Imploring Unity

jewish-davening-by-waterAnd on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.

Acts 16:13 (ESV)

They did not find any Jews. On that particular Sabbath only a small group of God-fearing Gentile women gathered to worship the God of Israel in the open air. The handful of God-fearers seems to be all that remained of the Jewish community in Philippi. The decree against the Jews had overlooked God-fearers. Even in the absence of the Jewish community, the women continued on with Sabbath observance and prayers.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Terumah (“Heave Offering”) pg 488
Commentary on Acts 15:36-17:14

Yesterday’s extra meditation addressed the “Jewish oral traditions” as applied to the early Gentile disciples in the days of James, Paul, and the Council of Apostles. We saw, based on Lancaster’s commentary, that it is very likely Paul taught a sort of oral law or “halachah” to the Gentiles regarding the teachings of Jesus and how to implement those teachings using a basic understanding of Torah as a foundation.

I wrote that meditation because for the past week or so, I’ve been focused on Jewish halachah and the right of the Jews in the modern Messianic communities to establish and maintain a halachah for themselves that is substantially similar to halachot utilized by other streams of Judaism. But in defining Jewish identity through halachah, Gentile identity definitions have been neglected relative to the Bible. Based on that neglect, some Christians have opposed the maintenance of a unique Jewishness among the Jewish disciples of Messiah, defining it as “exclusivist” and even “racist.” There’s also a suggestion that “things of the flesh” and “things of the spirit” are mutually exclusive, and that God has ceased to apply a special spiritual identity and purpose to the Jewish people, the living inheritors of Sinai, particularly now that the Messiah has come and will (hopefully soon) come again.

Christianity and Judaism stand in stark contrast to each other, even within the context of Messianic Judaism where Jews and Gentiles share the same God and the same Messiah. However, as we saw in Lancaster’s commentary on Acts 16:13 above, in the days of Paul, the Gentile disciples and God-fearers probably looked more “Jewish” than we ever would look today, up to and including observing Shabbos. Lancaster quotes Ben Witherington’s The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (pg 491) to provide us with a bit more detail.

Presumably these women had assembled to recite the Shema, to pray the Shemoneh Esreh, and to read from the Law and the Prophets and perhaps to discuss its meaning, to hear from a teacher, and to receive a final blessing. In this case, Paul was the guest teacher.

This short paragraph provides us with a rich picture of a group of non-Jewish women, not yet disciples of the Messiah Yeshua, who came together in the absence of their exiled Jewish mentors and teachers, to continue to worship the God of Israel in the only way they knew how. If it had been the custom to light Shabbos candles in that day just before the arrival of Erev Shabbat, I can imagine these devout women doing so with humility and even a sense of awe and wonder, welcoming God’s rest into their homes as best they could.

LydiaMariaElkinsSome Christians, primarily those associated with the Hebrew Roots movement, have come under the mistaken belief that supporting Jewish identity uniqueness means abandoning what the women in Acts 16 were practicing and scurrying off to a Christian church, learning to be a “good goyishe” believer, and forgetting the rich history and imagery of worshiping God within the beauty of many of the mitzvot. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here we have a wonderful example of a small group of women who had devoted themselves to God within the Jewish traditions, but who were isolated from exploring and extending their faith until they met Paul and his small group by the water.

The women gladly welcomed the visitors. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke sat down with the women and explained their errand to Philippi. They presented the women with the good news of the kingdom.

-Lancaster, ibid

There’s a certain simplicity in picturing such a scene and it makes me long for that sort of encounter with holy men of God and indeed with the good news of the Messiah. I can only imagine what it must have been like to sit by the river and listen to Paul and the others teach. One day, may we all be privileged to hear such words of integrity and holiness.

