Love Your Neighbor: Paul Among Jews and Gentiles
Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Eric Kimball Hinds
Almost 30 years ago, after I had made the decision to attend seminary, on a journey towards ordination to become an Episcopal priest, but before our young family of three had picked up and moved to The General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, a fellow parishioner presented me with the gift of a book—which was titled The Search for God at Harvard. The book had just been published and it was written by Ari Goldman whose name was well known to me—as he was a correspondent for The New York Times. At the time he wrote the weekly column on Religion. While working at The Times, Goldman managed to balance the demands of his Orthodox Jewish faith with the schedule and deadlines of a journalist—and incredibly was given a Sunday through Thursday workweek.
It was while he was the Religion Correspondent that Goldman hatched the idea of furthering his religion writing credentials by spending a year at the Harvard Divinity School—so that he could engage more deeply in the world of contemporary religions. One of the things that fascinated me about Goldman’s book was his description of how he was looking forward to directly encountering Christianity and gleaning insights of a faith so different from his own.
And so it surprised me when Goldman described that he felt kind of cheated—for most everywhere that he went he found that the Christians seemed to bend over backwards to apologize for the mention of Jesus. And I remember being so grateful for Ari Goldman’s observation for I eventually realized that he was describing the early stages of a process where many different religious traditions were just starting to think about, and feel their way through, finding ways to engage one another with the hope of building bridges of friendship across differences. And the immediate challenge that presents itself in such situations—is how do you on the one hand hold onto and value your own identity, while at the same time being welcoming and not feeling in competition with another?
Goldman attended Harvard Divinity School in the 1980’s—a time when many religious denominations were just beginning to venture beyond what I would describe as shells of isolation—a kind of religious protectionism that fears diluting or losing a perceived hold on truth more than exploring the benefits of getting to know your neighbor. The good news for us is that we benefit from decades of examples of communities reaching out beyond denominational identity to discover areas of shared interest while appreciating differences.
For some time now the lives of both Peninsula Temple Beth El and St. Matthew’s have intersected. We have worked together with Home & Hope, a local organization dedicated to
dealing with the issue of homelessness in our back yard. But it is really out of our joint participation in the Martin Luther King Day of Service—where among other things we discovered that our congregations have core groups of talented pancake flippers—that a set of relationships led to a set of mutual invitations to visit one another’s houses of worship.
On behalf of our entire congregation I just want to say how welcomed we felt last month when our unexpectantly large group accepted the invitation to attend your Shabbat Service and how thankful we are for your gracious and generous hospitality. We hope not only that we can reciprocate, but that our time together leads to an ongoing relationship marked by friendship and mutual affection.
Now at this point I will share that several of my parishioners—well actually quite a few—commented after attending the Shabbat service that they noticed that there was no sermon. (Now I want to be clear—it was not like a YES!! NO SERMON!!) It was more like an observation that was a kind of lament—for the observation I think betrayed a desire among our congregation to learn more about Judaism and to expand and deepen our knowledge of one another. Towards this end I would point out that in the past decades there has actually been a significant amount of attention given by biblical scholars to areas where our religious traditions intersect—a cooperative effort of scholarship that has done important work to remove old prejudices—and even in some cases lead to a deeper appreciation of our shared history.
In this morning’s first lesson we encountered a fairly famous passage where upon finding an altar dedicated To An Unknown God—the Apostle Paul takes the opportunity to preach to the Greeks in Athens about the God that he has come to know—Both through Judaism and his experience of the risen Christ. Nothing about this passage is simple—but I will point out that recent scholarship has highlighted that centuries of Christian interpretation have both forgotten and misunderstood important parts of Paul’s story and writings.
As a starting point most people do not know that Paul of the New Testament is one of only two Pharisees who have left behind any personal writings (Josephus is the other). On this basis alone says the Jewish biblical scholar Alan Segal—Paul is of interest for what his life can can tell us about first century Judaism. Digging deeper, one of the stereotypes of Paul, and the principle way that he has been understood through the centuries is as an apostate of Judaism—an individual whose conversion (temporary Emphasis) to Christianity can only be seen as affirming one tradition—and negating the other. And it is this trap—a false choice of extremes as applied to Paul—that has led to great misunderstandings.
Ari Goldman lamented that, by the time he got to Harvard, the groundbreaking Swedish New Testament scholar, Krister Stendahl, had left the faculty to serve as bishop of Stockholm. In his famous book, Paul among Jews and Gentiles, Stendahl persuasively argues that we should not properly speak of the conversion of Paul at all. Rather, Stendahl argues for adopting the language of prophetic call—a notion that comes to us from the Hebrew Scriptures. Stendahl at length details and articulates how Paul himself uses language that is very similar to the calls of the great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah to describe his intense religious experience of the risen Jesus. Stendahl goes a step further, and his insight is worth our study, for he points out that Paul’s Call is to a specific vocation—where he comes to see himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles—an Apostle of the one God who is the creator of both Jews and Gentiles.
A careful reading of today’s first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates Paul’s absolutely firm grounding in Judaism. I proclaim to you: The God who made the world and everything in it….The Lord of Heaven and earth…From one ancestor he made all nations…We ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone….Paul’s experience is grounded in the Hebrew scriptures. In his preaching to the Gentile Greeks, Paul clearly has a foot in two worlds and elsewhere in his own writings he attempts to reconcile the two major strands of his religious experience. While Paul struggled to understand it—in his writings he affirmed God’s mysterious plan for the coexistence between Judaism and Christianity, and he cautioned the early church against harboring feelings of superiority.
Stendahl’s brilliant insights into the first century perspective of Paul helps to illuminate some of the tragic misunderstandings that followed as later generations of Gentile Christians lost sight of the foundational way that Judaism had informed Paul’s relationship with and love for God. We Christians are just now beginning to rediscover the depth of all that Judaism contributed to the Apostle Paul’s knowledge and love of God.
In his year at Harvard Ari Goldman attended many interfaith events and he described how on many occasions he could hear the voice of his Orthodox Rabbi—Rabbi Siegal in the back of his head, complete with the image of his waving a finger, warning of the dangers of interfaith encounters. I have likewise heard members of several Christian denominations express concerns about contact and exposure to doctrines that deviate from their particular faith. From our collective experience—of reaching out to others—-We know differently. In attending the services of other faiths Goldman described his visits this way. He observed: In each case I leave as a Jew, rooted in my own faith—but nourished by the faith of others. That is do wonderfully stated.
As our visitors you have landed in the midst of our ongoing celebration of Easter. Part of the joy of our celebration on this day is knowing that we worship a God who is greater than our individual capacities of knowing and comprehension. We have come to know that we need one another, not only to strengthen the fabric of our larger community, but to learn from one another the many ways that God is at work in the world—in the midst of God’s many and varied people. We gather this day with great joy to affirm that we worship a God who is greater than our differences. A God who calls us to above all reach out and to get to know and love our neighbors.
Sermon preached by The Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on 21 May 2017, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A on the occasion of a visit by members from the congregation of Peninsula Temple Beth El. Lessons: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21.