bible colleges, nobody really cares about theology. What does matter is the way you treat other people.

Within Christendom, we’re often taught the exact opposite: that doctrines, traditions, theologies, and distinct beliefs are the only things that matter. It’s what separates churches, denominations, theologians, and those who are “saved” and “unsaved.”

Historically, Christians have been tempted to categorize the Bible into numerous sets of beliefs that are either inspired or heretical, good or bad, right or wrong — with no room for doubt or questioning or uncertainty.

It’s easy to get caught up in theorizing about God, but within our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.

When I’m sick, and you bring me a meal, I don’t care whether you’re a Calvinist or Arminian.

When I’m poor, and you give me some food and money, I don’t care if you’re pre-millennial or post-millennial.

When I’m in the hospital, and you send me a get-well basket, I don’t care what your church denomination is.

When you visit my grandparents in the nursing home, I don’t care what style of worship music you listen to.

When you’re kind enough to shovel my parent’s driveway, I don’t care what translation of the Bible you read.

When you give my friend a lift when their car breaks down, I don’t care if you’re Baptist or Catholic.

When you help my grandmother carry a heavy load of groceries, I don’t care what you believe about evolution.

When you protect my kids from getting hit by a car when they’re running across the street, I don’t care who your favourite theologian is.

When you’re celebrating my birthday with me, I don’t care about your views related to baptism.

When you grieve alongside me during the death of a family member, I don’t care if you tithe or not.

When you love me in deep and meaningful and authentic ways — nothing else really matters.

When you idolize belief systems and turn theology into an agenda, it poisons the very idea of selfless love. The gospel message turns into propaganda, friends turn into customers, and your relationship with God turns into a religion.

You may have the most intellectually sound theology, but if it’s not delivered with love, respect, and kindness — it’s worthless.

The practical application of your love is just as important as the theology behind it. Our faith is evidenced by how we treat others. Does the reality of your life reflect the theory behind your spiritual beliefs?

We should never give up on theology, academic study, or the pursuit of understanding God, the Bible, and the history and traditions of the church, but these things should inspire us to emulate Christ — to selflessly, sacrificially, and holistically love others. Theology should reinforce our motivation for doing things to make the world a better place — not serve as platforms to berate, criticize, and attack others.

Too often, we’re guilty of failing to practically apply our beliefs in tangible ways that actually help others. In the end, this is what matters most to the world around us: that we simply love as Christ loved.

Why Lent?

A woman once asked her pastor, “Why Lent? Why should Christians observe a season called Lent?” She was a longtime Christian, but had never before taken part in any Lenten observance, since most of her life she was a member of churches that did not “do” Lent.

The topic of Lent brings up the whole topic of the “church calendar” in general—the yearly cycle of seasons shared by most Christians throughout the world (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and many Protestants). Now, the church calendar is not fixed in Scripture. Rather, it has developed in the common worship life of the Christian churches through the centuries.

So if it is not in the Bible, why use it? It is helpful to remember first of all that Lent is just as much a part of the church calendar as are Christmas and Easter. Even many churches who do not use of the rest of the church calendar celebrate Christmas and Easter. At Christmas we celebrate God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ to save us, and at Easter we celebrate the victory that comes by Jesus Christ’s resurrection.

The celebrations of Easter and Christmas convey the focal messages of the Christian faith. These seasons and celebrations give us a strong reminder of how God is saving us in Jesus Christ. They provide a crucial focus for us as disciples of Jesus, and put the whole church all on the same page. Still, why add Lent into the mix?

Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Christian preacher and theologian, liked to say, omnis Christi actio nostra est instructio—“every action of Christ is for our instruction.” To grow into maturity as disciples of Jesus requires that we attend to the whole life of Jesus, not only to his birth and resurrection. Through Jesus’ whole life among us, God is working to save, to heal, to drive out demons, to teach us, to redeem creation.

The season of Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. During Lent we remember that important part of Jesus’ life when he dwelt fasting in the desert for forty days, and was tempted by the devil. Where Adam and Eve gave in to the serpent’s temptation, Jesus does not: even in self-denial, Jesus is victorious over temptation.

