Sharing the Promise with ________?

Isaiah 16:1-5, Ephesians 3:1-6    January 30, 2022

Our two weekly adult Bible study groups—usually about 13 of us in total– are slowly making our way through the New Testament, reading the book of Acts at the moment.  Those of us who started with Genesis so many months ago noticed a repeated theme through the development of the people of Israel through the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is God’s expectation that this people will ONLY worship the One God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This set the people of Israel apart from anyone else outside of their community.  They were expected to exclusively be committed to God, and therefore, naturally became an exclusive community.  Any outsider would have had to love and worship their God in order to be accepted. 

When the prophet Isaiah writes to daughter Zion (another name for the people of Jerusalem), he speaks the message of God.  They are to welcome in the women from neighboring Moab who had become outcasts from their own people.  Although we are most accustomed to hearing the term “Gentiles” in the New Testament, you could definitely call the women from Moab Gentiles.  They are not Jews.  They do not follow Jewish laws, they do not worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  

Yet Isaiah, speaking for God, calls upon the women of Israel open their doors to these non-Israelite women.  Daughter Zion is told to shelter them, to protect them.  It is not clear why, but they have been pushed to the edge of their homeland like birds pushed from their nests, standing at the fords of the Arnon River which separated Moab from Israel. To welcome them in is a step toward ending violence, destruction, prejudice, and fear of the other.  It enables women from two nations to connect with and support one another.  Isaiah describes this as a step on the path toward the throne of faithfulness, where the descendant of David will sit, judging justly, swiftly doing what is right.  Here is a time (and there are others in the Hebrew scriptures) when the prophet calls Israel not to be exclusive, but to make room for their Gentile neighbors in need.  That is the road to peace, a path which expands the edges of the community, sharing the promise of the coming ruler who is just and right.  

When the prophet Isaiah writes to daughter Zion (another name for the people of Jerusalem), he speaks the message of God.  They are to welcome in the women from neighboring Moab who had become outcasts from their own people.  Although we are most accustomed to hearing the term “Gentiles” in the New Testament, you could definitely call the women from Moab Gentiles.  They are not Jews.  They do not follow Jewish laws, they do not worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  

Yet Isaiah, speaking for God, calls upon the women of Israel open their doors to these non-Israelite women.  Daughter Zion is told to shelter them, to protect them.  It is not clear why, but they have been pushed to the edge of their homeland like birds pushed from their nests, standing at the fords of the Arnon River which separated Moab from Israel. To welcome them in is a step toward ending violence, destruction, prejudice, and fear of the other.  It enables women from two nations to connect with and support one another.  Isaiah describes this as a step on the path toward the throne of faithfulness, where the descendant of David will sit, judging justly, swiftly doing what is right.  Here is a time (and there are others in the Hebrew scriptures) when the prophet calls Israel not to be exclusive, but to make room for their Gentile neighbors in need.  That is the road to peace, a path which expands the edges of the community, sharing the promise of the coming ruler who is just and right.  

Fast forward to the decades after Jesus, the ruler who is just and right, the Messiah who was resurrected.  The apostle Paul has been commissioned to bring the message of the gospel to the Gentiles specifically, expanding the edges of this fledgling Christian community way beyond Israel.  His travels take him to nation after nation that are not Jewish.  Although there are Jews living in many of the cities he visits, it is the Gentile population he reaches out to.  First century Jews would have seen themselves as the primary ones to receive salvation through the messiah, that long-awaited just and right descendant of David.  Paul bursts their bubble when he declares that they do not have any privilege in this area.  They had long taught their children that only their own people belonged to God, only their own people were chosen for salvation.  All others were Gentiles, outsiders, unacceptable to associate with, and often seen as sinners because instead of following the one God, they worshipped idols. 

Because of Paul, many of these very outsiders, unacceptable persons, sinners, had now become Christians.  But you can imagine that they would still feel timid, likely reluctant to take leadership roles in the church, mostly uncomfortable to speak up around the Jewish Christians, the people who had always been the insiders.  In many of the congregations outside of Israel there remained a rift between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians, a fault line always at risk of erupting.  The letter to the Ephesians lifts the Gentiles up to the same level as the Jews, a truth Paul hammers home in several of his letters, including the letter to the Romans and the letter to the Galatian church.  This letter would have been intended to be a boost of encouragement for those who were hanging back, still not sure of their place in this new family of faith. 

