“What About the Jews?” (Romans 9:1-5)
David E. Mueller, Interim Pastor
“Bloom where you are planted” was an expression of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the Summer of 1977, I was called to Concordia Lutheran Church in Wilmington to serve as assistant pastor and executive director of CONTACT Wilmington, the 24-hour crisis intervention hotline founded by Concordia. I followed Carl Sachtleben, who would later become pastor at St. Mark’s.
CONTACT had the support and involvement of all sorts and kinds of people of faith, who I came quickly to respect and honor. Concordia’s building in those days was located at Washington and Lea, next to the Wilmington Music School on the one side and Congregation Beth Emeth on the other. While Concordia and the Music School shared spaces and had a good working relationship, there was no relationship with Beth Emeth. But I had been planted there, so I needed in time to do some blooming. Thankfully, their then-young assistant rabbi was also interested in blooming. To put a long and really special story short, Rabbi Peter Grumbacher and Pastor David Mueller became close friends and colleagues, both of us having accepted senior positions in our respective religious institutions.
This relationship and its various expressions gave me all kinds of opportunities to engage Jews on pastoral and reciprocal levels, including involvement in the Delaware Chapter of The National Conference of Christians and Jews, a half dozen national Jewish-Christian conferences, dialogue experiences within both congregations and three jointly led pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
Especially these days but beginning earlier, certain “Christian” groups on the one hand have held up the Jews as having a special place in the heart of God. On the other hand, some of them as well as most other Christians have held the Jews responsible for the killing of Christ, giving much of Christian history an embedded anti-Semitism and all too often, violent treatment, the obvious and tragic worst of which was the Holocaust.
In our day, Christians have a chance to enrich as well as correct our beliefs and practices toward Jews.
The ninth to 11th chapters of Paul’s letter to the Christians of Rome offers us biblical assistance in our renewed appreciation of our Jewish roots. We encounter a portion of his heart-felt issues beginning today in Romans 9:1-5.
Historically, the statement by a relative few in Matthew 27:25 — “His blood be on us and on our children” — has been cited as an excuse. Too many “Christians” have used this passage and other issues to hold all of Judaism then and now accountable for the death of Christ. To blame a whole people for the guilt of a few is hardly the righteous thing to do. In a real way, it is not surprising that Jews have had negative feelings about Christians. Besides, Christian theology holds that all people, including us, are responsible for the death of Christ.
Paul goes a completely different and a very passionate direction. His introductory statement here emphasizes this: “I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart…” about “my own people.” (Romans 9:1)
A great deal of study has been done on Paul’s history and beliefs. He was of the tribe of Benjamin and had been a Pharisee, a militant hater of Christians, prior to his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. He came out of his conversion not exchanging hatreds, but still cherishing his Jewish roots. His sentiment for “my kindred according to the flesh” was deeply rooted and authentic.
As an aside here but a pertinent one, on a trip to the Holy Land decades ago, I walked into the Children’s Museum at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Center in Jerusalem, where the names of the million children slaughtered are softly and reverently read at a pace that takes nearly a year. The name I heard when I made my initial few steps was “Rosa Rockenstein.” My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was “Emma Rockenstein.” I knew that I am a quarter Jewish “according to the flesh,” but it really hit home in a powerful way that day.
Listen to Paul when he committedly proclaims, “They are Israelites and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises.” He leaves little, if anything, out here. It is all theirs. Everything significant in the will of God is theirs. We Christians are secondary, “grafted in” later. The Jews are the true and first children of God and we are adopted ones.
I was the appointed Lutheran delegate at a Jewish-Christian workshop held in Baltimore decades ago. Curiously, I was appointed by then Bishop Nafke of the Delaware-Maryland Synod. Even though I was in the Missouri Synod in those days, he knew of and trusted my involvement with and commitment to Jewish-Christian relationships.
At the conference, a Jewish historian, whose name escapes me, began his words to us by stating: “We don’t need you Christians! You are just another Jewish heresy, but you Christians need us because you came from us and your history is grounded in our history.” Those words enriched and did not disturb me because in a real sense it is true. Paul knew it back then and we need to know it now.
“According to the flesh, comes the Messiah.” (9:5) It may seem silly to raise this, but contrary to the suspicion of some, Jesus was not a German or Scandinavian Lutheran, not even a Caucasian but probably a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew.
About any of this there can be no question. Clearly, if we stick to Jesus as a Jew, following and at times elaborating Jewish law and teachings, Jews and Christians have much in common.
Paul, however, refers to Jesus as the Messiah (savior, anointed one). Jews do not believe that! There are plenty of others, including Muslims, who have few issues with Jesus but many with “The Christ!” Who are we — who have we been — to take such violent issue with the very people of Jesus?
Our appointed second lessons for the next few weeks are from Romans 9-11 and we will learn much more about the Jews and their relationship with Christians according to Paul. Hopefully, each and all of us can learn to appreciate more fully the chosen and covenant people of God from whom came the Christ we believe and find life in, so that with Jews and all others we are agents of life and love rather than death and hate. Whatever questions remain in us about the Jews, perhaps we can trust that they remain in the heart of God.
In our mid-week experience this coming Wednesday, I will have a very special guest: Rabbi Peter Grumbacher. I hope you can join us as we chat about our relationship and the relationship between our respective families of faith.