During Lent, our VST class “Jews and Christians: A Theological Journey” visited Tenth Church (Kitsilano) for a Sunday service. Tenth is affiliated with the evangelical Christian and Missionary Alliance.
Before our visit, Tenth’s site pastor, the very welcoming Rev. Dan Matheson asked, “Should we do anything differently out of respect for our Jewish guests?” “No,” said my co-teacher Rev. Jason Byassee, “Just be yourselves. We’re coming to see what you do.”
The day’s scripture reading took the congregation into the heart of Lenten reflection: Jesus’ ordeal before his death.
From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them,“Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. (John 19)
The visiting Jews were horrified. Their Christian classmates were horrified. My colleague Rev. Jason was horrified. I was horrified. Even Rev. Jaylynn Byassee, who read the scripture, was horrified.
But we all continued blithely on, rocking to the music.
Site pastor Rev. Dan called Rev. Jason and me to the front, to interview us about the course.
Rev. Dan: What are some big learnings from the course?
Me (Rabbi Laura): Diversity! We are twenty-five people, representing four Jewish denominations, four ways to be Christian, and four ways to be neither. All our stereotypes are blown.
Rev. Jason: Every time the Jews disagree with each other, they start speaking in tongues. That’s our class joke – really they use Hebrew words. There’s a whole theological world in Judaism we Christians don’t know much about.
Rev. Dan: What are some differences you’ve seen?
Me (Rabbi Laura): Salvation. We have no idea what you’re talking about. We Jews understand sin and forgiveness. But salvation is meant to bridge a disconnect from God. And we cannot imagine what that divide would be like.
Rev. Jason: Not everything is parallel. There’s a penitential aspect for Christians talking with Jews. We should try to tell our story in a way that is a blessing for Jews.
Rev. Dan: What similarities have you seen?
Me (Rabbi Laura): Our class took two field trips, here and to a synagogue. Both places had friendly welcoming people, a musical service, and challenging scripture readings. In synagogue, we read a passage that could suggest Jews are pro-slavery. But we hope our guests did not take it literally and think that’s our contemporary view! Today, we read about the role of Jews in death of Jesus. Here, “the Jews” refers to a particular political group, a small subset of Jesus’ community. We know you don’t think we are that political group. And we know you hope we don’t think you are prejudiced!
After Rev. Dan’s wise sermon about about how to pray, Rev. Jaylynn invited everyone to debrief with our class.
At the debrief, Rev. Jaylynn said, “You know the rule that you should never write in an email anything you wouldn’t want everyone to read? That’s how I felt about today’s scripture — how does ‘everyone’ hear these words?”
Rev. Dan agreed. “We need to learn to be sensitive to how our words affect others.”
A church member defended the scripture reading. “I don’t see the story as a condemnation of the Jews. I see it as a dramatization of how powerful the Roman empire was. They made the Jews afraid to help one another.”
VST student Murray, a First Nations Cree from Alberta, took a harsher view of the text: “We are still living under Roman empire. We can see that blaming the victim is part of colonialist strategy.”
Another Tenth church member tried to mediate. “I work for the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. It’s a challenge to teach university students good principles of interpretation! We teach that the texts were written for their historical time. In our time, we need to see their meaning differently.”
“Yes!” Rev. Jason agreed. (Full disclosure: he is a professor of homiletics.) “You have to preach on the texts! That’s how you give context and teach about interpretation.”
“We have rude things in our scripture and liturgy too,” I said. “We are constantly hearing about the nations and the gentiles. We recite these passages. We memorize them. People write great tunes for them. We sing them and they become jingles that play over and over again in our minds — filling our minds with prejudice.
“Of course we don’t want to be just happy-clappy and ignore all the difficult parts of scripture. They were written in response to existential issues of their time. There are times when it is right to be cautious and in-group focused. But I hope now is not one of those times! And I hope encounters like today’s help us find positive dimensions of our traditions.”
Image: Disputation between Jewish and Christian scholars, 1483.