And late in Lent, during Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, we remember Jesus’ suffering and death to save us. The day is so much brighter when you have been through the darkness. To see the light of Jesus Christ’s resurrection on Easter, you have to acknowledge the suffering of his execution that precedes it.

In Lent, we are attentive to the parts of Jesus’ life—his self control, his patience, his faithfulness even in suffering—that we hope to gain as his disciples. I have found a yearly observance of Lent helpful in this respect.

Lent is Not New Year’s Resolutions Round Two. Many people give up something during Lent. But in our culture, fixated on self-improvement as we are, this can result in a big misunderstanding: we start (even if only in the back of our minds) to think of a Lenten fast in terms of a diet! But Lent is not New Year’s Resolutions Round Two! Lent is not about us! Lent is about Jesus Christ.
In Lent we might give up something, do a specific prayer discipline, or change something to push ourselves spiritually. But the point is not self-improvement. The point is not even just self-denial. The point is to feel a little discomfort, a little pain, and by that to be constantly reminded of the love of our Savior Jesus Christ, who denied himself for our salvation.

If you observe Lent with prayer and fasting, use that prayer and fasting first of all to remember Jesus. If Lent is not about getting to know Jesus Christ better, it really is a waste of time.

In the Wilderness

Have you ever felt like you were wandering in circles? Like you do the same things over and over again – laundry, groceries, emails. You visit the same spots – kid’s school, gym, work, church. Certain seasons of life can feel like a holding pattern in more ways than one. Spiritually, physically and emotionally there are times when we just don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

The beginning of the year and all the buzz about goals and resolutions can cause us to ask questions like:

  • Is there a difference between perspiration and inspiration?
  • Could I be missing something important God has called me to do?
  • Does the mundane routine of my life have great value or is there something more?

The people of Israel found themselves in a 40-year-long holding pattern after they grumbled and disobeyed God. During this time they ate the same food, wore they same clothes, and circled the same wilderness. God provided for them, taught them lessons and carried out some consequences for their attitudes and behaviours during this time.

The story of the Israelites in the wilderness is the sort of Old Testament event that was never forgotten. The Psalms, Prophets, Gospels, and several New Testament letters make reference to the lessons learned from the wilderness wanderings. Later God fulfilled every promise he made to his people in giving them victory in the land of promise. They defeated their enemies in Canaan and were once again able to cultivate the soil, make new clothes and live in more permanent dwellings. The wilderness wasn’t forever, but it probably felt that way for the two million people moving through the desert with nothing but manna to eat and dreams of a future home.

When we seem to be in a wilderness season, it isn’t always because of complaining or bad choices. There is much we can learn from the wilderness. “But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.”

This is a reminder that the wilderness is often a place of preparation. The Israelites took a census and got organized during their time in the wilderness. John the Baptist was a voice crying out from the wilderness. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. Once Christ began healing and teaching, people followed him everywhere, but he often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.

When we feel stuck in routine, like the landscape never seems to change, we can be proactive in prayer during our own wilderness seasons. During the beginning of 2017:

  • If we feel unsatisfied or unsure of our purpose, we should withdraw and pray.
  • If we are weary and tired but uninspired, then we should withdraw and pray.
  • If we know God has big things ahead for us, then we should withdraw and pray so we can be prepared for what lies ahead.

So when can you withdraw today? Can you steal away for an hour, half an hour or even 10 minutes and get in God’s presence? Pour out your heart to him, ask him for clarity and make a list of any nudges toward action you sense while in his presence.

Jesus has things for us to learn in the wilderness, but we need to follow his example to withdraw and pray so we’ll be prepared for all God has in store!

Come and see!

How would your life be different if you were not a Christian? For some of us who have lived surrounded by Christian people, it’s hard to imagine, but what if you had no interest in God? How would your life be less or more or just the same?

