Our rector is Jewish. A number of years ago he converted to Christianity while a student at Cal Berkeley. Last year he accepted our call to become our parish priest. For us, he brings a rich Old Testament background to our community of faithful and we are grateful for his fiery and brilliant sermons. For him, I believe, he finds in our Anglican worship a rich liturgy flowering from Jewish roots in both word and action.
We have other Jewish converts in our midst, folks that came to believe the long awaited Messiah was indeed born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, lived, died, and was resurrected so that we might be resurrected too. But they also are drawn here by incense, chants, bells, and soaring worship, by the beauty of holiness lauded in the singing of the Psalms.
I was thinking about this as I witnessed baby Joshua being baptized in church this morning. One of Joshua’s grandparents is Jewish, so his baptism added another Hebraic stream to our river of faithful. Through water and Spirit, through the words of the priest and the vows of the godparents, Joshua became one with the Body of Christ, our New Israel.
Our New Israel. For in spite of the horrific conflicts between Jews and Christians over two millennia, orthodox Christianity holds that Christ did not found a new church but was the fulfillment of the old, promised by God to Israel through the prophets. As Christians, we are an extension, as it were, of Judaism. And in baptism those outside the New Israel, outside the Church, are brought inside; those not a part of the Body become one with the Body of Christ. When Joshua is twelve (or so), he will be confirmed by the bishop. He will receive the Holy Eucharist and become one with Christ in an even deeper and more fulfilling way.
The Good Shepherd finds his sheep, no matter how scattered they may be. They may be from older traditions, different traditions, or no traditions at all. They may be clinging to a mountainside of doubt, fleeing a burning forest of anger, lost in a desert of despair and loneliness. The shepherd finds them and brings them home to safety, to love.
Our preacher said today that Christianity provides the map to Heaven, both in this life and the next. Some parents say they want their children to grow up with no faith so that they can choose when they are adults. But why wouldn’t we want to give our children maps to Heaven? our preacher asked. Why wouldn’t we want to give them directions, signposts, lights to light the path? If we know how to get there, shouldn’t we show them the way?
God gave the Old Israel a map. God’s people journeyed from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses to Joshua, from the kings through the prophets, through wars and persecutions and slavery. They drew close to God and drew away from God, but God always brought them back to him. His people were clearly chosen, clearly set apart. And Christians too, as the New Israel, are chosen. They are sanctified, set apart. This happens in baptism in the miracle of water and Spirit. This happens when the Children of Israel, or any of us who are wandering in the desert, are baptized into the Body of Christ, and we are set on the road to Heaven. We are given a map.
The Gospel today was the story of the Good Samaritan, a parable reaching beyond one’s own people, one’s own tradition. While the story is about love, about caring for a man beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road, it is also about prejudice and fear. Two Jews – a priest and a Levite – pass by on the other side, ignoring the victim, whose blood would make them unclean. A Samaritan, considered outcast by the Jews, stops, binds his wounds, brings him to an inn, cares for him, and even pays the innkeeper to continue the care.
This morning, our Jewish priest poured water on the head of Joshua, saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Another sheep was brought into our fold. Another child of Israel was made one with God in the Body of Christ through water and Spirit.
And as for me, I am thankful that I too have a map to Heaven.
Maybe the story is letting the cohain and the levite off easy by providing a technicality; an ‘out’. Part of the lesson is that religious communities are simultaneously inclusive and exclusive. Just like all communities are. Judgment needs to be applied when deciding which of two good imperatives must be applied — the tragedy of human action in the world is that it is a conflict between not good and evil, but between two goods. Our judgments should be tempered by compassion (I take this to be a central message of Jesus’ ministry) but what constitutes compassion in a given instance, inclusiveness or exclusiveness?