Letter to Texans

We are not the first century Church, but in many ways we here in Skaneateles are the new Church. God is in the business of continuous renewal. In this spirit, we can think about renewing the practice of sending a letter to an individual or a gathering of Christians in a particular place at a particular time, which also addresses an issue of concern to all Christians at all times. Letters such as that went on long after the New Testament canon was closed.

We've had some significant changes in science and human knowledge in recent years, and there have been some significant changes in the Church - the Protestant Reformation, the split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Church, and even the founding of a new religion, Islam. Perhaps it's time for some new letters to the Churches.

I want to propose a letter to Texans. Here is the situation. A brother in the Lord, born a Jew, has recently been moved by the spirit to become a Christian. He wishes to join the Church in Texas. He wants to be a Christian. He has questions. This letter to Texans is to answer his questions and even to build up the faith of the Church in Texas – and maybe help us confirm our own. I hope you will join with me in this letter, and that you will want to add your signatures in greetings.  And, we might actually send it off to the Church in Texas. The letter:

To the Church in Texas: A new Jewish brother joined you during Easter Vigil. First, let me say how happy I am he made this decision. It is not easy to feel you have abandoned the ancient religion of your family. It feels unpatriotic in some way. But I assure you and urge you to assure your new brother that it is not so. This letter will explain how baptism into Christianity will help him become more Jewish than before. More  important, we want to remind you all of the new life he is beginning as a Christian, and to which you as mature Christians have pointed yourself.

Adult baptism is not a ritual of coming of age. Baptism is a very different sacrament. I was baptized as an adult in a suburb of New York City many years ago. Baptism was a deliberate sign of readiness to begin the serious, adult spiritual journey. And it is this journey I want to discuss with you today.

I write this to help you support and educate your new brother as he begins his new life in Christ. I know that the Christian life in which you are now deeply engaged is difficult. If anything, as Christians we become more aware of the mountains of temptation and barriers to faith. We become more aware of the deep valleys of depression, of doubt and fear. But, we also remember God promised that every mountain will be brought low, and every valley lifted up; that he will make a straight and smooth path for us through the desert. But this is a joint effort. As scripture teaches, we reach up towards heaven through faith, and God reaches down to us with mercy. As the psalm says, Mercy and Faith kiss. Our faith meets God’s mercy.

Your new brother’s baptism at Easter Vigil marked a clear announcement of his intention to begin this new and better life.  Everything will appear new and strange to him. He cannot travel this new road alone. It is up to you to support him and help him grow into a mature Christian. To do that, you must be prepared to explain the road he will be following. The road, of course, is the road to peace. Baptism is not the road itself. Baptism is the beginning of the road to salvation, to peace.

In the Gospel of Luke, the father of the newborn John the Baptist prophesied;
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.

John the Baptist did so, through exhorting, demanding repentance and baptism, John gave the Jewish people knowledge of salvation, not salvation itself. Baptism is a changing of direction, the death of our old self, a re-facing away from our old self-centered life, with its miseries and excesses. Repentance faces us in a new direction onto a new road. The road to peace.

Zechariah went on in his prophesy over the newborn John the Baptist to say:
In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Jesus is the dawn from on high that broke  upon us and shone on us when we lived in darkness and the shadow of death. Jesus guides our feet onto and along the path of peace. This path of peace is the road to salvation. At this point in his journey our new brother will now see the road to salvation, but he will not yet have stepped out onto it. You, the Texas Church, as the living body of Christ, will help him along.

Your new brother had been facing in the wrong direction. Although living in Texas, he was spiritually in Egypt, in misery and bondage. He had tried every modern rational remedy; therapy, medication, over-work, self-analysis, self-reflection, pursuit of the common earthly pleasures. But his heavy yoke got heavier. As many of us know from our prior lives, the more we lean on our own understanding, our human reasoning, our human instincts, the more we fall prey to our animal natures. "Doin' What Comes Natcher'lly," as the song says, takes us farther down the wrong road.

Baptism was his Passover, his release from bondage. He is now facing the right way. But, he has a long journey through the desert yet. The Christian journey is not a piece of cake. It cannot be done solo. Jesus' yoke is light, but he needs your help in taking on this new, sweet burden. As many of you know, even though the Christian journey is difficult, it is not without great pleasure, even Joy unspeakable and full of glory. Christianity is not "Pie in the Sky, Bye and Bye" as the other song says. The joy is experienced in this life as well as the life to come.

Isaiah prophesied;
The Lord has made proclamation to the ends of the earth:
“Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your Savior comes!
See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.’”

The Christian journey brings its own reward. The road to Peace is filled with Peace. Part of what you need to teach your new brother is that difficulty and problems will not stop. Troubles will present themselves. But, there is a powerful difference. Because he is on the Christian journey, how he faces and manages difficult circumstances will change. "...His reward is with him".  

What changes is how we deal with the problems and temptations and setbacks of life. Peace doesn't come through withdrawal from life nor denial of troubles. Peace comes from a joyful acceptance that all this, too, is from the Lord, and it is for my benefit. It may be hard to see the benefit in financial difficulty, losing a job, sickness of loved ones, even death. This is all part of the human experience. But our choice now is to see the experiences of life as shared difficulties common to all, and to ask God for the grace to deal with these problems. And, when we ask, Grace comes.

We are not in this alone. We do not have to deal with the problems of life on our own. Grace supports us two ways - the grace of God in the presence of the Holy Spirit changes and lifts us no matter the circumstances. And, grace presents itself through the acts and the  presence of the Body of Christ in you, my Texan brothers and sisters in the Lord. You are the body of Christ. As Christ, you will support and teach and guide and lift your new brother.

