Messianic Jews & Lutherans

I’m sure I have already mentioned Luther’s explication of the 8th Commandment [Thou shall not bear false witness] at some point in this blog; and I’m sure I will do so multiple times before I am finished. Personally, the eighth commandment is my favorite [hmmm-what exactly does that mean? Surely it’s something different than saying spinach is my favorite vegetable. Is a commandment like spinach?]–ooh, wait, I guess the FIRST commandment should be every Christian’s favorite. [Maybe I’m over-thinking this whole thing.] ANYWAY, playing favorites aside, I do think that keeping the eighth commandment [or at least always trying one’s very best] is of critical importance for our human life together, and one of the best ways we witness to the God who loves us deeply, freely and graciously; and creates in us the possibility to love others–even enemies–deeply, freely, and graciously. Luther really lays out a powerful case for that, as he reminds us that keeping the eighth commandment is less about NOT doing something [not gossiping, not slandering] and more about actively, vigorously, doing something very important–putting the best construction on our neighbors’ actions, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and covering their weaknesses with our own honor. I find that it is way harder than it sounds. Why, you may ask, do I start today’s blog with a little Luther refresher? That is because I worshipped with a Messianic Jewish community this morning [a very nice couple who work here part of the year invited me to go with them], and I am going to try to describe that experience, Luther-style. Here we go. [And let me say that this information is based not only on information from the couple themselves, but also from some pamphlets they gave me, written by David Chernoff–see his website for more info: http://www.cby.org/dchernoff.html. So, it is from “the horse’s mouth,” if you will!] First, let me say that Messianic Jewish belief is……unique. Messianic Jews are Jews who continue to affirm their Jewish identity, but who believe that Jesus is the Messiah–but they prefer the name “Yeshua,” his name in Hebrew. [They are NOT the “Jews for Jesus” group, either.] They believe Jesus is divine, and believe in the triune God [although they don’t talk much about the Trinity–not explicitly biblical]. They use “atonement” language exclusively to explain salvation, and they interpret it with a Jewish lens. They are baptized [but not as infants–they practice believer’s baptism], but they call it “mikveh” or “immersion.” [In their view, it is a Jewish ritual that Christians call baptism.] They celebrate communion [usually once a month], but it is interpreted through a Passover lens. Some practice the Brit milah [ritual circumcision] and some do not. They also follow the Jewish calendar of festivals [celebrating the birth of Jesus with Sukkot, the fall festival of booths, which is when they understand Scripture to indicate that he was born], but they celebrate them in a “Messianic way”–that is, Jesus is their Passover Lamb, and their atonement on Yom Kippur. They do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, because those festivals are not commanded in Scripture. This is a good time to say that they rely totally on Scripture [this is just one more thing that separates them from Judaism, in that they do not recognize the Talmud or other rabbinic commentary as having any authority]–and they view it as the infallible, inerrant word of God. There is a Pentecostal feel to it all, including the style of worship, the language of being born-again, and accepting Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. Their understanding of the Law is interesting: they know it doesn’t save them, but it is still valuable today; and they believe that while “Rabbi Shaul” [Paul] in the “New Covenant” [New Testament] said that all believers are free in Yeshua, he still kept the Law as much as he could, and so should we. They do not support intermarriage, believing that Jews should marry Jews, but if it happens, they should raise their children Jewish, because this is “God’s will.” They accept Gentile believers into their congregations, as long as they have a “Ruth-like” calling to God’s chosen people. Here is something interesting, relating to Zionism: “Most Messianic Jews support Israel unequivocally and unconditionally. We support Israel not only because we believe our Jewish people need a national homeland, but also because we believe that the reestablishment of the State of Israel is a direct fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. We believe that God has done this supernaturally as predicted from Scriptures centuries ago.” The modern movement of Messianic Judaism [the ancient experience–Jews who believed in Jesus at the time of his life/death/resurrection, and in the few centuries after that–faded in the 7th century CE] really came to fruition in 1967, when Jerusalem came back into Jewish hands, in fulfillment of a prophecy: “This prophecy indicated that when Jerusalem was restored to the Jewish people God would turn once again to His Jewish people in national salvation. Messianic Judaism is a prophetic movement and a direct result of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit upon His Chosen People.” [Does anyone else think this is sounding more and more like “Pentecostal Judaism?” I do.] Messianic Jews do not call themselves Christians, because this signifies an abandoning of one’s Jewish identity–instead favoring the term “completed Jews.” That is, their Jewish identity has been fulfilled and completed in Jesus [like the law has been fulfilled and completed in him.] I should also say that the worship experience can vary widely from synagogue to synagogue. So, for example, the service I went to today hardly resembles the synagogue where this couple attends in the States. Here, no head coverings; there, head coverings; here, no Torah scrolls, there Torah scrolls; here, no “Davidic dancing” during the hymns, there, dancing with large, long flags, tambourines, etc.