In nomine Jesu!
Just before retiring as Central Synagogue's Senior Rabbi, Peter Rubinstein shared a list of 40 aphorisms β wise witticisms gleaned from his 40-plus years of ministry which he calls "Rubinstein's Rules." At the time, his favorite was No.40: "A synagogue is not a democracy" β proof positive that Rabbi Rubinstein is not a Lutheran. My favorite is No.39: "You can fool all of the people all of the time. Move before they figure it out." I like Peter's idea so much that I decided to create my own list which I call "Mandy's Maxims." No.1 on my list is this: "Never believe your own myth."
I know I have my own myth. It is formidable and there is some truth to it, especially when I use it β which I admit I do on occasion β to help someone. Several seminarians and former vicars, a certain associate pastor, at least one bishop, and numerous hospital and nursing home patients are beneficiaries because I've used my myth. I have my own myth. I use it. I didn't create it. I don't believe it. My myth, like everyone's myth, is solely the creation of others.
Saint Paul has a myth too. We heard it in today's first reading. There is some truth to it, but, like
the whole Book of Acts, it is a rather romanticized version of Paul's conversion. I'm sure it's a myth because in today's second reading, from Paul's own hand in his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells his own story which is decidedly more ordinary and pedantic. Telling his own story, Paul eschews his myth and relies solely on the effects of the Gospel he preached to defend those who believed his proclamation of God's grace freely given in Jesus Christ against his legalistic critics. In his own telling, the proof that his Gospel is God-given and genuine is the active faith of those believers. "You are my letters of commendation," he writes.
Yet Paul has own myth and its ramifications have caused a lot of trouble. Its current expression is that Paul "invented" Christianity which is patently untrue, but not for the reasons you may be thinking.
Now it is true that Paul's insight β which he calls "God's revelation β that God welcomes Gentiles into the community of the faithful, without the precondition of circumcision and the life-long observance of kosher and purity rules, radically changed the composition of the faith community. But it is not true that, by preaching so, Paul was trying to create or "invent" a separate,
competing and eventually antagonistic faith community β the Church β apart from and outside of Judaism. From his circumcision to his bar mitzvah to his death, Paul, like Jesus, was a Jew. He lived and died as a Jew. Far from creating a separate church, Paul's goal was to create a stronger, more inclusive, more durable Judaism. According to his own description, Paul was convinced that Judaism, already weakened by Hellenism and by its radical adherents -- whom the Romans called "terrorists" -- and by whose behavior they characterized all Jews of that day (we could learn something from them today about characterizing an entire religious community by its violent radicals) β Paul's goal was not to create a separate Church but to make Judaism more inclusive in order for Judaism to survive and thrive. Paul's insight was to include Gentiles into the community of faith through baptism, without painful preconditions. Paul's goal, inclusion of Gentiles, was the same goal as his opponents, whom we call "the Pharisees" β the ancestors of all our Jewish neighbors β whom Paul labeled "Judaizers." These also wanted to include Gentiles but these demanded that all those painful pre-conditions must be met before including Gentiles in the (Jewish) faith community. Inclusive Judaism, not separate faith communities, was both sides' goal. They only
differed on tactics. That difference became toxic and its effects plague us to this day.
Paul was not trying to "invent Christianity." Paul was working to create an all-inclusive community of the faith handed down from and consistent with the faith of Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets, sealed by and guaranteed for all by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul's goal was not division but unity: "...one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all, and through all and in all."
Think of the implications when that narrative, from Paul's own hand, replaces the myth that Paul "invented the Church;" that Paul or, as some insist, Jesus, was the first Christian. Think of the implications when we don't believe that myth; for the unity of the Church; for the relationship between Christians and Jews; for peace among nations, especially in the Middle East and Europe; for peace in this divided city; for peace in our homes, especially among those divided by interfaith marriages; and for peace in our hearts, especially among those of us who are spiritually troubled by the exclusion of anyone from the love and the kingdom of God.
Don't believe the myth! Trust the Promise! Trust
the God who makes that Promise to everyone. Trust the God whose will it is to hold all people and all things in heaven and earth in a single peace! Dream what we can do with that! Believe that! Dream that! Act on that!
I have a myth. Saint Paul has a myth. But one we remember today has no myth. Intensely faithful, beyond brilliant and using that brilliance mostly for the sake of others, never boastful or showy, I'll bet most of us had no idea of the role Fred Renwick played in the financial stability of this parish, of every permeation of American Lutheranism for the past 50 years and, if you read his bio carefully, in the financial stability of our nation as well. Quiet, unassuming, until Lynne came along usually sitting alone in the very back pew, Fred had no myth; and even if he had one, he would never have used it; and yet what a difference Fred made! We are all the beneficiaries of this.
No myth about Gene Brand either. Yet when we pick up this bulletin and combine it with our worship book and do the most important thing we do β gather to worship β thanks to Gene's work we are compelled to do so not merely as individual believers, not merely as one kind of Christian, but as the gathered people of God in
Christ Jesus less divided in our worship today then we've been for the previous 500 years. We are all beneficiaries of this.
That's what we are when we are gathered around this table. And because we are all beneficiaries, our primary "duty and delight" is to give thanks. And also to open our eyes and look around and see with our own eyes not just ourselves, not just our congregation, not just the Lutheran communion, but the whole community of faith: Of every time and every place. Of the saints in heaven. Of those at rest. The whole community of faith gathered with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; our praises led by Mary, Mother of God; undivided; never antagonistic toward another; led into the presence of God and fed in that presence by Jesus Christ. One people. God's people. Thankful for all that has been; sure and certain about all that is to be.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
in the City of New York