Joyous Gentiles

Romans 15:7-13 (NLT)

Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory. Remember that Christ came as a servant to the Jews to show that God is true to the promises he made to their ancestors. He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for his mercies to them. That is what the psalmist meant when he wrote:

“For this, I will praise you among the Gentiles;
   I will sing praises to your name.”
And in another place it is written,

“Rejoice with his people,
   you Gentiles.”
And yet again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles.
   Praise him, all you people of the earth.”
And in another place Isaiah said,

“The heir to David’s throne will come,
   and he will rule over the Gentiles.
They will place their hope on him.”

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s focus on Paul’s concept of the Gentiles, the word for people not of Jewish descent.

The Bible as a whole is a very Jewish story. While God is the creator of all people and things, what we now call the Old Testament is told very much from a Jewish perspective, a viewpoint that continues into the New Testament.

By the 12th chapter of Genesis, Abraham and his descendants are quickly established in the biblical narrative as God’s Chosen People, the ones who desire, seek and finally possess the Promised Land.

Non-Jews are merely supporting actors on the stage, people who rise and fall depending on their interaction with the main characters. And yet, there are clues all along regarding how God loves all of creation, and how God’s close relationship with the Jews leads to salvation globally.

As I’ve already noted earlier in this Romans series, we can see the broadness of God’s plan in the first promise made to the man eventually called Abraham.  God tells him to go toward Canaan. There will be blessings for those who bless you, God says, and there will be curses for those who curse your venture. But most importantly for our meditation today, the father of the Jews is told “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”

In our text today, Paul quotes from the Psalms, Deuteronomy and Isaiah to demonstrate how the plan for the Jews was designed to become a plan for all people.

Our problem in understanding this plan has been a problem of time. God’s plan plays out over thousands of years, and individually, we are just mist, curling into a brief shape and then vanishing.

For the Jews, it is easy to get lost in the idea of being special, set apart as an example of holy living before God. They can become so focused on their unique relationship with God that they forget the whole purpose of their existence, to be a light to all the world so that salvation may spread.

For Christian Gentiles, it is easy for us to forget that our Savior is a very Jewish carpenter, a descendant of Abraham. Often this forgetfulness can express itself simply as disinterest in the Old Testament, but the effects also can be much, much worse. Some of history’s most horrific acts of madness have occurred when people calling themselves Christians have seen the Jews as enemies, persecuting and killing them.

Paul offers us a broader way to see Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is the bridge allowing the promise of salvation to be exported from the Jews to the Gentiles.

We see the transition happen in Jesus’ ministry. Mostly his ministry is a very Jewish one, reflecting the Jewish perspective on Gentiles. Just look at Matthew 15:21-28, where Jesus calls Gentiles “dogs.” In the story, he does ultimately point out the power of faith and hint at the unexpected grace to come, but the rude reference comes as a shock.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verse 20, we see Jesus transition from Jewish Messiah to global Christ. Here, Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers of the people. Greeks—to a Jew, just a particular kind of Gentile—ask to see Jesus.

The odd thing about the telling of this story is we don’t know if the Greeks ever spoke to Jesus. The whole point of the story is that Jesus sees deep meaning in their arrival. Gentiles are seeking him, and now it is time to die for the sins of all people, Jew or Gentile. If you keep reading in John, it is clear Jesus’ mind is set on the cross once those Greeks ask to see him.

Christians, you know how the story continues. Jesus goes to the cross and dies. And then, glory of glories, there is the resurrection.

Word spreads, and spreads, and spreads, and here we are today, in Ten Mile, Tennessee, on the other side of the planet, worshiping Jesus Christ. Mostly we are the descendants of a bunch of Gentiles, knowing we have eternal life because of a promise made to and through the Jews thousands of years ago.

I guess we’re just a bunch of lucky dogs!

The featured image is “We Would See Jesus,” James Tissot, circa 1885.

A Curse Reversed

Mark 16:1-8

Many scholars think the original version of the Gospel of Mark ends with its three women witnesses to the resurrection fleeing from the empty tomb. “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” the closing line reads.

Yes, in all of our Bibles, there is more there in Mark, brief accounts of Christ’s resurrection appearances, his instructions and even his ascension. You don’t have to be an expert, however, to see how the writing seems different, how everything beyond verse 8 feels added on in some way. Indeed, the extra material cannot be found in most of the oldest manuscripts, and most good translations today mark “for they were afraid” as the original ending of Mark.

It makes for a relatively bleak Easter account, one noticeably different from the other gospels, where Jesus appears repeatedly, comforting his followers and offering them peace. The author of Mark may have been deliberately trying to communicate a different idea, however. His ending captured something we sometimes miss, the fear that must have run through Jerusalem when word of the empty tomb first began to spread.

Let me illustrate. I’m going to tell you a story that’s not exactly biblical. When you consider a couple of incidents that are in the Bible, however, a version of this story very well could have happened.

You may recall from Matthew that when Jesus was before Pontius Pilate to be sentenced to death, Pilate was reluctant to send Jesus to the cross, believing him innocent. Pilate passed sentence only because he felt politically pressured to do so. He also performed a symbolic act, however. He ritually washed his hands to show he did not consider himself guilty of Jesus’ death.

As he washed his hands, he declared to the crowd, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”

We are told the crowd answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” For all practical purposes, they were calling down curses on themselves.

Imagine, if you will, a father and mother in the crowd with their two children, a little boy and little girl. Led in what to say by powerful looking Jewish leaders and swept up in the mob mentality, they join the cry, nervously looking at their little ones: “His blood be on us and on our children!” It would have been a powerful oath to make, a powerful curse to risk, particularly for a people raised on the idea that God punishes sin for three generations or more.

Jesus, of course, is taken away and nailed to the cross. With the large number of witnesses, word of his death quickly spreads. The parents of these small children, perhaps a bit embarrassed at what they said, mostly are relieved the day’s strange events are over. Until …

Until Sunday. Until word begins to spread the tomb is empty. And everyone, everyone who doubted Jesus, everyone who had discounted him, feels a shiver of fear.

Imagine being those parents, looking at those precious children and considering what might be in store for this cursed family. Jesus demonstrated great power before; now it is clear he has power to overcome even his own death! What will the punishment be for those who sent him to the cross? Death for the son? Barrenness for the daughter?

Except for the fortunate few who encountered the resurrected Jesus, that fear must have continued for some time—for seven weeks, I figure, until the day of Pentecost. That’s the day the Holy Spirit falls on Jesus’ followers; that’s the day Peter preaches to the crowds who gather at the scene. I like to think the family with the two children are there as he preaches.

Oh, Peter lets them all have it. He makes it clear they were all complicit in Jesus’ death. But as they declare how they are cut to the heart with guilt, Peter begins to tell them about the promises. The resurrection is about hope. It is about a glorious future with God.

“For the promise ….” Hear what Peter says? The promise, not the curse. “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Imagine the relief as the parents grip their children close to them.

Here’s a strange notion: It is good to have the blood of Christ on us and our children. By his blood, all curses are reversed. The sin at the root of all our stupid decisions, our foolish statements and our bad acts is washed away. And eternity is ours.