“Religion” has gotten so complicated and so divisive (not that religious divisiveness didn’t exist during the days of Paul). Even in my own little corner of Christianity/Hebrew Roots/Messianic Judaism, sparks fly, tempers flare, and opinions are bandied about as if they were the sacred texts themselves (well, in the blogosphere anyway…my face-to-face encounters are always very civil and friendly, even when some of my brothers and I don’t see eye-to-eye).

Derek Leman shared a link on Facebook, and I found the article written by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo called I am Taking Off My Kippah quite compelling.

Don’t be shocked. But I need to be honest. I am contemplating taking off my kippah. No, do not worry. I have no intention of becoming irreligious, or even less religious. Far from it. In fact, I want to become more religious and have come to the conclusion that my kippah prevents me from doing so.

All my life I am trying to become religious, i.e. genuinely religious, but so far I have bitterly failed. Oh yes, I am observant, even “very observant.” I try to live by every possible halacha. It’s far from easy and boy, do I fail!

But that is not my problem. My problem is that I don’t want to be observant. I want to be religious, and that is an entirely different story.

Please pause and read all of Rabbi Cardozo’s missive and capture the full flavor of his message and intent before proceeding here. You see, he makes a very good point. As I read his words, I am aware of a thought and a direction that has become my “traveling companion” for the past few years now. When I was involved in Hebrew Roots (and I still maintain friendships with my former colleagues), I originally fell into the “trap” of mistaking being “observant” for encountering God. It’s not that you can’t do both. It’s not that you can’t wear a kippah, don a tallit, lay tefillin, daven from a siddur and not still encounter God, it’s just that doing a bunch of “stuff” and wearing a bunch of “stuff” doesn’t guarantee the experience, nor does it make you better or more holy than the Christian who doesn’t do all that.

They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long…

Matthew 23:5 (ESV)

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that davening while wearing tzitzit and tefillin is a bad thing (particularly for a Jewish person), but it is a pit that some have fallen into, like the scribes and Pharisees Jesus was addressing. When the “stuff” becomes more important than what you’re trying to accomplish with the “stuff,” then it’s time to put it all in a box, put the box on a high shelf in your closet, and proceed to encounter God unfettered and exposed. Then maybe if you choose to pick some of that “stuff” back up in the future, it will actually mean something to you by then. If Rabbi Cardozo, who is Jewish and who is a child of the commandments can see this for himself, how much more should we who are not Jewish and who are “grafted in” only by faith and mercy see it for ourselves?Jewish_men_praying2

But even in acquiring this view, and returning to Paul and the Gentile God-fearers who have become disciples of the Master, there is a problem. While I do indeed support Jewish identity distinction within the body of Messiah, I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t present a barrier to unity.

As Paul spoke about repentance, the Messiah, and the kingdom, “the Lord opened her heart to respond.” She declared her desire to become a disciple. She and her household (children, slaves, and husband if she had one) received immersion into Messiah.

After her immersion, Lydia implored the apostles to consider staying in her home. As a God-fearer, Lydia was aware that Jews did not ordinarily lodge in the homes of Gentiles. She attempted to persuade them, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.” Her request implies an appeal to judge her favorably on the basis of her observance to the Torah. The apostles expressed some reluctance, perhaps because of uncertainty about the Gentile home or perhaps because their lodging in the home of an unmarried woman (if she was) might appear unseemly. Luke says, “She urged us…and she prevailed upon us.” At last, the apostles agreed to accept her hospitality.

-Lancaster, pg 489

Some folks will jump on the phrase, “judge her favorably on the basis of her observance to the Torah” as an indication that Lancaster believes Lydia and her household were Torah observant in an identical manner to the Jews, and certainly in order for Paul and his party to stay in her household, a number of the mitzvot involving food and wine would have to be followed. We don’t have very many details regarding Lydia’s “Torah observance,” but putting everything together, we can see that she and the other devout God-fearing women in Philippi appeared to follow a number of the mitzvot, and from an outsider’s point of view, much of the behavior of these Gentile women may have been indistinguishable from Jewish women.

