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Make it make sense.

Not everything makes sense in the moment.  We don’t hear many Gospel stories like this one today, where Jesus is turning over tables in the temple.  The disciples had to notice this behavior, this very public anger and disruptive action, seemed out of character for Jesus. 


But they didn’t rewrite their entire understanding of Jesus and his mission, nor did they just edit this story out from among the stories about Jesus.  The disciples had to think on things for a while.  Twice in this brief story this phrase appears: “his disciples remembered.”  Later on, Jesus’s actions made some sense. 


It just takes time to make sense of things sometimes, and that’s okay.  Sometimes clarity arrives when a new event changes your perspective, like when Jesus dies and things are looking really bad, but then he is resurrected and you’re like, oh right, he said this was gonna happen.  Other times, clarity arrives in bits and pieces over many years. 


I can imagine that the Ten Commandments didn’t make a lot of sense at first, either.  These ten commandments become the basis of community for the people of Israel, though that may not have been immediately clear. 


We tend to think of these commandments as laws to follow, like if you just do all these things, you’ll make God happy, and then God will take care of you and everything will be fine.  Lutherans in particular like to divide Scripture into Law and Gospel, as though these are opposites that balance each other, like dark and light or night and day or good and evil. 


And then we oversimplify what these things mean, and we start to assign attributes to Law and Gospel that don’t belong in either place, like Gospel is the happy stuff that makes you feel good and Law is the mean stuff that makes you feel bad.  Yes, the Law shows us where we fall short and where we need God, though in our Christian perspective, the Law is not what saves us.  It’s the Gospel, the good news of God’s salvation, that liberates us from sin, and for us, that good news is Jesus Christ. 


But if there was ever a time to revisit that idea of Gospel as happy and makes you feel good, it’s when we’re reading this story of Jesus with a whip in his hand, creating chaos in a holy space. 


It's important to stop and notice our perspectives and to know how we understand our own faith concepts, like Law and Gospel.  When we associate “Law” with the Old Testament, or associate “Law” with something negative, and then associate “Gospel” with positive things and the New Testament, then it’s not hard to believe theologies that reduce Judaism to a relic of the past, and it becomes easier to make Jewish people into religious enemies. 


The truth is: Law AND Gospel are themes that run side-by-side, interwoven together throughout the Old Testament AND New Testament.  We can see evidence of the Gospel, of Good News, in the Old Testament, and there’s plenty of Law in the New Testament. 


Also: God is the same God in the Old Testament and the New Testament.  It becomes dangerous to suggest the Old Testament has a different God—not only is this bad for the Jewish people for whom the Old Testament is the primary Scripture, but this also cuts off Christians from understanding our origins in Judaism or and separates us from understanding where Jesus comes from. 


We aren’t trying to be anti-Semitic, but if some of the foundations of our faith are helping anti-Semitism survive, then isn’t it worth another look?  For a long time, I thought that my pure intentions would keep me away from anti-Semitism, but that’s not how it works.  During this season of Lent, I committed to studying how anti-Semitism shows up in Christian theology, and y’all, it’s a lot. 


During midweek Lenten prayers, we’re looking at verses of the Solemn Reproaches, which is part of the liturgy on Good Friday, when we retell the story of Jesus’s crucifixion and death, reading from John’s Gospel.  John’s Gospel has a lot of ideas that can be negative or dangerous for Jewish people, like blaming Jews for the death of Jesus.  It wouldn’t be responsible to throw out John’s Gospel, part of our Scripture, but neither is it responsible to ignore the potential anti-Semitism either.  We’re gonna have to think on it and make sense of all this in a different way. 


I’ve learned a lot from a pamphlet—“Preaching and Teaching with Love and Respect for the Jewish People” [1]—which comes from the ELCA Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations.  Did you know there’s a consultative panel on Lutheran-Jewish relations?!  It’s filled with suggestions about ways to interpret Scripture that don’t lead to hatred of Jews. 


I’ve also spent the past few weeks attending a class led by an Orthodox Rabbi, Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, who has explained basics of Judaism and helped us Christians get a sense of how Jewish people understand Scripture.  The first thing she taught us was about Torah, and how even within Judaism, there are many many ways to interpret Torah. 


Maharat Picker Neiss—Maharat is her title—explained that Torah is the word used for the first five books of the Bible, and also Torah refers to the law, which is written Torah, but there’s also the oral Torah, which is the entirety of teachings and traditions that have been handed down through many generations of rabbis, teachers and mystics.  And Jews don’t all agree on what counts as oral Torah and what teachings carry authority—there’s plenty of diversity within Judaism. 


As Christians, we might think Torah corresponds to our idea of “Law,” and we may also reduce the meaning to the Ten Commandments and the associated laws for faithful life.  But for Jewish people, Torah is bigger than that—Torah is the law which is a gift from God, an expression of God’s love and providence and covenant relationship.  Jews speak of Torah in a way that reminds me of how Christians speak of Law and Gospel AND God’s Word AND grace, so that’s how I am coming to understand Torah now. 


The Torah is a gift of God, not an indictment or something negative.  We would be foolish to disregard our own Scriptures, the very Scriptures that sustained Jesus in his lifetime.  Jesus never rejected the faith that nurtured him, and he didn’t blame Jews or Judaism.  We don’t have to reject Scriptures or blame Jews, either. 

We can keep the integrity of our faith without trashing someone else’s faith.  Christians understand Jesus as redeeming humanity from the power of sin, but what if sin is not the essential starting point for understanding the relationship between God and humanity?  God acts first, and we say that God’s grace shows up before we need it, and we cannot earn grace and we never really deserve God’s grace. 


So: what if the starting point for understanding relationship with God is not human sin, not our badness, but God’s goodness, God’s own love and grace?  This is what God promised to Abraham would be a blessing to all people.  We see ourselves as part of that enduring legacy through Abraham and Sarah, and we belong to that covenant. 


As Christians, we understand Jesus as the one who fulfills God’s promises to Israel, but it’s important to remember: God’s promises to Israel are still valid.  God will still fulfill these promises to the people of Israel, and we don’t have to explain it.  Can we trust God enough to do whatever God needs to do?  Salvation is God’s business, not ours. 


If we build a Christian theology that excludes Jews and then worship that theology as our idol, well, then we’re breaking the very first commandment.  And that’s probably why the first commandment—you shall have no other gods—has so much explanation.  Because even God knows it’s gonna be hard to follow. 


It won’t all make sense at first.  But if we are so rooted in God’s grace, trusting in God’s goodness more than we fear our human badness, can we be bold enough to trust God to work things out?  Can we ask ourselves hard questions about faith?  Can we explore where we have set up false gods of certainty in our righteous interpretation of Scripture?  Can we repent for the harm we’ve caused even if we didn’t do it on purpose?  And can we build relationships of mutual trust and respect with Jewish people and Judaism as a faith? 


Maybe someday we will be among the disciples who later remember the things Jesus said, and there will be clarity.  That clarity is grace.  God’s grace can make sense of everything. 


Pastor Cheryl


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