Some wonder if this letter could have been a circular letter, not only meant for the church in Ephesus, but carried from one church to another so more people would get the messages and instruction in the faith.  Perhaps at each stop along the way members of the church wrote a response that would be carried along with the letter to the next stop, ultimately ending up back in Paul’s hands. It reminds me of the circular family letter my grandparents began years ago when their three sons ended up in far flung corners of the world.  A letter filled with news and advice, the carefully typed words filling every square inch of the paper, was written by my grandparents in New York.  It went to the oldest son, my dad, who was in Chile or Baltimore or Arlington, VA.  Then my dad added his letter to the one from his parents and sent them both on to the middle son, who was either in California or NY, and then he added his letter and mailed all of them to the youngest son, who was either in Sweden or Washington DC.   He removed the letter from his parents, added his letter and mailed them all to his parents.  Then the cycle continued, sometimes amazingly quickly.  As the sons married and moved on with their various careers, the family letter kept moving around in age order, the wives sometimes taking a turn at filling the rest of the family in on their activities.  Many of these letters were saved, and when we re-read these letters today, we get a window into what was important to them, as well as into the humor and the love they shared with one another.  After the attempt to add in a third generation of young adults (like me), the letters started to arrive further and further apart, and eventually the practice ended. For many years, it was a great way to stay connected as a family.  I definitely see that value playing out in the way that family stays connected today.

Paul’s letters carried news, advice, instruction, and encouragement.  They would have been eagerly anticipated by any congregation who knew him or knew of him and his missionary fervor.  Whether it is just the Christians in Ephesus or multiple congregations on a circuit, Paul wants Gentile Christians to understand a key concept: the mystery of Christ, once a secret kept by the Jews, has been unlocked.  The promise of new life in Christ Jesus through the gospel is for them, and it makes them on equal footing with the Jews.  They are no longer to be viewed as outsiders, unacceptable or sinners. Paul names three ways that they are brought together with their Jewish brothers and sisters.  They are fellow heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise.  Each of these ways begin with the same prefix in the Greek, syn, like our English words of synergy, synoptic or synthesis.  The prefix means “with” or “together”.  In a trinity of descriptors, Paul drills the concept home.  You all are TOGETHER.  No more distinctions between you.  You are the same family in Jesus Christ.  The Jews and the Gentiles are fellow heirs, or co-inheritors of what Jesus has left behind—the promise of life eternal.  The Gentiles and the Jews are members of the same body—co-members—arms and legs of the body of Christ. And together they are sharers in the promise, co-sharers in the promise of grace, of welcome, of hope in Christ Jesus.  Good preachers like to make plays on words, use alliteration and repetition.  Paul uses these three ways to show how the Jews and the Gentiles are with one another, together, equal in the eyes of God. They are co-inheritors, co-members, co-sharers.

The very idea that Jews and Gentiles could be co-inheritors, co-members of the same body or co-sharers of the promise in Christ Jesus?  No way.  Neither group could truly grab hold of that concept right away.  The Jews still felt they should benefit from their Jewish privilege even in Christian congregations.  The Gentiles still felt they were second class, even in Christian congregations.  This letter is addressed to mostly Gentile Christians, people who needed encouragement, that yes, they too are included, they belong, they serve, live, pray, and sing with the Jews.  Together as one church.

It makes me sad to see the obvious parallel between the ways white men and women drew a line in this country between themselves and people with black and brown skin.  Out of fear and hatred, the system of enslaving blacks gripped the economy, the social structure, the very heart of this nation for centuries.  Even today, 150 years after the formal ending of this idea that one person can own another, we continue to deal with the effects of that artificial, unnecessary, un-Christian line drawn between the races, or the one between native born and immigrants, or the one between gay and straight siblings. When will that line ever be erased? It takes conscious effort that begins with apology from whites to blacks who are descendants of enslaved people.

Next week our Presbytery has called a special meeting to consider signing on to a request to our General Assembly with a Presbytery from St. Louis, Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery.  They seem to be following in the footsteps of the two men their presbytery is named for–abolitionist Presbyterians who impacted the church in their part of the country.  The Giddings-Lovejoy request, or overture, asks that the PCUSA offer AN APOLOGY TO AFRICAN AMERICANS FOR THE SIN OF SLAVERY AND ITS LEGACY.  It has multiple pages of explanation and specific requests for action by us as a denomination, as local churches, and as individual Presbyterians. 

Listen to the last two paragraphs of the overture: “We recognize the necessity of building a trusting relationship between White Americans and African Americans. A first step to healing and reconciliation can only be done by acknowledging that slavery is the economic, artistic, and religious foundation on which this country is built. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A apologizes to African Americans both in the church and outside of the church for all the wrongs that have been done throughout our history and those that are on-going.”  It is a start, a first step on the road to peace, a path which expands the edges of the community, insisting that we are co-inheriters, co-members and co-sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus, Lord of all. 
            Ruling Elder Emmanuel Addo and I will attend the Presbytery meeting next week, voting on whether or not the Baltimore Presbytery will sign on in agreement to offer an apology.  How can we not?  Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s