But there was a dynamic tension involved when Lydia asked Paul and his group to stay in her home because she wasn’t Jewish and because Paul and his party were Jewish (I believe Timothy was considered halalachally Jewish because Paul had him circumcised…Luke was arguably not Jewish but obviously was accepted as an appropriate traveling companion by his Jewish associates nonetheless). That dynamic tension has resurfaced in the Messianic realm today and for similar reasons…but not identical reasons.

In Paul’s day, being a disciple of Jesus and being Jewish was not at odds at all. While other Jewish sects may have disagreed with the identity of Jesus as Messiah, the Master’s Jewish disciples were unequivocably considered Jews. It was a no-brainer. No one gave it a second thought. But as we’ve seen in some of my previous blog posts, just who and what a Gentile disciple in the Messiah was presented quite a problem. The Apostolic Decree James issued in Acts 15 provided a basic starting point for Gentile disciples, but how far their observance and worship could be taken may have still been up for grabs.

Today, like it or not, the tradition of the church says that a person is only a Christian if they believe Jesus is Lord and died for your sins…and for Jews, they are only Christians if they give up “the Law” and rely on grace alone. No Jewish mitzvot are welcomed along on the journey of Christian faith. Yes, those attitudes are changing, but it’s completely understandable that Jewish Messianics are sensitive to any suggestion that they’ve “converted to Christianity” and are no longer observant Jews. Just as Paul was nearly lynched when it was even suggested that he took a Gentile into the Temple (Acts 21:28-29), a Messianic Jew associating with non-Jews who, for all intents and purposes, are also taking on board Jewish identity markers with apparent impunity, brings forth a lot of questions about just “who is a Jew?” Sometimes the answer to that question prompts “circling the wagons.”

Dr. David Stern in his book Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel: A Message for Christians insists that Messianic Jews continue to observe the mitzvot and follow halachah as long as it doesn’t hinder unity with the Gentile believers. Paul, Silas, and the others were caught in a similar bind, desiring to observe halachah but also recognizing the need to be accepting of their fellow Gentile disciples.

Shechinah-Above-The-TownI don’t have an absolute answer for this puzzle, but we do see that Paul was able, in some manner or fashion, to overcome the struggle he was facing and allow his party to stay in Lydia’s home. The Bible text is silent about the specific arrangements involved so we don’t have a concrete map to use for our present situation. We also see that “Christian” women were acting a whole lot more “Jewish” than is typical in most churches today. That suggests it may be possible for completely Gentile churches or congregations to “recite the Shema, to pray the Shemoneh Esreh, and to read from the Law and the Prophets and perhaps to discuss its meaning.” That’s not “normal” in most churches today, but according to the Bible, it’s not exactly forbidden, either. I think this type of worship is at the heart of what the Hebrew/Jewish Roots movement is supposed to be all about.

But the goal isn’t for Gentile Christians to become “Jewish” or even to go out of their way to “act Jewish.” For that matter, the goal isn’t really for Jews to “act Jewish,” recalling the intent and purpose of Rabbi Cardozo’s blog post. The goal is to be who we are in our relationship with God and to seek His face always.

If your “stuff” is getting in the way of that or in the way of your relationships with the wider body of believers, including the church, then it’s time to reconsider what your goals are and who your Master is. It’s time to restore bonds between the different little “bodies” of Messiah that have been running around on this world, all proclaiming that they hold exclusive truth. Efforts are being made. Barriers are being lowered. Books like Tent of David are being written which embrace this vision of healing the shredded and fragmented body of Messiah. And amazingly, Boaz Michael and Toby Janicki from the Messianic Jewish educational ministry First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) are being interviewed on Christian television (two-hour long video).

The world is changing. God is bringing us together. But that will only happen if the different parts of Messiah body know who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing, each of us with our special gifts and unique identities. Bring peace and unity. The barriers will fall. The fallen sukkah will be restored.

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