Reflection – by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken


Had the Jesus Movement gained traction among the Jews in the days of Paul, what would
the church be like today? Would it perhaps be no more than a Jewish sect? Would it
simply be a rival to rabbinic Judaism, which grew out of the Pharisaic movement? Would
we goyim still be gobbling up the crumbs that fall from the master’s table, rather than
feasting with him as members of his household? To put it plainly, would the church as we
know it even exist?


Today’s gospel reading tells us that Jesus had gone into the region of Tyre and Sidon, in
what today is southern Lebanon. This was holiday territory outside Israel. Jesus was
probably physically and mentally exhausted from the demands of the crowds seeking
healing miracles, and in need of some alone time with God, and perhaps some
uninterrupted teaching time with his disciples. The last thing he needed was a pagan
woman pestering him for yet another exorcism. Yet it was this woman’s persistence,
arising from her love for her incapacitated daughter and her belief that her child could be
helped by this Galilean holy man, that seems to have expanded Jesus’ understanding of his
calling. Up to this point Jesus had perceived his mission as being solely to the people of
Israel. Through his ministry and martyrdom the new covenant God had promised would be
established. The prophet Jeremiah had written, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,”
(Jeremiah 31:31). Jesus believed that this new covenant was on the cusp of being made,
and as the passage from Jeremiah makes clear, it was to be God’s new covenant with the
descendants of Jacob, not a covenant between God and the whole world.


Jesus may have grown in understanding, but that he was the Messiah of all humanity was
not something his disciples grasped then and there. In fact they held to the prevailing
attitude among first century Jews that people not of Jewish ethnicity were unclean to God.
It took a vision of creepy crawlies and probably carrion eating birds, together with a voice
from God, saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” (Acts 10:15) to
show Peter, and through Peter the other apostles, that they were wrong. The Goyim, that
is the Gentiles, were as precious to God as the Jews and so the good news was also for
them.


As Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians, he and the church leaders in Jerusalem agree that Paul should evangelise the Gentiles while they focussed on their mission to the Jews.
From Paul’s letters and Luke’s history of the early western church we know the routes and
extent of Paul’s missionary journeys. To track the missionary activities of the other apostles
we only have traditions and legends to guide us. Staying put in Jerusalem was itself a
missionary strategy. Jews from throughout the Diaspora flooded into Jerusalem for the
great festivals, and some took the gospel home with them to places with significant Jewish
settlements, like Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Rome, Babylon, and to places along the
trade routes through Parthia (modern day Iraq and Iran) into India, where Thomas is said to
have been martyred. For a thousand years an eastern version of Christianity flourished in
the Middle East and Northern Africa, before being overwhelmed by the rise and rise of
Islam. Ethiopia was the only state to withstand the Muslim onslaught and remain a
Christian nation, with a distinct indigenous African Christianity.


Paul is credited with creating the western version of Christianity. Paul’s unique vision was
that through Jesus the Gentiles, as Gentiles and not as converts to Judaism, could be
grafted into God’s new covenant with Israel. Gentile Christians were not required to keep
the Law of Moses, and should not attempt to become Jews by doing so. This teaching was
challenged, as Paul’s vitriol in his letter to the Galatians makes clear, but he prevailed. We
may be glad he did, but by doing so he opened the way for an attitude that has afflicted the
western church ever since. It goes by the name of “Replacement Theology” and claims that
Christians have replaced the Jews as God’s people. It was the basis of centuries of Christian
persecution of Jews, and it was an idea that was already emerging in nascent western
Christianity. Paul attempts to stamp it out in his letter to the Romans.


Paul understood the zeal the Jews had for God. He himself had taken that zeal to a
murderous extreme prior to his Damascus Road experience. Were God to reject a people
as devoted to God as the Jews, how could God be trusted never to turn away from the
Gentile believers? Paul assured his readers that “the gifts and the calling of God are
irrevocable.” No, God had not rejected the Jews; but clearly Paul was troubled by their
rejection of Jesus. He could only attribute this to God’s doing. Paul believed that God was
fair, so as God was showing the formerly pagan Gentiles mercy by drawing them into a
relationship with Jesus, God must in the future show the unbelieving Jews mercy by
drawing them into a relationship with Jesus. Why God would do things in this two-stage
way was a mystery to Paul, but when confronted with God’s inscrutability Paul knew that
there was only one appropriate response, which was to praise God. So today’s lection from
Paul’s letter to the Romans ends with a doxology.


A church gathering the size of this one today would have been inconceivable in Paul’s day.
It would be too large to squeeze into even a spacious Roman home, and it would be too
conspicuous to avoid the attention of nosey neighbours informing hostile authorities. The
church was made up of a network of small groups who gathered in each other’s homes,
although some larger groups modelled on the Jewish synagogue may have been formed,
and they may have had a dedicated worship space. It only required ten men to establish a
synagogue, and they with their wives and children comprised a group we would consider a
small congregation today. The New Testament book of Hebrews is believed by some
scholars to be a sermon written for a synagogue of Christian Jews in Rome during the terror
of Nero’s pogrom against the Christians. At this time synagogues were totally lay
organisations, as of course were the house churches.


We are the inheritors of what these lay people built through their faith, their hope, their
work, their courage, their sacrifice, and most of all their willingness to do a new thing for
the Lord. Peter writing to young churches in what today is Turkey tells the new believers
that they are now “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1
Peter 2:9). We hear echoes of God’s promise to the Jews at Sinai that if they kept God’s
covenant and obeyed God’s voice they would be God’s treasured possession out of all the
peoples, “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The golden calf fiasco
negated this promise. Peter sees that God is doing a new thing to create a new priestly
kingdom and holy nation.


This concept of a priesthood of all believers gained traction during the early days of the
Reformation, when the Protestants wanted justification for defying the power and prestige
of the Roman Catholic priesthood. All believers had direct access to God. They didn’t need
the mediation of a priest. The work done by every believer, be he a liturgist or she a milk
maid, was an act of worship. While insisting that all Christians are equal, the Reformers, or
at least most of them, retained an elevated status for the clergy. Don’t get me wrong, I
appreciate the value and the work of an educated and dedicated stipend ministry.
Nevertheless, when the church has been its most vibrant is when its lay members have
been the most involved in all aspects of its life and worship – and involved they were in the
early church.


The Canterbury Lay Preachers Association has invited Canterbury Presbyterian and
Methodist churches to celebrate their lay workers on a Sunday in August. This is to be
more than just an acknowledgement of those of us who get to stand behind a lectern and
share our thoughts on the Bible readings for the day. It is to show appreciation of everyone
who makes a vital contribution to the church by giving freely of their time and talents,
either on Sundays to make the service possible or through the week as part of the church’s
outreach. It is to acknowledge those who are creating a loving community of God’s people
by opening their hearts and homes to each other. The church would never have begun had
the first Christians not been hospitable people. They gathered in their modest dwellings to
read and debate the scriptures and share the oral traditions about Jesus that became the
basis of the gospels. They shared food, probably bought from street vendors because
Roman tenements didn’t have kitchens because Roman houses didn’t have chimneys, and
in song and prayer they expressed their faith. Those who serve the church today are their
successors. God bless all you who serve and the many generations of servers yet to come.
Amen.