What would you miss about church? I would never sing out loud in public were it not for church on Sunday. Which of your friends would not be your friends? If you had never met the people you have met in Sunday school, how great a loss would that be? How would your family change? How would you spend your time differently? Would you be home reading the New York Times on Sunday mornings? What do you do because you are a Christian that makes you happy? Which religious activities could you do without? What would be easier if you weren’t a Christian? Do you feel good about the time you spend helping strangers? Do you wish you still had all the money you’ve given away? Have there been experiences you would hate to have missed—hope-filled books you are glad you read, experiences of God’s grace in worship, times you’ve cared for hurting people? If you were not a Christian, would your life be less interesting?

Every once in a while the disciples thought about how different their lives would have been if they had never met Jesus. It started so quietly. John the Baptist is standing with two of his students when Jesus walks by. John says, “That’s the one. You know how cocky I can be, but I’m not worthy to tie his sandals.”

The two disciples are understandably curious. They start following Jesus. He turns and asks, “What are you looking for?” They answer nervously, “We thought we would see where you’re staying.” In other words, “We don’t have anything better to do, so we’re wondering what you’re doing.” Jesus offers the invitation that will change their lives: “Come and see.”

They stay with Jesus all day because he’s interesting. They have no idea what they are getting themselves into. They don’t know that they will end up leaving behind their nets, boats, homes, friends, work, and retirements. They will end up changing their ideas about almost everything.

Andrew goes to get his brother. “You have to come and see this guy,” he says. Simon is dragged along, going more so that his brother will leave him alone than out of any great faith. When Jesus meets Simon, he says, “Your name is going to be Rock.” The often-confused Simon is anything but a rock, but everything is starting to change. Most of the time, we move toward God in small steps taken as much out of curiosity as out of faith.

So what are we looking for? What are we looking for in worship? Why do we go to church? Some of us go because our parents didn’t give us a choice growing up. For some of us, our mother’s voice telling us to go to church somehow lodged in our minds, and we can’t get rid of it. Some of us go because it’s easier to go than to argue with our spouse about it.
Most of us probably don’t go with great expectations. The religious reasons we have for going are mixed at best. We’re interested in thinking about how we could live better lives, but only up to a point. If we’re in worship for no good reason, that’s okay.
Lots of people find their way by accident.

Jesus says, “Come and see.” The disciples stumble along, following without knowing where they are going, discovering well after the fact that they have wandered onto a path that leads to grace. “Come and see,” Jesus says, and in John’s Gospel the disciples soon taste water turned into wine, watch in horror as Jesus clears the temple, and listen with amazement to Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, that the spirit of God blows wherever it wills. They stumble onto a way of life they have never imagined.

What are we looking for? Deep in our souls, we are looking for something to believe in and hold on to, something important enough to live for, and something big enough to claim our passions. We are looking for challenge and purpose. We are looking for God.

What begins with curiosity becomes a step toward grace. The emptiness we feel from time to time is God calling us to the paths that lead to meaning. God lets us know that we can look beyond our computers and coffee cups into the enchanted possibilities of grace. God is the one who makes us long for something that lasts. God draws us toward life even when we don’t recognize what’s happening.

“Come and see” is how the disciples’ story begins. It’s a wonderful line and a great way to start a story. “Come and see” is the invitation to explore, discover, and travel without knowing exactly where we are going, but to know that if we catch a glimpse of God, we will also catch a glimpse of who we can be. Come and see. Come and look for places where we’ve never been. Come and see what it means to hope, believe, and follow.

We are in church to open ourselves to God, who will lead us to new places. The people who follow Jesus end up doing the things Jesus did. They care for the hurting, listen to the lonely, feed the hungry, pray for the brokenhearted, bandage those who are wounded, do more than is expected. They look for God and find extraordinary lives.

The spirit of adventure is what calls us to worship. We come to seek the meaning of life, join with people on the journey, and ask God to help us see where grace invites us. We come to look at the gifts we’ve been given and the needs of the world. We come to discover the possibilities.

If we worship God, if we share our lives with other people looking for God, we will see beyond what we have assumed. If we look for God, we will find that God is looking for us, offering life.