You, like Jesus, are an example as well as an assistance. You heal and help as well as guide and teach. Your model of charity, of gentleness, kindness, goodness and freedom from excess will be a daily support to your new brother.

Baptism was the beginning. Baptism washed us clean of clinging to our animal natures, our extremes of need. We are now free to move to the place of moderation and charity, where the power of God in Christ draws us upward. Baptism cleansed us from the sinful effects of excess or insufficiency. By turning our face away from our excesses, our anger, pride, envy, apathy, gluttony, lust and greed, we are free from fear, free to accept the upward calling.
God's calling, drawing us, is the reverse of gravity. God's gravity is an upward pull. Jesus named the goal of God’s drawing as the Kingdom of Heaven, which is at hand. We are blocked from reaching it through our sins. Repentance, release from our sins, forgiveness of each other, and acts of charity open the upward road. This is how we set out and travel on the spiritual journey following in the footsteps of Jesus. You will show this to your new Jewish Christian brother.

I know most people, as do many in the Texas Church, see Judaism and Christianity as completely separate religions. Your new brother has seen them as separate religions. I have often said Judaism and Christianity are the same religion; that God became immanent in Jeshua, Jesus, to teach us the meaning and purpose of the Law. Our new brother is just beginning to understand this. He was a cultural Jew with no particular training in Judaism, but he was full of wariness of the Christian Church because of its horrific treatment of Jews throughout history. Still, he felt the stirrings. Why? The spiritual awakening our new brother feels is the stirring of nefesh, the Hebrew word for our personal soul. His personal soul has been awakened by the power of the scriptures and by your presence as the living body of Christ.

He wants to be free from his prior sinful life and seek the road of peace and holiness, free from the sins of self-reliance. Jesus taught us all, both natural born Jew and Gentile, to become true Jews, a new Israel. As new Jews, we are drawn upward by the power of the Holy Spirit and love of God, not just fearfully obedient to rules. Paul taught that we are the body of Christ. This is a profound and powerful thought. It is our job as the Church, the living body of Christ, to help him and each other.

Our Jewish brother has not "switched teams." Jews never stop being Jewish. Katie, my beloved wife, will never stop being Irish; even though she is as American as Johnny Appleseed, she is also Irish as Paddy's pig. She is a Christian whose forebears lived for millennia in Ireland. Through them, Katie is Irish and through them and through choice, also a Christian. Our brother will always be Jewish, and now a Christian. He is Christian through choice and Jewish precisely because his ancestors' country of origin was the land of Judah. The small family of Jacob, not unlike the Irish immigrants, were forced from their land because of famine. The luck o' the Irish brought them to a better place, to freedom in America. For we children of Jacob, famine brought us to enslavement in Egypt. It's tough for Jews to catch a break.

Jews personalize Passover and say, "God brought ME out of Egypt." The readings of Passover reinforce that Passover still happens to each of us individually. We are released from bondage to depression and discouragement and excess and hopelessness and free to begin the cleansing journey upward to freedom. We didn't understand it at the time, but our slavery and misery in Egypt brought us to a place where we became  desperate for something better. Sometimes we need to hit bottom before we look up. Making the decision to leave the misery of Egypt wasn't easy. It was misery, but it was familiar. Just so, it was hard for our Texan brother to leave his personal bondage. As for many of us, the familiarity of our misery is hard to leave. For the Jews in Egypt, it took the miraculous intervention of God. And perhaps it was the same for our new brother. But we have all been rescued from our former oppression by sin and begun the journey home.

Your new brother will backslide and sin again, as will we all. But the difference is he has made the decision to repent, repoint and accept forgiveness - the keys to staying on the Christian path of peace. It's not a one-time thing. Repentance and forgiveness are continuous presences in a Christian's life. And he is not going it alone. You are there to help him, as you help and forgive each other through each other’s temptations and backsliding. There is a powerful push to veer off the road. There is tremendous pressure from our culture’s scientific "religion" that needs no God. An ancient Greek said, "Man is the measure of all things." This is the dominant philosophic theme of today. And this Sophistry is what your new brother has been released from.

So encourage your new Christian brother. By becoming a Christian he is in fact reviving and renewing not only the Jewish tradition, but moving towards its true goal. This goal is also the Christian's goal. Our goal is not just personal salvation. It is to help God draw all the scattered sparks of creation back to Him. We do this through acts and attitudes of Love and Mercy. Jews call this Tikkun Olam. Our omnipotent God asks for our help. Can you imagine: God asks for our help. God created all this out of nothing and scattered it like rain through the cosmos.  And he wants it back. But, he doesn't want it back the way he sent it out. He wants it back of its own free choice. He wants it to return blessing him, giving him friendly, amazed loving and adoring praise for what he has done and what he is. He wants this for all of Creation, and we frail human beings are chosen to do it.

God said through the prophet Isaiah,
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it  without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish,... so is my word that goes out from my mouth:  It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

God's purpose is to draw us back to him, not just as drops of water or empty molecules or vibrating strings. Of all created matter and energy, only human beings can become aware of, conscious of and in yearning love with our Creator. Only human beings can command the grass, the ice, the fire, the clouds and sea and all creatures to bless the Lord. Through Jesus he draws us upwards and homeward. Our prayers and love and praise work miracles. Our love gathers and lifts the rocks and trees and grass and mountains and animals and planets and suns and galaxies and the empty spaces between.
Our Texas brother is allowing the Holy Spirit to teach him his purpose and path. Be helpful. I wish you all in the Texas Church the joy, the peace and the love of our Savior, our model and our friend, Jesus Christ, and the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Shalom to the Church in Texas from your friends in the Church in Skaneateles. The entire New York Church joins in wishing you the joy of the Lord as you continue your journey.  Peace be with you and may Jesus guide your steps on your path to peace. Shalom.