–and this is actually one of the hallmarks of Messianic Jewish worship, they said. My sense is that since the Jewish community really, really doesn’t like Messianic Jews [this is understandable, I think], the Messianic Jews here–in Jerusalem especially–try to “pass” more as Christians, so as not to give offense. Indeed, if I would have wandered unknowingly into this very nondescript, unmarked building, I would have assumed I was at a Christian service, except for the small electric menorah up over one corner. So, about my worship experience. Let me just say that it was…..simple and earnest. As I said, the worship space itself was very plain: bare light bulbs; the small electric menorah; small, clear windows; speakers mounted on the wall; no crosses or banners or anything; no altar, and just a small platform with a lectern. We started with 15 minutes of praise-band singing–the last song was to the tune of “It is Well with my Soul”–but we were singing in Hebrew, so I don’t know what the words were! Then, there was a reading from Exodus, and about a 20 minute reflection. Then more singing, then prayer [extemporaneous from the congregation, primarily], and then I thought we were finished. It had been roughly an hour. But, wait, things were just gearing up! The children were dismissed for Shabbat school, and then another rabbi/minister got up and preached another sermon on 1 Kings [Elijah and the widow]. That went on for about 45 minutes, and finally, after the VISIBLE, AUDIBLE discomfort and impatience had reached a dull roar, he just sort of stopped in the middle, said we should think about all he had said, and he would pick up next week where he left off. It was not uplifting or engaging by any stretch of the imagination–and I am still 8th commandment-ing, here! [It didn’t help me that the guy who was doing the English translation in the headphones kept yawning, either. The whole service was in Hebrew, and even in the States, they use Hebrew for some of the service, because of the primacy of that biblical language.] If what I heard today is any indication, the theology is heavy on God’s will, determinism, and the importance of trusting God in suffering. Speaking of synagogues, the brochure says that there are over 125 Messianic synagogues in the States. Suffice it to say that it is a SMALL movement–even globally. Here is the bottom line: fundamentally, they reject the dichotomy that one is either Jewish or Christian, and believe that it is actually “true biblical Judaism” to believe in the Messiah Yeshua as the savior and the fulfillment of the Law. Even after learning all this and talking about it, I can’t help but feel like these are two very different world views/belief systems that cannot be so easily harmonized; and it is not hard to understand why non-Messianic Jews are so critical [and maybe hostile? dismissive?] of the movement. I haven’t asked anyone, but I can imagine that they would feel like it is supersessionist. In any case, however, the couple was very sweet to me, and kindly answered all my questions. I was glad for the experience, and it was something totally new to me! So, after the worship, I was ready for something entirely different! I met LTSG student Courtney Weller, who is here doing her Young Adults in Global Mission year, and she was game enough to walk up to Augusta Victoria hospital with me! It is located on the north end of the Mount of Olives [you know I can’t resist a climb!], so I have been seeing it every morning on my run around the city, but I hadn’t been there yet, and I really wanted to see it before I went home. For those who don’t know, Augusta Victoria has been a project of the Lutheran World Federation since 1950 [it was built by the Germans originally]. Today, it primarily serves the Palestinian community–particularly Palestinian refugees–and it is staffed primarily by Palestinians. It was a hike [through a slightly sketchy Palestinian neighborhood], but totally worth it. No one was there to meet [it was Saturday, after all], so we just walked around instead. We went into the church itself [the sanctuary was GORGEOUS–more about that in a minute], and paid the 5 shekel fee to walk up to the top of the tower. [Did I mention that Courtney is a trooper?!] We had great views! Then, once we got down, we walked around the sanctuary & I took some pictures [I tried to be quiet–there was something of an impromptu organ concern going on, it seemed!] Besides the beautiful mosaics–the ceiling is particularly amazing–there was this temporary exhibit of paintings by Håkon Gullvåg, a Norwegian artist, who has done a series of “a modern approach to the divine image.” They were abstract, vaguely disturbing, but really beautiful, too. After that, we rewarded ourselves with coffee before the long walk back to the Old City. Here is the website for the church: http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/AugustaVictoria.html. You can see some nice pictures and get the history there. Oh, I also wanted to say that on our way back, Courtney pointed out an interesting bit of graffiti. The name of the figure is “Handala,” and he was created by the Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali. He is depicted as a ten-year old boy, with his back turned away from the viewer, with his hands clasped behind his back. According to the artist, the age of the figure represents a child forced to leave Palestine who will not grow up until he can return to his homeland. His turned back and clasped hands symbolized the character’s rejection of “outside solutions.” Handala wears ragged clothes and is barefoot, symbolizing his allegiance to the poor. She says you see him often on the West Bank wall. I hadn’t noticed him before. Now, I am back in my room, packing up and getting ready to leave tomorrow. I’m watching CNN, and wishing Steven Colbert could win the South Carolina primary!

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