Sermon - 12th June 2011
Seeing Salvation 1: Captive Daughter of Zion - painting by Robert Lentz
Scripture - Acts 2:1-8
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Look at the Icon.
- What do you see?
- Bring out the different aspects – traditional image of Jesus and Mary
- Both dressed in Byzantine robes, Mary’s hands lifted in prayer
- Non-traditional aspects – Yellow Star of David with word “Jude”
- Jesus wearing a tallit and holding the scrolls of the Law
- Barbed wire in the background
- What feelings does the icon evoke in you?
We’re starting our series 'Seeing Salvation' today on this festival of Pentecost. The icon has been painted by an American Franciscan friar, Robert Lentz. He’s gay, was raised in an Eastern Catholic family – in other words a family that worshipped in an Orthodox church which recognised the pope’s authority. From here he developed a love of the colour and style of icons. He’s famous for creating contemporary icons – many of which upset the Catholic hierarchy. You can see more about these icons on a video we’ve posted on YouTube. We’ll give more details of that later on.
Now, for another question. Is the icon Jewish or Christian?
Pentecost – Jewish or Christian?
We have a similar dilemma with Pentecost that we have with the icon - is it Jewish or Christian. What do you think?
In the reading that Andy gave earlier from the Book of Acts we read that “when the day of Pentecost came round” so that it’s clear there was a festival called Pentecost that the Jewish people observed. It’s actually called “Shavout”, or the Festival of Weeks, and falls 50 days after Passover. The Greek-speaking Jews called it “Pentecost” which means “fiftieth day”. It’s a festival which celebrates the giving of the Law to the Jewish people and marks the start of harvest. At this festival the harvest of grain, barley, olives and pomegranates was gathered in. Jewish people would take the first things harvested and give them to God at the Temple in Jerusalem – the “first fruits”.
So it was on this day of thanksgiving that Luke has the Holy Spirit come upon the apostles. A day of thanksgiving for the Law becomes the day when the Spirit of God – seen throughout the Old Testament – comes on the disciples to give them power and energy to spread the Good News. A day of giving the first-fruits of the harvest to God becomes the day when God blesses the apostles in a new and powerful way so they become the first fruits of the harvest of people who will become the Church. So Pentecost, like the icon, is both Jewish and Christian.
Jewish and Christian
This shouldn’t surprise us as much of our faith is both Jewish and Christian. We share the Old Testament with the Jewish people, we worship the same God whom we believe has established various covenants, or binding agreements, with humanity. We believe, with the Jewish people, that God sent the Law and the prophets to try and help people live well and keep God at the centre of their lives. We worship in similar ways with a mixture of hymns, psalms, readings and a sermon. We share similar moral values – believing in the sanctity of life, the worth of every human being, and see the 10 commandments as the starting place for morality. Of course there are tensions and differences; Jewish people will see Jesus as a rabbi and moral teacher, we see him as God incarnate, Jewish people see God as one, we believe God is known in three persons. The fact that God came to humanity in Jesus would indicate that more was needed than on offer in the Oldest Covenant. But given all these similarities, it’s tragic to look at Christian history and see the division, hatred and persecution that has driven the two faiths apart.
Tensions in the Tradition
In the Gospels we see that often Jesus fiercely criticises the religious leaders of his day. Those of us who stand outside of Judaism can easily read this as Jesus arguing with the Jewish leaders – forgetting that Jesus himself was Jewish. We forget that Jesus represented one particular rabbinic strand of thought and many of his criticisms could be found elsewhere too. It was Jesus’ theological claims to be God, to be able to forgive sins, and his ability to heal (which seemed to confirm his theology) which caused the divisions. For Jewish people God is one; the idea of the Trinity by which we seek to reconcile the unity of God with the manifestation of God in three persons is one which they cannot accept – particularly as it associates Jesus as being part of God.
These tensions started early on and by the time the Gospel was spreading around the Roman world more tensions came to play too. The inclusion of Gentiles into the Church meant that early on those Christians who were Jewish found themselves in a minority in the Church; their food laws and festivals became less valued. The Jewish community wanted to keep its protected legal position in the Roman Empire and were worried that Christians claiming to be Jewish would threaten that, and endanger them. When Christians became powerful in the late Empire the Church started to re-think its relationship to Judaism. At first the Church said it has been “grafted onto the vine of Israel”. In other words it saw itself as being included in the Covenant. Later on the Church saw itself as the “new Israel” and began to see itself as a replacement for God’s Chosen People.
By the Middle Ages this meant that Christians hated and persecuted the Jews who were portrayed as being “unfaithful”. They were restricted in their trade, they were made to live in ghettoes, many were forced to convert to Christianity. The anti-Semitic ranting of Martin Luther was used by Hitler in his own campaign against the Jewish people. Often theologians and Biblical commentators would portray Judaism as a dead religion with no idea about how the Jewish faith has developed over the last 2,000 years. They had no idea how Judaism turned from a religion focussed on the Temple to one focused on the Synagogue and home nor did they have any sense of the vibrant spirituality and deep love of God that exists within the Jewish community.
As a response to the Holocaust things began to move in Jewish Christian relationships in the 1960s. The Catholic Church changed its Good Friday liturgy to take replace a prayer which referred to Jewish people as “perfidious” with one which prayed for them to remain faithful to the Covenant.
Now Christians disagree about how we should relate to Jewish people. There is a tension here. Many, particularly in the Catholic tradition, whilst being open to Jewish converts to Christianity on an individual basis, hold that the Jewish people are the Chosen People and live within a saving covenant. In other words they don’t need to convert.
Others, from more evangelical backgrounds, hold that, whilst respecting the Jewish faith and culture, Jewish people still need to accept Jesus as their Lord and Messiah. All Christians realise that the legacy of anti-Semitism in Europe is horrific and that much of this was fuelled by the churches.
Jewish and Christian
So we’ve seen that Pentecost is both Christian and Jewish. For Jewish people it celebrates the giving of the Law and the start of the harvest. For Christians it’s about the Holy Spirit filling the apostles with power from on high as they become the first-fruits of the Church.
Christians now tend to focus more on the coming of the Holy Spirit who fills and empowers us for mission, than we do on the giving of the Law. We are often tempted to portray Judaism as legalistic and Christianity as being full of freedom – yet it’s clear that Christianity can be very legalistic when it wants to be. Pentecost crosses a divide between these two related faiths; albeit with some tensions.
It also seems to me that this icon is clearly Christian – in its style, colour and content. It’s a Madonna and child after all. But it also seems to me that it’s clearly Jewish – the Scrolls of the Law and the prayer shawls are clearly Jewish artefacts. But there is a tension here - the icon shows the dreadful oppression of the Jewish people with Mary wearing the Yellow Star of David and the barbed wire ominously in the background.
It’s an icon which is both Jewish and Christian but which reflects the tensions and scars of the interaction between these two different, but inter-related traditions.
Pentecost means different things to us. We’re used to thinking about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the gift of languages being given to the apostles. We’re used to thinking about the power of the Holy Spirit being given to us for mission. I think we also need to think about the other meanings of Pentecost- thanksgiving for precious Law and thanksgiving for the Harvest. We need to reflect on and think about the Jewish roots of our faith and the many aspects of our faith that we share with the Jewish people. Lentz challenges us in his icon to do just this; and reminds us of the pitfalls of ignoring these roots, traditions and tensions.